6 tips to build a thriving online learning community

Scott Cooper

Creating an interactive and engaging environment for your learners can be the key to running a successful online program. By building an interactive online learning community for your learners you are not only improving your course, but providing a much greater learning experience for everyone involved.


How to build a thriving online learning community

Just because you are running your learning program online, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to consider building an online learning community. It’s common for the community aspect of online learning to be ignored as instructors are not seeing their students face to face on a daily basis, but one of the most important aspects in building a great program is forming an online learning community that can provide the help and support that a learner needs.

In this article we will be looking at 6 tips that will help you create an active and engaging online learning community.

  1. Be present at the course site.
    When the teacher or instructor is interacting with students in a traditional classroom setting, they are building a community in which all members feel that they can openly discuss the course content or ask questions. There is no reason why the same experience cannot take place in an online setting though. The key with establishing your online learning community is establishing some clear expectations at the beginning of your course or program. The best way to do this is to define some clear “Office Hours” for when you will be online. Depending on your subject, students, and other variables, this could be as simple as being online and ready to answer questions for a couple of 2-3 blocks every week. This can be invaluable for students and can provide them with the support that they need to excel in a course as opposed to just scraping through.
  2. Get your students involved. 
    At the beginning of a program, it’s always great to get students to start with providing a personal introduction to the group so that they can get to know more about each other, as well as letting you find out more about the personalities that you will be working with. Don’t forget to post an introduction yourself too! The types of things that are great to encourage students to share are info on professional experiences, personal information such as family, friends, and pets, as well as photos or short videos. Setting up a virtual classroom or group message board/chat rooms is also a great way for students to learn of each other when they have questions and allows them to form bonds that make the learning experience more enjoyable. Encourage use of a general forum for students to post and ask for help or assistance from each other through. Breaking the class up into smaller groups where students can mentor each other and assist in supporting their learning is also a great technique. It’s a similar approach to the more traditional study group, but with a modern twist.
  3. Set expectations from the beginning. 
    This best practice is one of the most important to take note of and can be the greatest help for you in the long term. Before you even begin your course set some clear expectation in the course details prior to enrollment, so that students understand how your interactions will be taking place. As an example, many instructors tell their students that they will receive a response to any question within 24 hours on weekdays, and leading up to exams periods there will be office hours’ periods held online where students can join in a conversation via live chat. A great way to reduce the workload of the instructor is to post responses to questions in a location for all learners to view and avoid answering the same questions over and over. Monitoring questions can also be handled by the students themselves, and when posted in a course message board or similar, it can be a great way for everyone to learn together, even with the instructor not being available. Online learning is just as intensive as classroom learning, and time to do the work needs to be scheduled and planned for, just as when you attend traditional classroom style classes. Being clear as to how much time is required on a weekly basis to keep up with the course will always keep stress levels down.
  4. Don’t forget to interact with your students!
    "How is the course going?" "Do you have any suggestions?" Talk to your students about the learning material. You’d be surprised how much you can improve a course based on the feedback you get from the people actually taking it. If you start this process early on in the program you also assist in helping provide a better learning experience for the people raising questions. Using this process will not only improve the learning experience for your current students, but over a longer period of time, and feedback, your program will be much more well-rounded and enjoyable for new enrollments.
  5. Prepare posts that invite questions, discussions, and responses. 
    When preparing posts for your communication with your learners, always think about what you’d like their reaction to be. Do you want them to ask for more information, have a discussion, or respond with their opinions/answers? You might use a discussion if you are looking to create an open question and answer forum, encourage critical or creative thinking, or reinforce domain or procedural processes. Once you have got the students engaged, begin to raise some follow-up questions. Why do you think that? What is your reasoning? Is there an alternative strategy? Get the students thinking about why they are giving you these answers and if they might have missed something. Let the students know how you’d like them to respond, e.g. a two-part response: What you liked or agreed with, and a follow-up like what you are you still curious about, etc. Working professionals are often overwhelmed with many problems, and providing options makes it easier to associate their learning with their work experience. Important: Don’t post YES/NO questions. Once you have an answer, that’s the end of the discussion and we want to keep our students active in discussion. Make sure that you are actively answer email, monitor discussions, post reminders, and hold online office hours at least four times every week so that your students get the help that they need.
  6. Mix up the way that your students are learning. 
    Identify and discuss the core concepts that are required in a course and then set the students to apply this learning to a complex project that encompasses these concepts. This technique allows the students to bring their own style of learning into the course through the project and will deeper ingrain the core messages that you are covering. Many online learners within professional programs are working professionals. Supporting learners with their professional goals that are closely linked to the performance goals of a course is a win-win for the learners individually and as a group. How do we do this? Offer opportunities to students to have options and choices in assignments.

With these tips you’ll have no problem getting your students interacting through their own online learning community and learning much faster and more effectively. Plus, it’s a whole lot more fun to have people to talk to when you are learning!


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