Why do I need to create an online learning community?

As you move your classroom online it's often easy to overlook the importance of physical spaces. The  classroom is more than a collection of learning activities, it's a space where students can interact both formally and informally; with each-other, with their instructors and with course materials.

When teaching remotely it's even more important to ensure that learners are supported, they should feel a sense of belonging and community despite being separated by large distances. Creating a strong learning community can facilitate greater opportunities for feedback, both formal and informal, and can ensure that students are still benefiting from interacting with their peers. It can also help you nudge students to keep them on track, and to manage project spaces.

Creating a course or programme hub

This is the heart of your course. All content, notifications, projects, study groups, forums, and discussions should be reachable from this hub - whether by linking,  providing instructions, or embedding resources. A learning hub may take many forms including:

  • A learning platform: Blackboard, Coursera, Edx
  • A website or intranet site: MS Teams, Sharepoint, Google sites
  • A dedicated portal: Kaizen 

Fostering open discussion 

In our fully online degrees we've noticed that students are less likely to participate in discussion forums than content driven or assessed items, but students who do use them report that they are incredibly useful.  Here are some techniques we've found to increase engagement across the cohort and foster better communities: 

Give a clear call-to-action: some students will avoid forums because they're not sure what to say, a clear call to action can break the ice and help students feel involved. Here are some examples:

  • Share the most interesting article you've read relating to the topic we discussed today - why was it interesting?
  • Describe a real world problem relating to this module which particularly excites you 
  • Describe a real world application of what we learned about today
  • Find the weirdest fact about this topic
  • How might we apply today's learning to some future development in 5, 10 or 50 years time?

Provide opportunities: create many forums around many topics, and encourage students to start their own forums. We've found that the more forums there are in a course, and the more varied they are, the more likely a student is to participate in at least one. 

Avoid proposing a 'closed' task: (unless you're using the forum formative assessment or project based learning). Set a context that encourages people to participate, set expectations for how students should interact, ask open ended questions and set 'judgement free' calls-to-action

Pay attention to what learners say: students want to be seen and heard, and this becomes especially important when they're not able to interact in a physical environment. By occasionally responding in forums, or collating ideas and playing them back in future lectures, you can increase a sense of community.

Individual and team challenges:  forums are a great way to provide open ended extension tasks where students compete to provide the best response (as judged by the instructors or a student panel). Students are particularly energised by being exposed to unsolved problems, and these can lead to incredibly fruitful conversations. Here are some examples of unsolved problems:

  • Do black holes have an internal structure? If so, how might the internal structure be probed? 
  • Why do some enzymes exhibit faster-than-diffusion kinetics? 
  • How many Sudoku puzzles have exactly one solution? 
  • How do animals (e.g. migratory birds) sense the Earth's magnetic field? 

Fostering informal interactions

Informal interactions can be extremely important to learning and emotional well being. Here we've outlined some of the interactions students value most - and how you can use digital tools to recreate these online.

Students talking to instructors before or after a lecture

  • When hosting a live session on Zoom or MS Teams, leave time at the beginning and the end to respond to any questions. 
  • Many students will not want to speak in front of the entire cohort so encourage them to use chat to ask questions. 
  • Remind students of how they can contact you directly if they need to ask a question privately.

Students looking confused, disinterested or highly engaged during a lecture

  • Solicit feedback during your live or recorded sessions using poling tools such as Mentimeter
  • You can easily scatter standard questions such as 'rate the difficulty of this section'  or 'rate your interest in this section'  throughout your lecture to capture 'just-in-time' data which can help you shape your future content and address sticking points

Students talking to each other about a task or problem in class

  • During live sessions in Zoom, breakout rooms can be used to break the cohort into groups
  • Create dedicated forums for larger tasks and problems 

Study groups and mutual support among students

  • As it becomes harder for students to interact incidentally they are less likely to create their own informal support networks
  • Assigning students to small study groups (which are not monitored by an instructor or tutor) may be particularly beneficial to students who are less likely to reach out to their peers voluntarily
  • If you're asking students to group themselves, try to follow up with individuals to ensure they have found a group and are feeling included
  • Ensure students have the necessary tools and instructions (e.g. access to the chat or online meeting room) 
  • Set clear expectations of how students should use these groups, what they should do if they feel the group isn't working for them, and what to do if they need to report a problem

Interaction types and tools

Learner - Instructor

  • Direct message: Email
  • Discussion forums: Blackboard, Slack, MS Teams, Coursera, Edx
  • Video conferencing: Zoom / MS Teams
  • Automated feedback: Mentimeter 

Learner - Learner

  • Chat: Slack, MS Teams
  • Video chat: Zoom,  MS Teams, Google meet

Learner - Content

  • Ensure that links to content such as PowerPoints and videos are easy to navigate and  that students know when they are supposed to access them 
  • Use a notification board and emails to remind students about key dates and live events, and to keep them on track with their learning

Please note that some tools referenced in our guides (e.g. Zoom) are not yet supported by ICT. If you have questions about implementation please contact your Faculty EdTech team