The Direct Network

5 Ways to Foster Community in Online Courses

Posted by Dean Asher on Jul 1, 2015 4:00:00 AM
Topics: online courses, Higher Ed
Instructors and administors alike agree that community is an integral aspect of the classroom. That said, the classroom can look a lot different now than it did a few decades ago. In the case of online programs and MOOCs, sometimes the classroom isn't a room at all. So how do you develop a sense of community in these courses? Heather VanMouwerik at GradHacker offers the instructor's perspective for developing an active online discussion that can work for both classes that meet in person or online. Could you implement these strategies at your program? We've included her five bullet points, but the full post is a great read on building digital communities that fill the importance of peer-to-peer communication in education. Read her whole post here.



I have experimented widely with discussion forums, in both form and content. The easiest way to foster community in these forums is to:

  1. Clearly articulate the forum’s objectives: On the syllabus and online, in class and via email, it is important to consistently and clearly communicate the goals for the class forum to your students. What do you consider active participation? What type of questions should they post on the forum? Who should respond to them? When? How often? If you are clear from the beginning, then students will know exactly what is expected of them.

  2. Redirect all appropriate questions to the forum: The first few weeks of class, I am always inundated with emails about the course, from expectations to content. Rather than reply individually with “please consult the syllabus,” I politely refuse to answer their question until they post it on the forum. The key here is consistency. Every single appropriate question, every single time. By forcing the students to make a habit of seeking advice on the forum, the students will increasingly rely on it.

  3. Create assignments that require a forum post: The most successful discussion forum I ever participated in was for an online historical methodologies course. The first week the students had to post a short comment about their favorite zombies (the course’s theme); the fifth week they had to post a 6-word summary of their course project. By making a forum post an assignment, complete with guidelines and a grade, the professor was simultaneously demonstrating the forum’s centrality to the class and promoting community through publicly sharing students’ ideas. An early project starts the students off on the right foot, and a mid-course assignment reminds students of the forum’s importance.

  4. Offer Community Participation Points: Participation points are a trope in undergraduate classes for one reason: they work! If I am planning a course where participation in an online forum is required, I offer a negligible number of points to students who actively participate. Depending on the forum’s objectives, this could mean anything from answering a classmate’s question 2-3 times a week, to posting their own comments a few times during the course, to linking to relevant news items. Luckily most of the software that these forums run on provides user statistics, making quantifying these participation points easy.

  5. Be the active participant you want your students to be: Silent forums start feeling like a blinking neon sign after a while, garish arrows pointing to my failure as a teacher. Sometimes, despite explaining the importance and planning the forum, students do not post. My natural inclination is to turn away, to downplay the forum as a way of downplaying this failure; however, that is the opposite response that a silent forum should elicit. Instead, make sure that you are posting regularly, answering and asking questions, and linking to interesting materials. For the class on zombies I mentioned above, the students had to write a fake primary source. I started finding news articles on recently found materials—an unknown diary in an attic or a new book in a bank box—and asked the students if they thought these were fakes. I was happily surprised how interested the students were in these real-world examples.

About Dean Asher

Dean Asher is a former copywriter with MBS. Though he no longer writes for us, he is still proud of having helped this blog continue to evolve as an industry-leading resource of news and original content.

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