Community Building

To know someone here or there with whom you can feel there is understanding, in spite of distances or thoughts expressed, can make of this earth a garden. ~ Goethe

Developing a supportive and connected online learning community is a key factor in helping learners feel comfortable and willing to fully engage in learning activities. Preparing a statement on a given topic and posting it for everyone to see can be an intimidating experience for a learner in a new group, particularly for those who are relatively new to the online environment. When people know a bit about each other and have had an opportunity to interact informally, a sense of camaraderie can develop which encourages people to feel comfortable enough to take risks and explore ideas. Many programs begin with a face-to-face course or residency so learners have met each other in person and have begun to form a cohesive learning community. As an online instructor you might be the "stranger" who needs to get to know your learners.

Jen Walinga (0:34)

We build a sense of connection with our learners through presence, interaction and commitment to a common purpose in a given space and time. Non-verbal and verbal cues of welcome, invitation and encouragement contribute to the tone of a face to face class. In the online environment most of these communication tools are at our disposal if we just know how to employ them.

  • Providing brief audio and video introductions to both the course and yourself as an instructor help bring your voice and personality to the class. Learners can do the same.
  • Make your intentions and expectations explicit.
  • "Silence" in an online course, (a lack of messages, responses to messages or other interactions), can be construed – and misconstrued. In addition, it is easy to misunderstand a written message and draw negative conclusions. When a person is feeling anxious, the likelihood that they will interpret things negatively increases.

Mike Thompson (1:24)

Our job as learning facilitators is to be obviously supportive, both of the group and of the individual. The kinds of learning activities we choose play a significant part in the development of a sense of community. Learners cannot be passive knowledge-absorbers who rely on the instructor to feed information to them. It is imperative that they be active knowledge-generators who assume responsibility for constructing and managing their own learning experience. In a learner-centred environment, many of the traditional instructor responsibilities such as generating resources and leading discussion shifts to the learners. Success in an online learning environment depends on the use of instructional strategies that support this shift in roles.

This shift in roles is very important when team-based learning in integrated into the online environment. Learning teams may look to faculty for their leadership initially and expect in-depth involvement in discussions and activities. The focus, however, should remain on the learners. With the best of intentions, we as faculty run the risk of interfering with group development when we participate too much in the group dialogue and discussion. The opportunity and challenge for the online facilitator is to find a balance between providing too much and too little support. The wisdom of the Tao Te Ching can be aptly applied in the online learning environment:

The teacher guides his students best, by allowing them to lead. ~ Lao Tzu, Chapter 66

Jen Walinga (1:11)