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Kōtuitui Forum: Community Building
Video by Darren Sudlow

Strategies: Building Community

Darren Sudlow —

When we talk about community, then, we are talking about the feeling of belonging. This concept applies within the walls of the classroom (virtual, though they may be), as well as outside those walls. A major benefit that online environments have over traditional brick-and-mortar environments is that they allow us to easily negotiate connections within local, national, and global networks.

Social presence, in simple terms, is how much learners feel they are part of or belong to a community (Picciano, 2002). Using this concept allows us to extend the conversation of transactional distance and apply it in a social context. Social presence is a concept that researchers and theorists have used to explain the feeling of connectedness learners have with their peers and teachers in online courses—in other words, their sense of community. The idea of social presence is important because it has been found to influence learner satisfaction, retention, and learning (Rice, 2006).

When thinking about this concept, imagine yourself teaching in a traditional classroom. You would not expect learners to navigate the course content on their own. You would perhaps begin a lesson by presenting core knowledge using direct instruction, move to guided practice, and finish with a project or assignment, providing assistance and guidance through to completion. If the lesson were more constructivist in nature, you might begin with an exploratory activity, allowing learners to investigate the topic through a Web-based research project (e.g., scavenger hunt, WebQuest), gather information, and present their findings to the class while you provided guidance and corrected misconceptions. During either of these activities, students would have opportunities for interaction in the forms of discussions, questions and answers, and/or group work.

The essential element in both of these lesson examples is the influence of social presence on learners’ sense of belonging, formation of community, and opportunities for enhanced learning, which, in turn, fuel learners’ engagement with the content and with each other. Even though community formation is somewhat intuitive in face-to-face classrooms, in online settings, it takes a concerted and consistent effort to provide the same opportunities.

When we talk about community, then, we are talking about the feeling of belonging. This concept applies within the walls of the classroom (virtual, though they may be), as well as outside those walls. A major benefit that online environments have over traditional brick-and-mortar environments is that they allow us to easily negotiate connections within local, national, and global networks.

Strategies for Building Community

Traditionally, education has been viewed as a social process. Interaction and discourse have typically been seen as critical to learning, to the development of higher-level thinking skills, and to the acquisition of knowledge. Yet the importance of the social aspects of education has probably never been debated more vigorously than since the Internet began to be used for teaching.

The primary reason for the debate is the perception that student isolation is a drawback of online environments. With the improvements in social and networking technologies, incorporating opportunities for learners to make connections has become less of an issue. The challenge is more often in our willingness to provide opportunities for learners to do so.

Establishing community within your classroom can be as simple as being aware of how often you communicate with students and what tone that communication takes. Not surprisingly, the quicker your response time and the more often you communicate, the greater your sense of community will be. Using humour, expressing emotions, communicating informally, asking questions, complimenting, and expressing appreciation are all strategies that can help you increase the sense of community in your classroom (Lowenthal, 2009).

It may seem obvious, but community does not happen on its own. You will need to work consciously and consistently to develop and maintain it throughout your course. Doing so involves demonstrating a strong presence in the course, including activities for building social presence early on, providing support for learners new to online environments, and designing interpersonal interactions into the course (Kehrwald, 2007).

These simple strategies can be implemented immediately:

  • Get acquainted with learners by asking them to share photos, biographies, and interests. Before asking students to introduce themselves, introduce yourself.
  • Use icebreaker activities to facilitate the identification of common interests among students.
  • Make student profiles visible and ensure students have an image of themselves or representing themselves in their profile. This is far better than a faceless silhouette that is the default.
  • Incorporate audio or video messages using slideshow-sharing tools, such as Screencast, and animated avatar tools, such as Voki. Also use free audio tools, such as Audacity, to create podcasts.
  • Ensure students use the google+ community or online hub to ask questions. Do not reply to emails unless they are of a private nature. Make it a rule that this is where students are to no post and resist replying to emails.
  • Contribute to discussions judiciously to allow students’ voices to dominate.
  • Contribute to the social discussion by starting a conversation and be open to sharing personal stories and experiences.
  • Let your personality shine through and encourage students to do the same by using humor and emoticons in your communications. Always remember to address students by name and consider allowing students options for addressing you.

Ice Breaking Activities

Animal Introduction

Create a discussion thread and get everyone (including yourself) to post a reply introducing themselves and some of their interests. In their post each student must attach an image of an animal that represents them and their personality. Students post replies to each other guessing why they chose their animals and what characteristics they might represent. Students could then find another student who has chosen an animal that shares two characteristics they have chosen. Together they could find another animal that shares these two characteristics as well two new ones. They then post this with an accompanying image. Sounds silly, but it works!

Truth or Lies

Each student posts two truthful statements and one falsehood about themselves. Each member of the group then tries to distinguish the truths from the lie. What makes this activity fun is to be as outrageous as possible while sharing a bit of who you really are with your fellow participants. Once all responses have been received students post their truths and explain why they chose to share them.


Have one person enter a basic introduction of himself or herself, including his or her interests. A second person must enter an introduction of himself or herself and find one thing in common with the first person. A third person enters his or her intro and finds one things in common with the first and second person. Each of the rest of the class members then enters an introduction and must find something in common with at least three other people. The first person in turn, must respond to at least three people with whom he or she has something in common. The second person must respond to at least two additional people. The third person must respond to at least one additional person.

Promoting Student Interaction: Co-Construction

Co-construction of learning is an integral aspect of an effective online course and is the key element that distinguishes online learning from traditional face to face. Getting students to interact at a distance is a challenge, but an important one to tackle in order to reduce the sense of isolation for most students. It will also provide a better learning experience for the students themselves.

There are several ways you can promote student interaction:

  • As mentioned earlier – in the forums
  • Getting students to build a glossary of key terms using the glossary tool
  • Use Google Docs to get students creating presentations or documents together. These can then be posted in the community
  • Use padlet for student brainstorming or visual/text presentations
  • Use Voicethread for sharing of knowledge, presentations, resource interpretation (all sorts in fact)
  • Use mindmapping sites like mindmeister or bubbl.us to get students working together to process information visually