I’ve studied some about creating community in online classes, and we’re working on the topic this week in the POT Cert Class. And yet, I don’t do it. Create community, I mean, as an instructor.
Unlike in many online classes, my discussion forums are not set up for discussion. I do have a number of posts required, but each post has a purpose: one is for posting a primary source, the second one for responding to my guidance with a thesis and mini-essay, and a third to help someone else. I do not provide conversation prompts because my goal is not conversation.
However, in the very first forum, where I ask them to introduce themselves, either community forms or it doesn’t. And it stays that way the whole semester.
If, in the first forum, the first few students posting begin by responding to other students in a chatty and friendly way, instead of just introducing themselves and leaving, the others follow suit and the class takes off and community forms quickly. Participation and conversation levels remain high throughout the class, even in all the other forums where only posting their own work is required.
If, in that first forum, people only do as instructed and introduce themselves, and few comment on each other’s introductions, the community never takes off and the forum remains a posting board. This happens regardless of whether I, as the instructor, participate by welcoming people or not.
Interestingly, the level of student success in the forums doesn’t seem affected by which way it goes. They help each other at the same level regardless, because those trying to get an A are required to offer a helper reply to someone each week. Performance and learning seem unaffected by whether or not they form a community, but they clearly have more fun and make more social connections. Such support likely does have an effect I cannot see, perhaps engendering confidence and reducing fear.
But I wonder the extent to which it’s up to the students to form community anyway, even in classes where instructors are trying to force engagement and conversation?