2. Building a sense of community.
To counter the feeling of isolation that students often have when taking courses online, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect with each other, says Sher Downing, an edtech strategist who serves as the vice chancellor for eLearning at the University of South Carolina.

“If a sense of community doesn’t exist, students tend not to do as well,” she says. “They often drop out or disappear, or else they’ll do just the minimum amount of work needed to pass the course and move on.”

Providing a forum where students can talk among themselves is critical, Downing says. Instructors can use the discussion tools that are built into their learning management system, or Google Hangouts, or even a team-messaging app such as Slack to foster a sense of community in online courses.

It’s important to seed discussions by requiring students to make an initial post, says Kristen Sosulski, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“We need to structure even informal online learning experiences to make sure they happen,” says Sosulski, who is the author of two books about online learning. “If you just ask students to introduce themselves, don’t be surprised if that doesn’t happen.” She recommends making directions to students explicit rather than open-ended.

But once discussions are under way, it doesn’t take much effort from the instructor to keep them going. Downing encourages students to use discussion forums to post questions and help each other. “Students will start to support each other, just like they’re in a physical classroom,” she says.

[Editor’s note: Come back tomorrow for three more online learning challenges—and solutions.]

About the Author:

A former eCampus News editor, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience in writing about educational innovation.


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