Building Online Community
Students experience online and hybrid courses through a series of connected interactions: student to student, student to instructor, and student to content interactions.
The Community of Inquiry Framework suggests a way to understand how education is experienced under various educational contexts where there are differences in discipline, applications, and communications methods (online or blended) (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). Swan’s Model of Interactivity is adapted from the Community of Inquiry Framework, and is similar. It looks at each of the three areas as a form of interactivity that is crucial to meaningful online learning in computer mediated environments.
Tips for Improving Cognitive Presence & Supporting Student to Content Interactions
- Communicate course goals and learning objectives
- Use a variety of presentation styles
- Provide multiple opportunities for practice/exercises
- Provide hands-on problems with real world applications
- Allow for sharing of relevant personal experiences
- Encourage integration of information from various sources
- Allow learner control of pacing (when appropriate)
- Require explanations or reasoning of solutions, not simply answers
- Plan frequent low-stakes assessment / feedback opportunities
- Feedback should be clear and timely
- Consistent layout in materials and navigation
Tips for Improving Teaching Presence & Supporting Student to Instructor Interactions
Design & Organization
- Include introductory videos, personalized notes
- Provide narrated PowerPoint presentations
- Ensure course site is organized, clear, easy to navigate
- Plan frequent opportunities for public and private communications
- Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses
- Make discussions a significant part of course grade (extrinsic motivation)
- Develop solid rubrics for grading discussion participation
- Require student to respond to other student postings
- Include icebreakers - introduce yourself - model behavior
- Establish netiquette policy
- Be timely - leave ‘evidence’ that you are present
- Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution
- Frame questions as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why
- Summarize discussions
- Don’t be the center of every discussion - don’t respond to all posts
- Provide content-expert support
- Timely and supportive feedback
- Refer students to information resources
- Organize activities that allow the students to construct the content in their own minds and personal contexts.
- Consider using synchronous tools for office hours
Tips for Improving Social Presence and Student Interactions with Peers
- Post introductions and expectations early.
- Ask students to provide support for responses with examples/references, e.g. personal experiences, stories or other sources.
- Share your own personal stories and professional experiences
- Instructor and students should upload/share a profile pic
- Address students by name
- Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective, personal experience
- Incorporate discussions where students build pieces of their own projects, papers, etc. (e.g., ‘share your research topic and 3 reasons why it is relevant for your personal development’)
- Create a “commons area” for off-topic discussions.
- Provide a risk-free environment for sharing and exchange of ideas. (netiquette and peer review guidelines)
- Use technology to support open discussions, Q&As (e.g., chat, Adobe Connect, etc.)
- Summarize discussion threads weekly and participate throughout the week
- Use appropriately sized small groups for discussions and activities
- Ask or provide opportunities for student to share about their background and learning goals
- Ask questions that encourage students to engage with other students in the class
- Ask questions that prompt students to generate lists of information/data as a class
- Provide assignments and opportunities for students to work collaboratively
- Have small groups identify a team name and develop a team charter at the beginning of the course
Learn how to Create and Grade Online Discussions at the MGH Institute D2L Help Site
Software used to engage audiences through various activities including live online polling, surveys, quizzes, word clouds and more. It can be used in a classroom or online environment.
Learn how to organize students into groups at the MGH Institute D2L Help Site
Designing Online Discussions
Since much of the learning in an online or blended class occurs in the asynchronous discussion forum, it is critical that you carefully construct the learning environment to promote exploration, reflection, and analysis. Online discussions can serve several purposes. They are crucial in the effort to develop and sustain community among students. They also serve as the “classroom” where ideas are raised, examined, and resolved. Online discussions provide an opportunity for students to do more than re-state information learned in class. They are forums that allow students to bring in outside information, relate course content to real-world events, and apply the material.
Just as in a face-to-face discussion, you need to determine the intended outcome of the discussion and craft questions that promote individual exploration of a topic while at the same time contributing to a common understanding. However, online students need clear expectations for participation, and you should use your presence to redirect the conversation if needed and guide students to their own understanding of the material. All discussion activities should be connected to course learning outcomes and provide an opportunity for students to apply, reflect, extend, or question the course content.
An effective online discussion question is:
- Open ended
- Congruent with learning objectives
- Experiential, authentic
Examples of types of questions:
Questions to promote exploration:
- What is the relationship between…?
- What inconsistencies or fallacies exist…?
- What is the applicability of…?
- Predict what would happen if…
Verbs to advance cognition:
- Appraise the value of…
- Critique the position of…
- Choose a position and defend…
- Compare and contrast these approaches…
- Design a scenario…
Time management in online discussion forums can be a struggle for both you and the students. An often-heard comment from instructors is that students expect them to be online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even when you do commit to an extensive online presence, the students may feel you are not present or not responsive. Finally, a common complaint from students is that the online discussion feels like busy work and takes too much time. All of these issues can be addressed through increasing the clarity of expectations in discussion forums. Strategies:
- Keep discussion groups small—5-7 members only.
- Log on daily but choose specific days/times to read and respond to student posts.
- Participate more frequently at course start and fade as students become more comfortable.
- Indicate to students when you will be online.
- Create meaningful forum questions that allow for multiple “correct” responses.
- Create a regular rhythm to the week or module so that students know what is expected of them every day.
- Indicate expectations for post length and number of posts.
- Provide clear due dates for initial and follow-up posts.
- Create a wrap-up post that signals the end of that discussion.
