By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, USA
Building a learning community in an asynchronous course is a challenge but worth the effort. Of course face to face meetings at the beginning, middle and end of the course are great community-builders, but not practical for true distance learning courses where students can be miles away from the class center. Some ideas from adult classes I have both taken and instructed:
1. Request students to post a brief bio. Adults in the US mention their educational and professional background, areas of professional interest, anything interesting about one’s family, location, why they are taking the course, etc. US students always seem to end with an upbeat “I’m looking forward to learning about X in this course and getting to know other students” or something along that line. Encourage students to respond to these as people would in face to face introductions. ”The Peace Corps? How interesting! Where have you been stationed?” The instructor sometimes needs to lead the way so students know it is ok to do so.
2. Ask students to post a photo or at least a representative avatar.
3. Require students to use their real name, not a made-up user name, for on line work and communication.
4. Interaction, even asynchronous, is the key to success. Every course should have forums where students have assignments in which they respond to each other. Some courses require students to post something, but don’t require students to read and respond to others. That kills the perception of audience and interaction. Students should also be encouraged to respond informally to as many others as they wish in addition to their required response. I recently took a course in which the instructor did not want us posting to the forum other than our official, academic, works-cited response. That meant our natural instinct to agree or disagree with someone, to add to someone’s statement, or to ask for clarification or more information was quashed, and so was our interest in the course content. It was the worst on-line class I’ve ever taken. We were all just jumping through hoops to get to the end. (Also have a forum where students can communicate freely about
5. On-line courses need to be held together by the instructor who has to be a highly visible presence on the site. Good instructors join in the discussions to let others know they are present, send private emails of praise or constructive criticism to students, and continually post new links and current information that might prove interesting to the students and to demonstrate the course is alive and dynamic, not wound up on day one and let go. One of the best professors I have had on-line commented on every single thread so everyone in the class could read the professor’s reaction to each student-initiated discussion thread. I’m sure it took time, but the results were the 25 of us became a group. By the end of the course, students were saying that they would miss the group and hoped others were taking the next online course the next semester.
6. Run the course with the same degree of rigor as a classroom class. Don’t let the students think that the on-line medium means games and fun and do- what- you- want. Have definite due dates, a syllabus (or of sorts), objectives, tests, etc. If you are going to have synchronous skype-like discussion, be sure that the students know the scheduled times of these and the technology involved well in advance. In addition, have a clear behavior model in mind for these discussions. How will students take turns? How will they be graded? What will there tasks be and how will they get immediate feedback before the period is over?