Online education has allowed users to advance their education and develop new skills from any location. The trouble is that users can still feel isolated and this goes for the facilitator as well. With all of the benefits that come with online education the challenge of creating an online community is still a challenge. One strategy is to simply create more connections between the user and the facilitator. Here is a Top 5 list of things to try to help increase connections between the user and the facilitator.
Discussion Forums – get creative when using discussion forums. For too long online education has used the old *post-once AND reply-twice* approach to discussions. While this may be a quick way to meet a quantitative measure….it really does not do much for creating and encouraging a quality discussion. One suggestion is to create groups of 7-8 students and ask that they first create a Group Charter for their group before jumping right into the coursework. The group creates their own rules and work expectations while getting to know each other.
Encourage Real-Time Connections – connections can be limited student:student and student:faculty when only asynchronous options are considered. Providing an opportunity for synchronous communications will start the momentum of the back-and-forth discussions that will help proactively clear-up any miscommunications. Increasing the opportunities for synchronous communications can help build a greater sense of community in online courses. There are many different opportunities for this type of communication including virtual office hours, small group meetings [6-8 students], large group meetings [24-28 students] and small study groups [2-4 students]. Google Hangouts is one good option to offer students to get the communication started.
Use a Variety of Tools – there are many tools available that can be used to increase student interaction and get them engaged in their courses. Many institutions are looking to private social networks that allow for student connections to take place from course-to-course as students move through a degree program. However, if the need is for just ONE course, Skype and Google Hangouts have proven to be effective tools to go above and beyond the pre-programmed messages such as lesson tours, presentations/lectures and announcements.
Develop a Plan – developing a plan around the activities and the tools selected for the course will lead to a successful experience in your course. The tools will only be as effective as they way they are presented and implemented. Consideration must be given to answering the question…how will this tool increase connections and support the outcomes/objectives of the course.
Interact with Non-Task Activities – consider using interactions that are not related to a specific task as a way to make connections. Find a way to connect with students or facilitate students connecting with each other in ways that are not directly related to learning. Connections made this way can foster a supportive learning community. Many LMS offer some functionality that will allow for this type of social networking. If for some reason the LMS doesn’t offer this functionality you may have to create your own private Facebook page or use a tool like Slack. Simply asking your students to come up with a suggestion to enhance networking might be a good option. Chances are good they may already be using a tool that could be shared.