Enhancing Your Courses – Learning Community
What would be your initial thoughts if you were asked to assess your online courses? Would you see the request as an opportunity to improve your courses or as an unwelcome task in an already busy schedule? Hopefully, the request would be seen as a welcome chance to revisit your own courses with the intent of building on already solid course content and structure to enhance both the online learning experience for your students and your own instructional satisfaction with your courses.
As our Academic Consulting team works with faculty on course design and enhancement there are a number of areas to address including the look and feel of individual pages, unit structure, syllabus content and more. Beyond these more technical areas, if you are to enhance your courses you might choose to focus on the key area of an academic learning community.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that students, while they may in reality be sitting alone at a computer, desire to connect with others and feel part of a larger online learning community. Fostering this learning community enhances student, and instructor, satisfaction and may lead to increased student retention. There are a number of steps instructors can take to establish and grow the learning community in their courses. Assess your own courses to ascertain whether or not you are meeting student needs for community. For example, do your courses have:
Introductions: Establish an Introductions discussion site under Course Home. In the navigational guidance you place on the Course Homepage, direct students to introduce themselves to the course participants and instructor. To foster participation, make the introductory activity a required, graded (or extra credit) course item. To obtain a robust introduction, beyond – “Hi, I’m Joe” – be sure to give students a list of specific questions to answer. As an instructor, it is recommended that you respond to each individual student in the introductions discussion. An instructor response not only adds to the feeling of community but also adds to the instructor presence in the course. It is instructive t note that many instructors and students report that they know more about more students in their online courses than they do in their on-ground courses.
Discussions: In every unit have a Discussion site as a required, graded course item. To foster discussion, require students to respond to the initial question/issue by midweek and to then return on a second day later in the week to respond to other students. It is a good idea to post a rubric in the Syllabus specifying how often to respond, how many other students to respond to, the timeframe and what you are looking for in quality of responses. Discussions foster a learning community and can engage students in application of the course content in an authentic manner. In discussions an instructor plays a facilitative role which also demonstrates instructor presence.
Group assignments: Consider group/team assignments in your courses. These assignments can contribute to growth of a desired learning community, can foster authentic application of learning to a current issue or interesting question in the content area, and can prepare students for the real-world where interaction among work-place colleagues is increasingly conducted in an online environment. With team meetings in Discussion sites and the Chat tool and outlines or drafts shared in the team area of Doc Sharing, instructors find that it is easier to monitor team participation, and intervene as necessary, online than in the classroom.
Peer Review: Peer review and student-to-student comment on coursework can add to the feeling of community, whether part of a team assignment or as a study group. An important step here is to establish non-threatening parameters and to provide review rubrics so students see such reviews as a help rather than a hindrance to their learning. Many instructors find that awarding points, whether extra credit or normal grade points, fosters participation in the review process.
We encourage you to take a look at your courses with the intent of enhancing them, as needed, to foster the development of a learning community among your students. Often a small change in course strategy or structure can lead to increased satisfaction for all involved in the online education process.
~ Ken Switzer, Ph.D. ~
Sr. Academic Trainer and Consultant