5 Essential Steps to Building Community for Your Online Course

5 Essential Steps to Building Community for Your Online Course


Learning online can be a very lonely process. You sit with your computer, working for the most part in a quarantined digital island, unaware of your peers and their struggles in the course. In this post I want to highlight some ways of connecting online students and creating a vibrant learning community.

Before we move forward though, take a look back at the 10 tips I listed in previous posts on how to plan and teach an online course.

Okay, on to the business of building an online community. Here are some ideas I have tried while making courses on Python Programming and iPhone App Development with Udacity.

11. Convey Student Diversity

Fostering a community in an online course is an incredibly difficult challenge. In my experience, students in an online setting do not get to know each other as well as their counterparts in a physical classroom and thus may not feel inspired to collaborate with and help each other.

To build a community, I like to give my students a survey in the beginning of the course, which captures data about their academic backgrounds and interests. In a recent online course on how to code, I added the following question to the survey: “How confident do you feel in your ability to program?”

I then share the results from the survey on the discussion forum. I’d imagine some of the outcomes from your class may look like the following: 42% of you are from a humanities background; 89% of you feel intimidated by programming; 12% of you list juggling as a special interest.

Now I concede that the percentages listed here will be different for your online course, but nonetheless, this effort will reveal the diverse nature of your class to your students and work towards making the learners identify with their peers.

12. Jazz Up The Forums

Conversations in an online course are generally had in a discussion forum. Here are a few things I have tried to create a vibrant community on forums.

I avoid asking questions that have one correct answer and instead ask open-ended questions that require students to draw from their personal experiences to elicit a variety of different responses. For instance, in a course on iPhone programming, I asked my students to pick their favorite app and describe its different architectural components.

Quora is a Q&A website where users ask interesting questions like “ how painful is heart surgery?” What makes Quora even more exciting is that the top responses are generally offered by people who have some expertise in the subject matter. For instance, one of the most upvoted responses to the question about heart surgery was written by someone who went through a quadruple bypass.

You can replicate this idea in your discussion forums by inviting professors/experts to offer their perspective in the forums. In a course on iPhone app development, I invited Oliver Cameron, an iOS expert who designed an app that was number 1 on the app store in 2009, to comment on one of the forums. Oliver’s post became the most liked entry in the thread.

To build a community, you may want to set aside some time to answer questions on the forums. Students are more likely to participate when they see the instructor take time to respond to some of their questions.

In case you are teaching an online class with a large number of students, you may find that some of the forum threads have hundreds of responses. While it is great to have such participation, a large number of posts on a discussion thread can make it difficult for students to make sense of the broad themes or specific insights. In such situations, it may be helpful for you to “pin” or identify a handful of responses that you want all students in the class to read.

13. Connect Students

In 2013, researchers from MIT and Harvard released a study in which they analyzed data collected from Circuits and Electronics, the first MOOC produced by edX. In particular, the researchers focused on identifying student behaviors that led to academic success.

One important finding from this report suggested, “a student who worked offline with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject, would have a predicted score almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself.”

This finding demonstrates the impact of collaboration on student learning. Thus I recommend that you use tools like Meetup.com to encourage learners taking your online course to find and collaborate with other students around them.

Talkabout is another technology that connects students by using video chat software. Jointly developed by researchers from UC San Diego and Stanford University, this tool uses video chat to connect a group of students taking an online course and helps facilitate their conversation by presenting prompts created by course designers. In a recent study, the makers of this software found that participation in these discussion groups improved student performance on course assignments by half a letter grade.

14. Provide Feedback

If you have gotten this far in the article, you have probably noticed my bias towards asking open-ended questions in an online course. This includes questions like “How would you solve this problem?” and “What’s the error in this piece of code?”

Such questions work really well in a traditional classroom where a teacher can provide pointed feedback on these explorations. In an online world however, the challenge associated with understanding and reacting to paragraph-sized open-ended responses, is still an unsolved technical problem. This is perhaps one of the big reasons why online courses are littered with multiple choice queries.

Now I must point out that I am hopeful about using artificial intelligence software to interpret long form responses:  a technology from Microsoft Research looks somewhat promising and a learning platform called Oppia attempts to provide custom feedback. Although, these are still a long way away from mass adoption in online courses.

An alternate approach could involve providing feedback through curated, exemplary peer responses. In one of my online courses, I ask my students to break a large problem into smaller steps and then enter their response in a textbox. After the learner hits submit, I present as feedback a response previously submitted by another student in the course. This way the learner can compare their submission with an exemplary solution that I curated.

Desmos, a math education company, uses a similar approach to highlight peer responses as feedback in one of their math explorations.

I think this strategy may be worth considering in case lack of feedback to open ended questions is something that prevents you from using such inquiries in your online course.

15. Ask For Feedback

In my observation, some of the best teachers ask their students for anonymous feedback on how they can improve their teaching style and content. I recommend that somewhere within the first half of your course, you conduct an online survey to capture student feedback and then use that data to enhance the rest of the course.

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University provides a great framework to conduct surveys that can help gather student feedback.

In the next and final post of this four-part blog series, I will discuss how to use assessments as a tool for learning in an online course. See you then.

Kunal is a course developer and instructor at Udacity.

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