A World of Friends – Sheila Hannon

linked_computer1How’s the weather? I asked one of my students in an email message.
“Hot and dry – well above 30 C.”
But in the next message, another student complained about the below freezing temperatures.
Somebody obviously needs some remedial help with thermometer reading.
Or do they?
When you’re teaching students via the internet, it’s more than possible to receive such seemingly diverse answers during email small talk. Our students aren’t clustered in a classroom on the UW campus, but spread out around the globe.
Internet education is growing by leaps and bounds – an estimated 20 per cent per year. In 2005, approximately 1.6 million Canadians used the internet for education.    At UW, Distance Education is also growing – and predictions are that even more courses will be fully online in the next few years.
While online courses are proliferating, I sometimes wonder if our pedagogical practices could be tweaked a bit to better engage our students.
One concept that has intrigued me is the idea of an online learning community – a way to recreate the collegiality of a classroom setting even though the students may be dispersed around the globe.
As classroom teachers, most of us like to establish rapport with our students, and to create links between the students. We usually have students introduce themselves; we set up small group activities, have discussions in class, and use various other methods to stimulate interaction. If all works well, we create a synergy in the classroom that not only stimulates the intellectual curiosity of our students, but also increases our own enthusiasm and enjoyment of the class.
So, how do we recreate this type of collegiality in an online course? How do we create a sense of community, of having a shared purpose of learning, in our online classes?
Of course, technology – ACE in the case of UW – allows us to set up interactions such as discussion boards, chat rooms, and other methods for sharing information. These offer a computer-mediated version of our in-class interactions – sometimes even a better forum.
But one of the key factors is the instructor. We are at the centre of the web of students and our involvement in the course will make or break their experience. It’s not just about how much technology we have, but how we choose to use it. If we are active in the discussion boards, posting the kinds of answers we expect from students, posing thought-provoking questions, or (gently) prodding students to participate, I think both we and our students will get more out of the intellectual exchange.
The key comes back to our desire as instructors to create that sense of community – the feeling that we (instructor and students) are in this together. We are responsible for our own learning, and responsible for helping others learn – whether it’s participating fully and faithfully in the discussion boards, collaborating on projects or peer reviews, sharing our knowledge via Q and A boards, or just being available to answer questions promptly. In other words, as instructors in an online environment, we have to go that extra mile to encourage and engage our students.
Ah, you say. That sounds great. But think of the time involved.
And you’ve hit the nail on the head. Teaching a distance education course doesn’t take less time than a classroom course – it probably takes more.
But if we truly want to help our students, I think we need to make that extra effort to be more than just “markers” or “evaluators.” Research shows that the drop-out rates are higher in DE than in classroom courses. One of the main reasons? The feeling of isolation. Not surprising when you stop to think about it.
And besides all the educational and personal satisfaction values, there’s one tremendously important benefit from creating a community in your online courses.
No more need to watch the weather channel. Just ask your DE students!

Check out CTE’s Tip Sheets on Online Discussions:

For an interesting article comparing student and instructor perceptions of online community building, see
Vesely, P., Bloom, L. and Sherlock, J. (2007). Key elements of building online community: Comparing faculty and student perceptions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. (3) Spetember 2007.

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Sheila Hannon

As a Teaching Assistant Developer, Sheila Hannon is responsible for observing teaching events, facilitating workshops and providing feedback for participants in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program. Sheila is excited to have the opportunity to meet and work with grad students from all faculties at UW. A former newspaper reporter, she is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature where her research interests include new media, journalism, and Canadian Literature. She has taught as a sessional instructor and a teaching assistant, both on campus and for Distance Education since 2002.

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