5 quick ways to build a sense of community in online courses
The benefits of online learning are so often touted that they have almost become a mantra: instant access 24/7, location-independent, self-paced, bigger choice of subjects, lower cost, keep working while you learn, you can concentrate better in your pyjamas, etc. We frequently state some of those positive aspects on this very platform. They make online learning seem like an alluring lifestyle choice, offering the opportunity to learn whilst on a train, at the beach, at home, even potentially while walking the dog.
Yet one thing can dull the online learning experience and reduce completion rates: the lack of a sense of community. In an opinion piece on universityaffairs.ca titled The loneliness of the online learner, a senior education professional recently highlighted the often illusory nature of online ‘community’ in eLearning environments. She points out that, while some learners will fully engage with the course material, reflect on it critically, and post work in a timely fashion, others might struggle due to their need for encouragement and guidance from their instructor, who may or may not be available online when assistance is required.
This diffuse, asynchronous environment can lead to learners feeling isolated and lacking feedback and sense of progression. ‘Community’ features like forums and noticeboards are often underused. Inter-student collaboration can be non-existent or limited to a handful of one-on-one partnerships which exclude others.
To be fair, these problems are also present in any face-to-face classroom environment. Real-world teachers who fail to address them risk seeing their classes fall apart as the semester progresses. What can be done in an online learning environment to foster and sustain a sense of community and collaboration, where each student knows where they are in the course and what remains for them to do in order to succeed?
Set clear challenges
This most basic form of gamification lays down the gauntlet to learners in a way that motivates them to push their boundaries but does not seem so difficult that they lose interest. Smaller, regular challenges work better than large ones, especially when they are time-delimited, e.g. with a weekly deadline. Make sure the challenges test the skills the course is designed to develop, rather than test knowledge retention. Crucially to student collaboration, allocate challenges to pairs or groups. Depending on the scope, duration and number of students you have, it might make sense to have longer-term, more involved group projects involving teams. Discourage freeloading by insisting that roles are allocated within teams.
Add gamification elements such as badges if it seems appropriate (and it usually is, not matter what age groups are taking your course). Everybody loves points and prizes!
Gamification can help to foster a sense of community when, for example, a student who has progressed further that most feels qualified to answer questions on the course message board. An extra badge, star or trophy next to their name can make them a valued source of help for others.
Be available on social media
Not only does interacting with your learners on social media help build a sense of community, it also works as a marketing tool. Prospective students who see you engaged in lively conversation with your learners will see that you are an open, caring course provider whose learners are free to communicate with you. This removes one barrier to them enrolling on your course now or in the future. It makes sense to have a significant proportion of your learner interactions on public social media rather than in private forums that only enrolled students can see. But be careful not to give away course content for free. Allow public questions, but respond to those involving detailed course content by private message to enrolled students only. Answer general questions from prospective students publicly. Soon they will want the keys to the castle. Hey presto – you’ve got another student without spending a penny.
Give contact info, even for 100% self-paced courses
Even courses that involve no tutor involvement and are 100% automated need a way for learners to contact you. This might not seem to lead to inter-student collaboration and community, but it’s a basic requirement that some 100% online courses leave out. It’s reassuring to know that there is somebody to contact about technical issues. Learners can communicate in many ways away from your learning environment, and if they hear from each other that you are available and responsive, it helps to foster confidence and can lead to better sales.
Hold live events
A weekly or monthly live Q&A session gives learners something to look forward to and prepare for, and the knowledge that they have opportunity to get their questions answered. You can up the ante by inviting a guest speaker. Live events don’t have to be directly related to the course. They can be part of your marketing funnel, designed to draw in prospective students as well as enrolled ones by discussing something tangentially related to your course in order to widen the net. You can run a combination of public live events and private ones for enrolled students.
The above 5 ideas are the low hanging fruit of creating a community around your course. They are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. Lots more can be done - but if you're wondering how to boost student engagement (and student numbers!) on your course then these are 5 good places to start.