6 Classroom-Tested Ways To Build Community For Online Learners

How To Build An Online Learning Community
Summary: Learning pods for educators and students can bring a human-centered approach to online teaching and learning. Instructional Designers, professors and technology assistants share their experiences in this real-life case study.

People Before Technology: How-To Ideas

Reza Khosrowtaj was on the front lines of online teaching and learning. As an academic technology ambassador at Trinity Western University (TWU) and a technological problem-solver, he was the first to receive everyone’s help desk emails.

“My inbox was so busy,” he said, remembering when classes first began for the fall semester. “I was receiving 50 help desk tickets a day.”

Fortunately, the initial spike in requests soon subsided. One week into the school semester, the tickets had gone down. "It has reduced a lot, and it’s getting much better,” Khosrowtaj commented. “People are moving on to other things.”

With the basic technological barriers removed, online learners and educators can focus on their real agenda: an effective and enriching education. In this endeavor, Khosrowtaj and his colleagues on the TWU Online Learning Team believe in a student-first approach and a focus on building a supportive community.

1. Transform Learning Culture From The Top Down

One innovative approach that Trinity Western has taken is leading the faculty to experience online community with each other before they lead online learning experiences with students.

During the past summer, professors were grouped into learning pods with other professors as they participated in an online course called Teaching Online Effectively, or TOnE. Their first-hand experience in being the learner helped inform how they led as professors. This fall, learning pods continue to be one of the critical ways that Trinity Western students connect with one another in remote contexts.

2. Shift From Knowledge Transaction To Learner Transformation

One key advantage of learning pods is their potential to support effective learning habits for learners. Successful learning pods foster student engagement even when the professor is not listening in.

“Learning pods help students get away from the transactional model of education, where the only thing that counts is what I do in the presence of my professor,” said Karen Roeck, Instructional Designer for TWU GLOBAL. “Learning happens in so many different ways.”

When it comes to learning pods, Roeck explained that the intention is for students to take ownership of their own learning. “Students can embrace this and participate in it to transform their own understanding and progress their knowledge in a subject area,” she said. “They can build community and friendships and take their education to the next level, instead of being siloed and isolated.”

3. Foster Community Through Meaningful Encouragement

DeAnn Adams, director of Faculty Services and Development at TWU GLOBAL, believes it is important to “be intentional about building community in meaningful ways.” This is especially the case with the absence of the typical face-to-face interactions that people might otherwise have at the beginning or at the end of class.

In her teaching, Adams uses online forums to connect with her students. “I post a weekly encouragement,” she said. “I might share an inspirational or light-hearted TED talk, or something meaningful for students.” She does this to emphasize the human aspect of online learning. “I want students to know there’s someone behind Moodle and Zoom, someone behind the scenes caring for them and encouraging them along the way,” she said.

4. Make Space For Unstructured Dialogue

Melanie Laurie, Instructional Designer at TWU GLOBAL, works closely with Adams, Roeck, and Khosrowtaj in building effective online learning communities. She pointed out the value of unstructured conversation.

“One of the things I really appreciated is when instructors made space for casual conversation and casual ways to connect,” Laurie expressed. She provided the example of TWU’s Course Café, a student-driven forum. Laurie explained that spaces like these “allow students to connect on a more conversational level.”

At TWU, all classes have access to a complementing MS Teams group, which students can access at their own convenience. “The value of this is that it’s asynchronous,” Laurie said. “It works on your own time, whenever you feel like dropping in.” In that way, Laurie observed, these types of learning platforms borrow from the best aspects of social media.

5. Reduce Anxiety Through Communication

In an online learning context, both students and faculty may be feeling anxious. Adams recommended fighting anxiety with information. “I encourage faculty to communicate, communicate, communicate,” she said. “Let students know ahead of time what your plan is for the course. Even a few weeks before the course has started, start communicating with your students.”

In a virtual environment, students don’t have the benefit of connecting with a professor before or after class, Adams noted. Therefore, professors need to be even more clear on information such as assignment details, or how to access course materials. “Practical things can really bring the anxiety level down for everybody,” she said.

6. Pursue Success In Online Learning Over The Long Term

Finally, when it comes to longevity in successful teaching and learning, Roeck offered encouragement. “Keep experimenting. Don’t be afraid to model in front of your students that it’s ok to try something new and fail at it. Learn from it, get back on it, and keep going.”

The TWU Online Learning team observed that the amount of innovation in online learning tools has greatly increased in the past 5 years. Many programs and functions are more robust, providing more options for instructors and more enriching experiences for learners. Laurie concluded, “It’s really exciting to see what we can do with technology when we have the perspective of being human-centered first.”