- Provide individual comments outside of the discussion forum on a rotating basis.
- Determine your strategy for online presence, communicate it clearly to the students, and apply it consistently.
Since much of the learning in an online class takes place in the discussion forum, be sure to value that activity by allotting a significant percentage of the course grade. It is not uncommon for online participation to be weighted at 20% or more of the final grade.
Students who are new to online learning will need the support of clearly defined expectations for participation. Include documentation on netiquette (online etiquette), time management strategies, expectations of length, and a description of what makes a good discussion post. You should also indicate when you will be online, what level of participation the students can expect from you, and how students can contact you with any questions or problems. You should also consider using a rubric to grade participation that is provided to the students.
Online discussions should have clear beginning and end dates, with milestones indicated. Try to create a standard rhythm for the discussion that will become natural for the students (i.e., forum opens on Sunday, first post due Wednesday, follow-up post due by Saturday). Close the discussion forum with a summation or wrap-up post that indicates the discussion has ended.
When teaching a class of more than 15 students, it is advisable to have small group discussions of approximately 5-7 students. Group discussions can help keep the conversation focused and the time commitment of the student manageable. When facilitating group discussions be sure to monitor each group and craft a summary that touches on each group’s contribution. Extension: consider having a member of each group create a group summary that is shared with the whole class.
Facilitating Online Discussions
A well-designed online discussion engages students in an open-ended conversation that promotes deepened understanding of a topic. Design is only part of the process, though. To be truly effective, an online discussion needs to be facilitated by you in a way that encourages conversation and promotes exploration.
Online discussions are detailed /slow paced, address few topics and heavily structured. They differ from face-to-face interactions which are spontaneous / rapid, address multiple topics, and can be semi-structured.
Bring the diverging discussion back on track. Allow for individual exploration of a topic, but be sure it is meeting the learning goals you establish.
Student Post: I read an article that said electronic health records are a way for the government to keep track of citizens. – Suzy
Instructor Response: Hi Suzy, thanks for your input. As you note, there are many opinions on the subject of electronic health records (EHRs). However, right now we’re discussing the implementation of EHRs and the problems faced by administrators and IT staff. Perhaps you could find an article that addresses how an EHR has been successfully implemented?
Connect together ideas from across multiple posts, multiple groups, or multiple forums. Make connections to course material. Use the discussions to reinforce key concepts or foreshadow upcoming information.
Student Post: I think this week’s reading did a good job of outlining the conservative perception of the Affordable Care Act – Bart
Instructor response: Thanks for your input, Bart. How does the conservative argument relate to the liberal one we discussed last week? What do you see as the primary differentiators? Sally wrote that the readings this week presented a biased perspective of the argument. Do you agree with that?
Encourage students to defend their position or explain how they came to a conclusion. Suggest to students that they bring in outside readings to deepen the conversation, but also that they need to be specific about their evidence.
Student Post: World population is declining based on a number of studies I read – Wally
Instructor Response: Wally, it’s interesting that the studies you read indicated that world population is declining. What studies did you read and where did you find them? Can you please post some of the details about those articles so your classmates can also review them?
Use questions to probe for deepened reflection and question assumptions. Encourage students to go beyond the questions and bring in outside readings or experiences.
Student post: I think the implementation of electronic health records at an institution is the most challenging issue regarding wide-scale adoption. - Bertha
Instructor response: Thanks for your post, Bertha. Can you expand on what you said? What is it about implementation that you think is particularly challenging? Why do you think that is? Do you have experience in implementing an EHR system at your institution? Are there any other experiences you’ve read about that indicate the challenges involved with implementation? Please expand; I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.
Summarize the conversation. Provide a meaningful end to the discussion forum that ties the threads together and signals a formal close. These are often called “landscape” posts since they survey the entire landscape of the discussion. An extension of this strategy is to have a student post a summary post.
Instructor response: Thanks everyone for a lively discussion. It sounds like the consensus was that the positive benefits of electronic health records (EHR) outweigh the negatives, but there were more than a few strong concerns raised by the group. Suzy reminded us to pay close attention to privacy in any internet-based application. Jane also referenced the recent NY Times article regarding patient rights of ownership of EHRs. And finally, Jim brought us back to the main point of the discussion; namely, that while there are significant concerns, they are not insurmountable if there is consensus within the industry.
Role of Discussion Leader Changes Over Time
Provide detailed personal feedback early in the semester when students may feel more uncomfortable communicating in this medium. As the students become more independent and build their community, consider gradually decreasing your role in the discussions to encourage the students to increase their responsibility for the discussion.
Consider assigning one student from each group or two students in a whole-class forum to lead the discussion. Provide expectations for facilitation for the discussion leaders and a separate grade. Give specific feedback to the discussion leaders outside of the discussion forum.
Consider assigning a student from each group or two students in a whole-class forum to provide the summary of the discussion. Model the summary process in the first week or two of the course and then provide general guidelines for the summation. If the discussion forum is a small-group activity, consider having each group post its summary to a large-group forum.
Consider bringing in professionals in the field to participate in a relevant online discussion. Students can draft questions in advance for the guest speaker to address or the guest speaker can help guide the discussion based on questions created by you.
Online Teaching Checklist
Intended to foster reflection for instructors redesigning existing courses for online delivery. There is not “one way” to deliver an online course, but suggestions contained within the checklist reflect best practices from the literature for creating successful online learning experiences.