Building Community in Online Courses

Ideas assembled during an informal discussion, June 2020.

Developed by:

John Muse, Karen Masters, Manar Darwish, Tetsuya Sato, Gus Stadler, Marilyn Evans, Hiroyo Saito, Sharon Strauss, David Lippel, Lynne Butler, Ana López Sánchez, Fran Blase, Josh Sabloff, Karin Åkerfeldt, Deborah Roberts, Weiwen Miao, Mike Zarafonetis, Sally Berger, Hank Glassman, Benjamin Le (moderator)

First Questions

  • Which methods of community building in F2F classes translate well to online learning? Which don’t?
  • What are the opportunities for community building in online courses that are typically not available/used in F2F courses?
  • What is the role of instructor presence in building community in online courses? How does it differ from F2F courses? How can instructors maximize their presence while maintaining work-life boundaries?
  • What is the relationship between “building community” and students’ experiences of belonging and/or inclusion in the classroom?

Responses and Suggestions

Be deliberate in the forms of community you are trying to build

  • Community with a particular class vs. community within a particular department/program
  • Community that is based on tasks that students do together (e.g., collaborative assignments, discussion of course material)
  • Community that is based on informal social interactions in the class, with peers and the instructor
  • Enhance students’ experiences of belongingness in the class
  • Be an approachable, accessible instructor

Get-to-know-you activities

  • Have students each describe themselves as good at particular tasks or roles within a project: e.g., writing, programming, formulating questions, solving problems, etc. This information will be useful for group formation later in the course, either to play to students’ existing strengths or to challenge them to develop new strengths
  • Have each student briefly introduce the next person in the class (e.g., from the class list) listed after getting to know them in the chat. Prompt them to find out the person’s previous experience with the course subject matter or other relevant information
  • Instructors can challenge themselves to learn every students’ name, and maybe even something about each student, in a specified amount of time (e.g., within 3 class periods). Could set up a game or competition with the students to incentivize everyone learning each other’s names.
  • Have each student make a video or slideshow about themselves; incentivize students watching/commenting on each other’s video
  • Collect get-to-know-me information (“index card info”) through questionnaire, video, and/or small group discussions in Zoom (here one student/instructor or instructor with a small group of students) to discuss/share non-academic info about ourselves

Small group assignments and collaborative tasks

  • During class in Zoom breakout rooms?
  • Outside of class time?
    • Example: In a language class, have students do collaborative translation or to explain grammatical concepts to each other;  could be done synchronously or could be asynchronously in Moodle discuss posts posts or google docs. 
    • Example: In students in quantitative work together on problem sets and teach each other, rather than working on them individually
    • More examples: Peer-review panels where students provide feedback on classmates’ written work or other projects; dialogue papers; co-writing of papers (pairs for example); interviewing classmates; Jigsaw and Fishbowl activities described in this blog article

Regular Informal Interaction

  • Through an assignment or discussion board, asynchronously, ask students how they are doing, share experiences on a weekly basis (e.g., how is the pandemic affecting you? what have you been watching on TV? what pets do you have, share cute pictures, jokes, memes etc.)
  • The instructor can share interests, songs, recipes, book suggestions, and encourage students to do the same

Consider Discussion Group Composition and Norms

  • Build norms about students participating with classmates by setting expectations and ground rules early on; have regular group activities to reinforce these norms
  • Should students work in the same small groups for prolonged periods? (how to save breakout groups from session to session in Zoom).
    • Working with the same students over time may be better for incoming students (so they get to know a group of people well first)
    • Encourage students to rotate roles within the groups 
  • Or do students work with different different classmates in each new group activity? (i.e., randomly assign students to breakout groups)

Extend the Community

  • Bring in alumni to give talks or mentor around career goals
  • Add an alumni section, with short bios, to course (or department) website

Regularly Get Student Feedback

  • Make sure students know you value and are responsive to their feedback
  • Use anonymous surveys to gather feedback (e.g., Qualtrics, Google forms, Moodle survey tool)

Instructor Presence & Accessibility

  • Have a “get to know the instructor” Moodle section.
  • Redesign your Haverford website with a student audience in mind (rather than for your professional colleagues); see an example here
  • Encourage students to come to office/student hours in groups; incentivize this by offering longer blocks of time for group meetings
  • Communicate often and with a predictable structure with your students; try to take their perspective on what they need to know/do each week

Some Platforms For Community Building

  • Slack for communication and sharing media
  • Discussion boards in Moodle

Record short audio files with