Whenever Barbara Polnick teaches online, she pays special attention to fostering a community of learners, focusing both on the design of the course and the way she facilitates it.
Polnick, associate professor in the educational leadership program at Sam Houston State University, bases her approach to online learning communities on the following four components of a learning communities identified by Rovai:
Creating a learning community takes time. It helps to begin as early as possible, preferably even before the course begins. Once she knows who will be in her online course, Polnick asks students to fill out information profiles. In the case of this program, for example, it's useful to know where the students work whether it's in a school or business as well as their leadership experience.
She makes it point to acknowledge that she read their profiles and tries to make connections based on the information so it doesn't just seem like an assignment. “I'll say things such as, ‘You teach math. I used to teach math.' Or, ‘You have two kids. So do I,'” Polnick says.
Throughout the course Polnick asks students to share information about themselves that relates to the content. For example in a leadership course, she asks students to “share with the class three attributes that you think contributes to you being a good leader.” The second part of that prompt is to find three other people in the course who have similar characteristics, which helps create connections among the students.
Polnick also encourages her students to share personal information with each other and include a photo, so that every time they post in the LMS that picture appears. “This helps students identify and remember each other.” (E.g., “He's the one who's teaching in a rural classroom and has cows.”)
It's not enough to have students respond to discussion prompts and two classmates. Polnick also requires that students relate the discussion to their own work situations. “I ask them to make connections wherever possible,” she says.
Polnick uses students' personal information, interests, and characteristics to form small groups. For example, she may ask students to rate their technological skills. Depending on the goals of the assignment, she may form homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. To further bond these groups, she has students discuss group norms.
Establish relevance of the learning community
Throughout her online courses, Polnick connects the notion of the learning community to the course content. For example, she'll explain, “As leaders you will need to work with different kinds of people.”
In addition, Polnick recommends pointing out the contributions of others in the feedback one provides, particularly in threaded discussions. “I try to make sure I emphasize not just their response to a question but their interactions with other students. I might say, ‘In interacting with Jose and Martha, you provided specific example of how you use this in the classroom. That was very beneficial to the group,'” Polnick says. “It's a way of letting them know that what they're doing is very important.”
Another way to foster a learning community is to create situations that create interdependence among group members. This can include limiting resources so that only one person in the group has access to materials and has to share with the group and find ways to work within this constraint.
Technical support is important in all online course, but it is particularly important if you are trying to foster a strong online learning community. Students need to have reliable access to the course when they are dependent on each other.
Monitoring the student experience is an important part of maintaining a learning community. Polnick does this with the help of scouts—the two or three most conscientious students in the course. “I can tell form the first two weeks of class who is going to always be ahead. They're usually the first people to post their student information profiles. They're the first people who take the syllabus quiz,” Polnick says.
She asks these students to go through the course and alert her to things such as broken links and unclear instructions. She also asks them to provide feedback on course activities.
Assessing the learning community
Feedback from scouts and observing the interaction in the course can give you a sense of the strength of a learning community. Other indicators are the quality of work that students produce and the way they relate to the content and each other.
Discussion boards are good indicators of the strength of the learning community. When a learning community is thriving students indicate they recognize that diversity of opinion is important and note how other students ideas connect with their own. “If I read that in their work—and that's one of my expectations—then I know they're learning. My main goal isn't that they be a community of learners. My main goal is that they're learning and that they're meeting the learning objectives. So I'm looking at the end result. If the end result is that they're learning and I'm using these strategies to get there, I figure these strategies are working,” Polnick says.
In addition to assessing the learning, Polnick conducts a 20-question survey at the end of each course to assess the learning community, asking, among other things, the extent to which students believe that their ability to perform well in class was built on their own abilities and the additional benefit of working with others. “It helps me plan the next semester,” Polnick says.
“A lot of times it's so subtle. Students may not even be aware that it is a learning community. … They may focus more on what they're learning and just know that they're comfortable,” Polnick says.