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January 15 2007 (Refreshed August 11 2012)

E-Coaching Tip 32: Steps in Building a Course Community

When talking about online learning, we almost always talk about the importance of building community, often referred to as a learning community among the learners in our courses. This concept of building a community seems to have evolved in parallel with the development of online and distance learning. Just why is this so and what does it mean? Do we think that community is a goal unique to online courses?


I think we have two key questions to consider on this topic: First, what do we mean by a learning community? And, secondly, if it is so important, what behaviors by faculty and students support the process of community-building?

What is a Course Community?

Let’s address the question of what is a course community? Some of the definitions of community proposed in the literature (Brown, 2001, p. 20) include the following:

  • Support from people who share common joys and trials (C. Dede, 1996).
  • Community-building (is) creating a sense of belonging, of continuity, of being connected to others and to ideas and values (T. J Sergiovanni, 1994.)
  • Community of learners (is) a group of people with “a shared purpose, good communication, and a climate with justice, discipline, caring, and occasions for celebration.” (E. Boyer, 1995)

Brown (2001) conducted a theory-building research study that involved selective sampling of distance learning students in three graduate classes. The total number of students was 21 with three faculty participants. The goal of this research was to generate a theory and answer questions about how community forms in a distance-learning environment. 
When the 21 graduate students in Browns’ study were asked to identify characteristics of a community, they suggested qualities that coalesced into the following definition:

  • Members of a community “generally had something in common, whether it was interests, experiences, goals, values or vision.”

A second set of qualities solicited from these same students focused on defining the special characteristics of a learning community. Those definitions usually included this distinctive characteristic.

  • Participants suggested that in a learning community, “they were responsible in part not just for their own learning but for others’ learning, too. “ 

This characteristic, being responsible for fellow students, may be a key differentiator in online learning experiences that succeed in building a community of learning. Supporting each other’s learning requires interaction, engagement, and involvement. This is a subject that we will want to examine in more depth in another tip.

A Three-Stage Process for Community-Building in Online Learning

We know intuitively that community does not just happen. Brown identified three stages in the community-building process and noted that achieving these stages requires a degree of engagement beyond what might normally be required in a course. Here is a brief description of these stages.

    • The first stage is simply making friends online with those students who feel comfortable communicating online. One of the reasons we launch a course with introductions and sharing about ourselves is to create a feeling of comfort and trust with interacting with the other students.
    • The second stage is reached when students get more engaged, both with the course content and with each other. Brown calls this stage, “community conferment or acceptance.” Community conferment appears to occur following a “ long, thoughtful, threaded discussion on a subject of importance after which participants felt both personal satisfaction and kinship.” This type of intense discussion can function as a “shared experience” that learners can subsequently refer back to.
    • Stage three is characterized by a feeling of camaraderie that is generally achieved after “long-term or intense association with others involving personal communication.” Since this level of community requires high levels of interaction over time, it is more likely to emerge with students who share a cohort program experience.

Faculty Behaviors for Launching Community

What are some of the ways that faculty can support the building of community? As mentioned above, faculty can support the initial phase of the community-building process by inviting personal introductions in week one of a course. An introduction question that often results in delightful initial responses is to ask students a simple question about themselves that is safe, straightforward and yet shares something insightful about the students, such as their favorite study place, their favorite food or their favorite learning technology.


The goal of initial introductions is multi-faceted, getting the students using the course tools and interacting, providing an avenue for “early discovery of commonalities,” and beginning the process of creating a course community. I still remember the delight of three participants in one of my workshops when they discovered that they all had adopted children, for example. As part of this introduction process it is good for the faculty to share some professional and life experiences as well, creating threads of connection such as “I lived in Pennsylvania for five years, too” or “Yes, I have had an experience working for for-profit companies as well.”


A good “second” question in the first week of the course is to ask the student to identify their learning goal(s) for the course — shifting from the social cocktail-type interaction to thinking and discussing the course content and sharing personal learning goals.  A question about goals also provides insights as to the state of the learners’ knowledge, confidence and experience with the content. For Vygotsky fans, it is a way of gaining insight into learner’s individual zones of proximal development.


In summary, here are faculty behaviors that can support the launching of community.

    • Positive, supportive, encouraging comments
    • Clarifying comments about the process and course expectations
    • Intros to other members of the instructional team and support
    • Encouraging sharing that creates connections and identifies commonalities among learners

Faculty Behaviors for Building Community

A common question that new and experienced online faculty often struggle with is just how involved they should be in the discussion forums. I think we struggle with this because the level of involvement ideally changes over the course of a course. A faculty member is quite involved in the early part of the course when course expectations, and processes are being clarified, but less involved later on in the course.  (Conrad and Donaldson, 2004). Additionally, the level of involvement cycles from less involvement at the beginning of a forum to more involvement later in the forum. (Boettcher, 2010, Tip 76.)


Garrison (2006) noted that a key advantage of online learning is that the interaction pattern is “group-centered” rather than “authority-centered.”  This means that for some discussions, particularly later in the course, that the faculty member observes, monitors and comments more as a collaborative member of the community.
A good strategy in weeks two through four of an online class is to create dyads or other small groups of 2 or 3 to work on content-related assignments. For classes with a mix of veteran online students and newbies this can create a comfortable way for students to develop confidence in the process and in the environment.
What are faculty behaviors in the building stage of community?

  • Open-ended questions about what students think and think they know
  • Making positive “substantive” observations about student’s participation
  • Encouraging identifying relationships and linking of ideas
  • Encouraging the linking of course content to current events, problems
  • Challenging students to share questions and strategies and insights about the course content
  • Facilitating student to student discussion
  • Delegating some of the facilitation of groups to the students on a rotating basis

Setting Expectations Regarding a Community of Learning

Research on learner satisfaction consistently identifies clear expectations about a course and the responsibilities of a course, in terms of assessment, etc. as essential to learner satisfaction. This research suggests that as online learning develops, creating clearer expectations about what it means to be contributing and supportive members of a learning community will also be helpful.


For community-building the discussion forums in an online course are where connections are made and the interactions supporting learning and discovery happens. Monitoring and supporting the exchanges of these online places is where you help create and build community of learners.

References

Brown, R. E. (2001). The Process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5(2): 18 - 35. Retrieved June 25, 2012 from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v5n2/process-community-building-distance-learning-classes.


Boettcher, J. V. E-Coaching Tip 76 (2010) Feedback in Discussion Posts – How Soon, How Much and Wrapping Up. Retrieved July 2 2012 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip76.html


Conrad, R. M. and Donaldson, J. A. (2004). Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction. Jossey-Bass  (www.josseybass.com).


Garrison, D. R. (2006). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 10 (1) Retrieved July 2 2012 from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v10n1/online-collaboration-principles


Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.


E-Coaching Tip 32: Steps in Building a Course Community

 

 

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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013