Creating Community in the Online Format

We are happy to host a guest post by Wes Siscoe, the Mellon Course Design Coordinator with the Philosophy as a Way of Life Project at Notre Dame. Their aim this summer has been to help philosophy instructors make the transition to online teaching. Herewith, then, Wes:

In the not too distant past, many predicted that massive open online courses (MOOCs) would conquer the educational landscape, offering learning opportunities that rivaled the college experience in quality while forgoing the expensive price tag.  That of course never happened.  Learning online without an engaged instructor created feelings of isolation, resulting in course completion rates as low as 5%.    It was just like having an absentee instructor. Students who don’t receive timely instructor feedback report feeling frustrated, depressed, and less motivated.  As it turns out, divorcing the educational project from an interactive educational community is ultimately self-undermining.

This, of course, is now everyone’s challenge. The majority of philosophy instructors are set to teach in online or hybrid formats for the foreseeable future, necessitating that they create the sense of community that the MOOCs failed to, lest their philosophy classes see drops across the board in student engagement, achievement, and retention.  But where to start?  How is it possible to create a course community when everyone will only be accessing the course remotely?  In what follows, I will give some suggestions to help create an engaging online environment, emphasizing measures that can both increase instructor presence and boost peer-to-peer communication.

The obvious place to start in creating the online community is with the instructor. A strong predictor  of student success online is feeling like they have strong personal connections with their teacher.  This will not happen nearly as naturally online as it does in person – the digital format requires being more intentional when it comes to connecting with students. Strategies will differ based on course context and size, but small additions can be made to any course to increase a sense of community.  Any face time is valuable, and adding a number of elements to your course can make you more present even in an online environment.  Here are some ways to do this, starting with those that are easiest to implement:

  • Include your picture in your email signature. Here are guides for gmail and outlook
  • Hold virtual office hours over Zoom or Google Meet
  • Set up a FAQ or discussion page on your course website to cut down on emails
  • Respond to emails in a timely manner
  • Pool a group inbox with TAs to make answering emails efficiently a team effort
  • Introduce yourself to your class in a way that shows them who you are outside the classroom
  • Use examples from your everyday life (my miniature dachshund is going to make an appearance!)
  • Call on your students by name, and refer back to points they have made
  • Shout out great student work and achievements, letting them know how proud you are of them
  • Create a regular flow that starts with a weekly overview email
  • Minimize pre-recorded lecture videos and emphasize live instruction
  • Give recorded video feedback instead of written comments on essays and written exams
  • Schedule short, ten minute meetings during digital office hours to give paper suggestions

Student outcomes are also correlated with how much they relate to their peers, so providing students an opportunity to connect with each is also an essential part of creating an online community.  The amount of personal interactions that students have with their peers will likely far exceed the number that they have with their professor, making student conversations an essential part of connecting in a digital format. This is not surprising — students are best positioned to understand fellow undergraduates and push each other to succeed.  There are a number of course additions that can jump start student engagement:

Student-to-instructor and peer-to-peer connections are necessary components of the digital learning environment.  Large online courses are now starting to learn this crucial lesson – MOOCs with more of a human element are popping up.  These lessons couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  The fall semester will be chaotic and stressful for students and instructors alike. Providing an engaged online environment is the best way to make your course experience one that, instead of adding to that strain, creates a supportive and encouraging community for your students.

For further resources, check out the following:

Engaging Online Programs: 10 Ways to Enhance Instructor Presence in Online Programs

Providing Feedback in Your Distance Learning Course

8 New Ideas for Engaging Online Students

Coronavirus and Teaching from Home: Ten Ways to Engage and Instruct Students Remotely

12 Creative Ways to Connect With Students Online

Creating an Effective Online Instructor Presence




2 Replies to “Creating Community in the Online Format

  1. I have a masters degree in philosophy that I obtained while working full time as a PhD physicist. I have taken MOOCs, taken PhD level philosophy courses. In all of this, I have learned desperately little from instructors. The vast majority of my studies I have done alone, now for almost 30 years. I participate in philosophy conferences about once per year. If I learn anything in a class, it is largely through my own efforts: I do far more than the instructor expects. I know that there must be excellent instructors, the vast majority of these are not online or in classrooms, but can be found in print. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think instructors serve an important role, at least for some. Since I have well learned the skill of being an independent learner, I don’t need the instructor go over the material. What a good instructor might better do for me is to cover what is not in the text: those externalities and context that can serve as useful background.

    My point in penning this brief comment, however, is this: Despite that I am an ideal candidate for MOOCs and remote learning, what I desperately miss is community. I have been retired for some time now, living very far from anything like a city. I write without ceasing, but I write almost entirely for myself. This sense of having a peer community (I can’t count my wife who understands almost nothing of what I write) I find lacking not only for me, but all across the educational spectrum. For the most part students, even those attending brick and mortar institutions, lack a lively community of discourse. I know this because I’ve been on these campuses. I’ve attended classes there, as have my children. In my view, it’s a sad affair. The emphasis is not upon discovery and investigation, but on repetition and production.

    I’ve taught classes online. It is my view that online classes can, if employed wisely, can help fulfill this lack of community and discovery. Instructors serve more as facilitators and instigators. I find the grading of classwork very often stifling. It encourages the wrong kind of interaction with the material. It even encourages the wrong kind of student. What I think would be more fruitful is for colleges to consider allowing students to form their own peer groups and exploring their own topics. It’s initiative and discovery that is not encouraged, and no time allotted to it. Maybe this is impractical given concerns for learning per dollar. Universities want to be able to measure outcomes, and the kind of expertise I’m referring to is difficult to measure.

  2. Thanks so much for your note, Bill! I definitely agree that building an online community is one of the most important parts of feeling connected and fulfilled in a virtual classroom. And I agree that, often times, we are testing for the wrong thing. Instead of encouraging students to think for themselves and explore ideas, they get the message that they should regurgitate what the professor says in order to pass a class. Hopefully we can make some progress at the Philosophy as a Way of Life Project on this!

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