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Conquering The Isolation Of The Online Classroom

Do you ever feel that you are on an educational island? It’s 4 am, you are answering posts in an online classroom and it feels like you are alone. As the poet John Donne[1] said, “no man is an island”. No student or instructor is either. But what are some tips for making the asynchronous online educational environment into communities of learning?
Conquering The Isolation Of The Online Classroom

How To Conquer The Isolation Of The Online Classroom 

Many feel a major benefit of working in the online learning environment, whether as a student or an instructor, is the flexibility that you can work or study from anywhere at any time. However, that benefit is a two-edged sword. It can lead to one of online’s greatest drawbacks: Isolation. Being in different areas and time zones across the country (or the world), it can be easy for instructors or students to feel they are on their own, rather than part of a community and drawing from that strength. This is especially true in the asynchronous classroom environment. How can teachers make their online classroom more of a learning community? How can telecommuting faculty develop a sense of comradery with their peers?

Students

  1. Icebreakers.
    One of the keys to developing a community of learners is to let them get to know each other as more than just avatar images. The first day of class, an ice breaker exercise can not only help the class to get sharing, but draw out those students who aren’t comfortable giving a “biography”. An ice breaker I use in my English class is “your beautiful state/country”. I challenge students to describe their state in the U.S. (or their country if outside the U.S.) using their five senses. What are its tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and feel? This gets the students thinking. (Usually, the most difficult is “smell”. I’ve found out that North Carolina smells like hay and tractor oil and Wisconsin like cheese and beer!). The virtual classroom seems a little smaller as the class, including myself, share having visited each other’s state, having eaten or made local dishes (like Philly Cheese steak or Louisiana Jambalaya) or having an interest in travelling to certain states. The students start to interact in a non-threatening way. There are many different ice breakers that can be done. Other ideas for online ice breakers (for both asynchronous and synchronous online classrooms) can be found at Teaching With Technology – Ice Breaker Ideas.
  2. More than discussion posts.
    Also, when students are involved in a challenge, even against each other, they develop a comradery. This is where gamification comes into the classroom. I do some exercises in my writing classes that break out of the usual discussion question mode. Here are two examples:

    • The Great Homonym Challenge.
      In this challenge, students have a week to come up with as many homonyms as they can (without using the internet or any source but their brains). They are allowed to team up with family, friends, or co-workers to do it and share who their “teams” were when they post their lists. Since the students are usually going to school to earn a degree to improve their lives and the lives of their children, this exercise can allow the children into that process. As the students share who their teams were and the words they listed, the classroom starts to feel like less of an isolated place and more like an interactive environment. At the end of the challenge, I do a virtual trophy presentation (via PowerPoint) which brings me into the exercise mix.
    • Scavenger Hunt.
      Another challenge I do is to have students practice citing sources by doing a scavenger hunt for information. In my classes, I give them history trivia questions. Each person takes one question and has to post not only the answer, but cite where he or she found it. The students have to pull together to finish the hunt.

Student response to my exercises has been that is makes them feel like they are together in a traditional classroom setting. Various disciplines can take exercises, like a scavenger hunt, and bring them into the online classroom to not only form a sense of community, but to engage learners.

Instructors

Not only do instructors need to feel a part of their classroom community, but they need to feel like a part of an instructional community, too. Although online schools have online instructors’ meetings or training that can bring teachers together, most class weeks  it can be easy for an instructor to feel like it is he or she and the students and that’s it. However, networking and technology can help that in many ways. Most faculty do meet others during online school events. Stay connected. While it is true that there is no teachers’ lounge or cafeteria online, it doesn’t mean online instructors can’t go for virtual coffee breaks or lunch. By coordinating a time that fits among time zones, faculty can meet online (IM, Skype, etc.) for some valuable break time to informally talk about common issues they see in the classroom or just to share how the day is going. In addition, sharing photos of where they live or of pets or family, can add to the “break time” atmosphere and bonding. Shared interests can be discovered which can help when looking for a partner for a professional paper or project or when looking to find small group interests. Small group activities can be conducted online. A colleague of mine is interested in meditation and reflection. She shared, in segments, a 30 day program for all those interested in trying it. Participants communicated back and forth online about their progress.  Participating in activities, academic or other, can be done asynchronously and still aid in forming a teaching community.

Online education doesn’t have to be a lonely experience. Using some creativity and organization, communities of learners and instructors can form, just as they would in a brick and mortar school.   These relationships can offer support and new insights and make for a richer educational experience for everyone. Suddenly, online learning doesn’t seem like such a small world.

Resources:

Donne, J. (n.d.) No man is an island. Poet Hunters. Retrieved from http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/no-man-is-an-island/

 
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