It is probably safe to say that all of us have taken a brick and mortar class that stood out above all others and exemplified a positive learning environment. The class likely stands out to us because we felt that we belonged to a learning community, shared similar goals and interests with our peers, and felt supported in our learning goals. Research suggests that this carries over to the online environment as well, with greater student satisfaction when students have a sense of community (Outz, 2006; Philips & Peters, 1999; Rovai, 2002a; Swan, 2002; & Woods, 2002). This feeling keeps students motivated to go to class and to share their interests with their peers.
Do you remember the student who went to class and only engaged in discussions if required? This assessment allows an instructor to gauge comprehension and guide the student through their learning experience. Whereas traditional classroom discussions can easily be dominated by vocal students, allowing the quieter students to stay disconnected, the online environment can easily require all students to engage through required threaded discussions. Technology enables easy measurement of involvement that would not be practical in the traditional classroom, meaning all students are engaged with an equal opportunity to share their voice and can be assessed for understanding earlier in the learning process. This is extremely important because learning and development is a social and collaborative experience that all students should benefit from.
"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do."
-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977
So, while the benefits of interactivity and fostering learning communities are clear, getting there can be a challenge in an online environment. The first week of class is extremely critical for establishing a sense of connection within the course. During this week, students should be encouraged to engage with their peers and professors via threaded discussions and other social tools, sharing their work and life experiences to make connections. Some of the first assignments for the course should promote interaction when possible. This engagement should be encouraged throughout the duration of the course so students have a desire to succeed each and every week, and share in their successes with their learning community. Leverage reporting to identify those students not engaging and reach out to them, and to identify strong classes to model your programs from. The data helps identify the anomalies sooner and to react to them appropriately.
If students gain a sense of community early and see it is going to play a major role within the course then they will most likely embrace it and become part of a learning community who takes greater ownership of their collective learning experience. Leverage the tools to identify those courses not meeting standards and bring them up to par. If students begin to feel this theme from course to course then you will have a much stronger, more persistent student community.
Drouin, M. (2008, Fall). The relationship between students’ perceived sense of community and satisfaction, achievement, and retention in an online course. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(3), 267-284.
Bandura A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall.
Ouzts, K. (2006). Sense of community in online courses. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7(3), 285-296.
Phillips, M. R., & Peters, M. J. (1999). Targeting rural students with distance learning courses: A comparative study of determinant attributes and satisfaction levels. Journal of Education for Business, 74(6), 351-356.
Woods, R. H. (2002). How much communication is enough in online courses? Exploring the relationship between frequency of instructor-initiated personal email and learners’ perceptions of and participation in online learning. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29(4),377-394.
Deb Corso-Larson | Assessment and Analytics Group | Pearson eCollege