There is an increasing body of research that indicates the importance of student engagement in the learning process. Engagement is not only a commitment to the completion of tasks but also a psychological investment in learning (Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992). It is important to design your course to include a supportive community. Whether you are developing a face-2-face or online course, considering student engagement and specifically developing a sense of community is essential to student success. Fredrick, Blumenfeld, and Paris (2004) found that students who were engaged performed considerably higher academically than their unengaged peers.
Creating a supportive learning community involves dialogue; faculty to student, student to student, and student to resources. The faculty to student dialogue is straightforward in a face-2-face class but can also be included in the online setting through a video introduction and video or audio clips created for sessions or lectures. Instructors can also offer coaching and periodic reminder announcements.
Peer to peer engagement is a little more difficult to develop online. One strategy is to begin the semester with a personal introduction so the students can get to know one another. You should also include a personal introduction that contains more than your years in education and teaching philosophy. Don’t be afraid to mention your dog’s name or confide that you secretly like to relax in your hammock on Sunday. Include a photo that personalizes you.
Create an open forum for students to post questions or request help, this will be open for responses from you but you can encourage students to support one another through this forum as well. You could also set up a specific problem-solving forum and assign students to monitor and answer questions that are posted. Another option is to create small groups where students can assume responsibility for supporting each other on class assignments or with general motivation throughout the entirety of the course. I can tell you from experience, a community forum can be the only thing that keeps students from withdrawing from the class or dropping out of school completely. The support of a peer network is very powerful.
Some students may not be comfortable with a high-level of participation and may not choose to take advantage of the learning communities, but others may require that support structure to be successful. Vygotsky (1978) stressed the role of social interaction and believed that community plays a central role in the process of learning.
Fredericks, J., Blumenfeld, P., & Paris, A. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concepts, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 59-109.
Newmann, F. M., Wehlage, G. G., & Lamborn, S. D. (1992). The significance and sources of student engagement. In F. M. Newmann (Ed.), Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools (pp. 11-39). New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.