That Community Thing

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?

10 comments to That Community Thing

  • Laura Carlsson

    Hi Lisa,
    I always ask myself the same question. At the end of a successful course, usually I tell my students that “they managed” the class more than me; that the class was fun because they made it fun. I am the same teacher every semester; with the same tools and materials. I push the same way all my students to engage in productive conversations, and I move them around in different groups every learning unit. However, there have been semesters where I was not eager to get to a specific class, the environment there was not welcoming or warm. Was it my fault?

  • Scott Johnson

    Hi Lisa, We give classes to instructors so why not to students? A course in community building online could help. Could cover etiquette and becoming a better human being:-)

  • Renee Fox-Moore

    Your experience and insight to creating community in an online learning environment was very thought provoking. Most of my face to face classroom community building experience has usually been very positive and productive. I feel it necessary for the students to ‘circle up’ on the first day of class. They are asked to tell their name, interest of studies at MiraCosta, level of experience in dance and a “Fun Fact”. This exercise is an “icebreaker” as well it helps to establish interest in others. I also feel that it aids in developing a safe learning environment, especially in dance technique classes. This allows the students more comfortableness in experiencing new movement. For an online course I suppose I would use a synchronous conferencing tool to hopefully create the same camaraderie. Physically working together during each class meeting also strengthens the sense of community and safeness. I am at a loss of how to create a recurring situation of working together, except to devise more collaborative exercises that encourage more interaction with each other.

  • Your post is spot-on for me; I’m asking the question; who has the biggest burden teacher or student to say if a knowledge transfer happens between a course and a student?

    • I think teachers, but as prophet. In some way we’re supposed to know that some kind of knowledge has been attained, and to see it through assessment. But I don’t believe knowledge is ever transferred, and that which may be gained might not show up for years.

  • [...] suggest an optional approach and hoping that the community somehow will spring forth on its own. Lisa observed in her blog that sometimes it takes off and sometimes it does [...]

  • Melissa

    I feel the same way – I don’t think I’ve actually created community in my online courses. My student do have to complete a discussion board topic every week and respond to at least one other student – so there is some interaction going on, but I don’t necessarily call that “community.” I have to wonder, though, are students taking online courses those who maybe don’t want to have to “deal with” the “traditional” course setting? Are online students craving the feeling of community, or are they specifically taking an online class because they don’t want to?

  • Hi Lisa,

    I like your post because you take the main issue of Week 7 and show how it may or may not work. It is true that even in a f2f class, some semesters my students are very talkative and the class takes off from the first week, and during other semesters, I have to keep creating small groups and getting to know students individually in or to make them comfortable and bring about a community.
    I think the social butterflies will speak in f2f or online, but the shy students will tend to keep quiet especially in an online format. It is important, therefore, to keep bringing them to the forefront in order to get the entire community comfortable and create a good learning environment. You have more extensive experience so maybe you can tell me if this is correct or not.

  • [...] structure for comunity. She states that it either happens or it does not. She asks the question whether community is up to the students anyway. Perhaps it is. And perhaps it should be. A more natural, virtual approach to community is [...]