How to Build Community Online
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How to Build Community Online

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Top 3 Essentials for Building Community in an Online Course


For many students, the difference between a good course and a great course isn’t the subject matter or presentation, it’s the feeling of community with the course staff and other students. Here are three key ways to build community in your course. 

  1. Show you care from the start: Students feel more connected when they know their instructor values their contributions and progress. Set the tone before the course starts: get your Canvas course site ready with key info, an instructor self-introduction, and a page letting students know where they should go for help. Send out announcements to get students excited for the term. Survey students about their interests, and then weave their responses into your lecture or activities. Plan a good first class session with icebreakers, and agree on behavioral norms. As the term continues, keep checking to see how your students are doing
  2. Build student-to-student relationships by design. Students build community when they work closely with other students; you can provide time and space for this to happen. 
    • Discussion forums can be structured with prompts, or left open and free-form. Use Canvas discussions for lecture or reading responses or just Q&A. Use tools like Yellowdig Engage for a more free-form social discussion. Compare discussion platforms to see which is right for your course.
    • Small group work can happen in breakout group discussions during class, or study groups that connect between classes. If you're considering a group project, see these tips for designing a great team project and avoiding common pitfalls. 
    • Peer review gives students a chance to read or see each other’s work and give feedback. Use breakout groups during class (for presentations) using Canvas’ peer review feature (for written work), or a peer review tool like Feedback Fruits (for robust peer review features.)
  3. Encourage students to bring their whole selves to class. You know many ways teaching and learning are different right now. Students and course staff are facing unprecedented challenges to their home, work, and health. Students will feel more at ease if you acknowledge this and offer flexibility. When possible, provide opportunities to relate coursework to these challenges. Students may experience disparate impacts by race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, economic status, and other variables. Avoid generalizations and stereotypes, and make inclusive moves in your language and examples. Students from a variety of backgrounds will notice and (hopefully) feel more comfortable in your course.