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How Building Community in an Online Course Skyrockets Learner Success – Part 2

Building community in an online course - part 2

Building community in an online course is hard. That’s a given.

I’ve taught online classes where the discussion board was crickets. I was avoiding it as much as my students were.

One of the hardest parts about building community is getting people to interact with the discussion board. Sometimes it's just you and the crickets.

I’ve learned some strategies since then that changed my perspective. I have greater respect for the value of community in an online class.

Where were we?

Last week, I covered building community strategies that work in both self-paced (asynchronous) and paced (synchronous) courses. These include:

  • Blogging
  • Personal photos
  • Video
  • Showcasing students
  • Discussion boards

If you’ve started with this post, you may want to take a look at How Building Community in an Online Course Skyrockets Learner Success – Part 1 before you move on. There’s lots of juicy stuff there.

Here, we’re going to talk about some of those same strategies and how they can be used in a paced class. We’re also going to talk about a few strategies that can only be used in a paced class. They didn’t make the list at all in Part 1.

Building Community Strategies That Rock Paced Online Courses

I’ve divided this part into two sections. The first section covers how a paced class can use discussion boards, student introductions, challenges, and blogs. These are the topics I covered in Part 1, but this post will focus on how those elements can work for you in a paced course.

The second section covers strategies that don’t often exist outside of a paced course framework. We’ll talk about small group collaborations and live meetings. Both are rock stars in skyrocketing online learning.

The community-building strategies that do it all

Blogs/online journals

Create small cohorts of 3-5 students. The students in the cohort can be tasked with reading and commenting on each other’s blog posts. The cohort could also provide reviews of each other’s blogs to help them improve something, whether it’s design or thinking. Having a consistent audience that provides feedback helps learners grow. And it has the added benefit of keeping each other accountable for deadlines!

Using blogs to build community in an online paced class is like a double-shot of espresso. You get to create an automatic audience which motivates students to improve the quality of their work.

Student profile pages

Having a cohort that moves together gives you a set group of learners. This allows the instructor to put together a profile page of all the students. If your course software has a profile system built in, you can use that. If it doesn’t, you can have students complete a form answering the profile questions. Be sure to ask for a recent photo. The profile page allows students to get to know their classmates. If you ask questions about things like expertise level, you give students a chance to find others at their skill level or higher if they need to seek help.

Discussion board

Discussion boards in a paced class are only as good as the instructor makes them. This requires a high level of activity and enthusiasm from the instructor. Don’t worry, though. If you do it correctly, the students soon take over the task of keeping the energy high. You won’t have to should all the responsibility.

Plan your discussion board questions and prompts thoughtfully to engage students with each other. If the discussion board is active enough, online students continue building community on their own. This helps reduce the sense of isolation that often develops in an online course.

In a paced course, make room for students to ask questions. Create a board specifically for students to ask questions, but don’t be the first to answer. Or if you are, you can start with, “Can anyone answer ___’s question?” Encourage students to help each other.

You also need a watercooler. You know, the place everyone goes just to chitchat about stuff. Life stuff. Don’t be afraid to visit the watercooler, too. You don’t have to hang out there, but you want students to know you are a regular, approachable person. This builds trust.


Challenges are short term, usually weekly, tasks that stretch the learner, but also move them forward in their learning. For example, if you’re teaching a course on interior design, one challenge could be to collect 100 images of interior design that reflects the learner’s taste. This gives them practice reflecting on and refining their taste and begins to build a personal resource library. Students can post a link to their collection in the weekly challenge discussion board and browse through other student’s collections for inspiration. Students learn more about the various design taste personalities in their cohort.

Community-building strategies that work better in paced online courses

Small groups

It stands to reason that a small group strategy would work best in a paced course. You need a minimum number of people to create small groups. Creating small groups within your cohort may seem like overkill, especially if you only have a course with 20 people in it, but it’s a proven strategy.

Small groups of 3-5 students allow learners to focus on building strong connections with just a few people. As these groups work through assignments together, they become accountability buddies. Encourage small groups to share social media contacts. If one of the group members stops showing up for meetings or doesn’t meet a deadline, the other group members often reach out to check on them. This alone is invaluable. The sense of isolation is one of the reasons students don’t complete an online course.

Small groups can create big wins in an online class. The benefits of connecting students on a small scale really increases the sense of belonging.

Small group assignments have other benefits as well. Working collaboratively is a sought-after soft skill and students need the chance to practice. Having group members take on roles during assignments gives them practice in leadership and collaboration. Communication and negotiation are soft skills that students also get to practice.

Successful small groups require a lot of practice. Be sure to give consistent assignments that they must work together to complete. Students can review each other’s work, discussion post activity, or blogs and share feedback.

Live Meetings

The other strategy that works best in paced courses is holding regular live meetings. These can be text chats, but a better option is to have at least the instructor on video. This really makes the instructor seem a part of the class.

Use the live session opportunity to extend the material. This has two positive effects. It solidifies to students that you are the expert in the material and it gives students a reason to want to attend the live sessions. Do record each session for those students who can’t make it, but you want to make live attendance as compelling as possible.

Live chats are the superstar of building community in paced online courses. Live chats should be some review, some extension of the material, and some question and answer time. This makes the optional attendance compelling.

You can also do class activities. This pulls the students into active learning rather than just passive watching. You can set up a shared digital document and assign pages to small groups or pairs to do collaborative activities during the live session. These sessions may be a good time to pair students up who aren’t in the same small group to grow the community connection.

And live sessions are a great place to bring in guest speakers! Prepare the students ahead of time so they can have questions ready, if there’s time for a question and answer session at the end.

Instructor enthusiasm plays a huge role in the success of live sessions. If you give any indication that you don’t want to be there, it will have an effect on student enthusiasm and participation.

Building Community in an Online Course is All About Learner Success

It’s true. Building community in an online course is hard. But it’s super-important in giving your learners the best chance for success in your class.

Try out a strategy or two in your next class. Work out the kinks in those before you add more.

Next week, we’ll talk about the amazing invisible benefits of teamwork in an online course.

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