In my last blog post, we talked about the role of structuring an instructor's presence in asynchronous online classes. Today we will talk about how to develop a sense of community among students.
For some instructors, having students get to know each other in a face to face class might not be a goal, but it is for me. I teach at a small school and was vexed when, years ago, I was talking to a student who did not know "Joe" in our class. This, despite that "Joe" talked a lot in class, and I call on students by name. After that conversation, I set as a goal for every class that I teach that all students interact with each other and get to know each other. While it might seem like in an online asynchronous class that would be harder to achieve, I have found the opposite to be true.
My classes always begin online with a "get to know you" week of introductions. The discussion boards for that week include prompts to get students to introduce where they are from, their major, and why they took the class. While this is not the most robust of conversations that I'll likely read during the semester, it sets the tone.
I tell my students that they must show a "sustained and persistent presence in the course through their posts in the discussion boards." They must answer the discussion prompts for themselves - their idea - and then also comment or ask questions of each other in a way that shows their engagement both with the content of the course and with fellow students.
I have had many faculty ask me - and students ask, too - if there is a "minimum" requirement for this. I resist this. I know that this is the Age of The Rubric and that assessment has ruled our teaching plans for many years. But I think it makes for a more authentic discussion when students are led by their interest and curiosity in their posting and commenting. I want them to keep coming back to see what so-and-so said in response to what someone else said. I want the discussion to keep moving forward. I don't see how it can do that if a student says "well, I did my five comments; I'm done." I explain all of this in videos and in a READ ME FIRST course guide that explains my ideas. Generally, once that explanation is given students understand and accept it. Sometimes they ask me if they are "doing enough," and we have a conversation about that in the learning journal area. And some students complain. But I hold my position, and last fall, I had robust and wonderful conversations among the students in all three of my classes. Sure, a few of them do not participate as much. They are graded accordingly with feedback about how they could improve.
Another issue is: should you, as the instructor, comment on students' posts? There are many ways to deal with this, but for me, I don't. The reason for this is that I want it to be their community space. If they go off the rails on a topic, I will sometimes post an additional question. I keep that to one or two per module, and I don't always need to do it. If there is something weird being discussed I don't want to "pick on" one person, so a rephrased question can often do the trick. Sometimes a short video correcting the discussion is needed. I had to do that one year, when students started talking about the "unicorns" in cave paintings in southern France. I was like, "Unicorns? Where did they get that idea?!" Because, of course, and sorry if this is a spoiler, there are no unicorns! I finally found an image on the official site of the Lascaux cave that called the painting "l'unicorne." Clearly the quotation marks had no effect. The students took this image to be an image of a unicorn. This is important since the main point of the cave paintings is that these people were representing elements found in their environments to elicit some control over their lives. And if there are no unicorns...
Discussion boards are the heart of any asynchronous class. Some faculty hate them because they can not "hear" their students. But to that I say, in a face to face class, how many students do you really hear from during a discussion? Five? Six or seven? Ten? Unless you work something into the class to make it happen, you likely do not hear from everyone.
With discussion boards, you do hear from every student. Every single one. So "Sue," who sits in the back and doesn't often answer because it takes her longer to formulate a response, has just as many contributions in the class as another student who can think on her feet much faster.
To me, this equalizes the class and doesn't favor those who can think and speak more quickly than others. Discussion boards are not perfect, and it's important to design questions or prompts that will get a robust conversation going (quick tip: no yes or no questions!). But it's worth it. Because for me, hearing from every student one of the best outcomes of an asynchronous class.