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I Am A Real Person In This Time and Space With You: Building Community In An Online Course

Donna Petherbridge (North Carolina State University, USA)
Additional Authors
Diane Chapman ( North Carolina State University, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 1:30pm
Faculty and Professional Development & Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Theory/Conceptual Framework
Institutional Level: 
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere IV
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 7
Virtual Session

Establishing a strong virtual instructor presence using targeted strategies for building an online community can improve instructor evaluations, student satisfaction and retention in online courses.

Extended Abstract

For students and instructors, taking (or teaching) an online course may feel like an isolated activity. However, student connectedness is an important aspect in online learning environments because a sense of communal belonging may affect learners' levels of motivation and satisfaction (Bolliger & Inan, 2012). Developing an engaged model of instruction is important for increasing student achievement and retention rates in online courses, with research indicating that learners need to feel part of the social fabric of an online course before comfortably interacting with others (Wei, Chen & Kinshuk, 2012). Importantly, an instructor's role as the course leader and guide is pivotal and can be the single largest influencer of how effectively students learn in online settings" (New Media Consortium, 2014, p. 18). Creating a sense of online community and establishing a strong, virtual instructor presence can improve student satisfaction with online courses, positively impacting instructor evaluations and increasing student retention.

In this seminar, a seasoned online instructor will discuss specific strategies and provide examples of how instructors can create an online learning environment that promotes student engagement and success. In our department's experience, backed by research, instructors should be substantially involved in their online courses (Crawford-Ferre & Wiest, 2012), especially early on when students are still learning to navigate both the online environment and the expectations for the course. I will use this session to provide specific examples of what substantial involvement means and how to implement that involvement, which will help mitigate potential feelings of isolation in a course from both student and instructor perspectives. During (and after the session), I will share examples from several courses and the PowerPoint slides.

Our discussion will begin with some audience polling related to participant backgrounds and experiences with online teaching and perceptions of connectedness in an online course. Examples will then be provided of how to start the semester with a very hands on/engaged approach as an instructor. Specifically, I will show examples of a "different take" on a welcome video, a concrete example of a welcome letter, and then discuss how to make a learning management system an inviting space (no small task!). These are important "setting the stage" strategies that will invite students into your course and help them take those initial steps to get to know both you and the course, and become committed to the community of learners.

How to build interaction strategies in a course, how to personalize a discussion forum, and how to effectively summarize multiple discussions on the same issue as part of guiding students through a course in way that alleviates the frustrations of the 1000 posts syndrome will be discussed. The importance of multimodal interactions (both synchronous and asynchronous) as part of creating an online community will be reviewed, and examples provided for how to do this. A discussion and examples on how to help students make the course their own will follow, from providing discussion choices to learning contracts as ways for students to feel a sense of ownership in the course. An example of a learning contract will also be shared.

From there, the discussion will move to the value of using evaluation as a way to shape the course community; e.g. letting students evaluate you and the course in an iterative way (not only at the end) says "I care, and I'm listening." And having peers evaluate each other provides students a way to shape the process. Examples of rubrics that can be used for your online classes for evaluation purposes will be provided. The importance of individualized feedback will also be discussed, as this is noted as a key component in defining a "good" online instructor (Boling, et. al, 2012) - including how to provide individualized feedback in a manageable manner.

Finally, the presentation speaks to the value of teamwork in a course, and how to manage that in a positive way that helps build community in an online course, including strategies for visibility and accountability for each student participant. With each of these strategies, from taking a hands on approach at the start of the course, to using multi-model and iterative strategies, I emphasize the importance of sending students the message, "I am a real person in this time and space with you." That is a teaching mantra that has served myself and my colleagues well, resulting in consistently high student evaluations and low attrition rates.

In keeping the audience engaged throughout the session,
Question/answer opportunities (polling) will be purposefully built in throughout the presentation.
I will host a "Building an Online Community Buzzword Bingo" game, complete with cards and important community building words as a hands on activity that participants will follow along with during the entire presentation.

I look forward to being real people in in time and space with you!

Lead Presenter

Dr. Donna Petherbridge is Associate Vice Provost for Instructional Technology Support and Development Services in Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) at North Carolina State University, where she leads a team of training, instructional design, media production, applications support and applications development specialists in researching, applying, and supporting innovative instructional technologies in both customized and enterprise environments. She is also a member of the IT Strategic Planning Process and IT Strategy Implementation teams, actively working on the first University-wide IT strategic plan in collaboration with the University CIO and other campus partners. Donna is also a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Leadership, Policy & Adult and Higher Education department in the College of Education at NC State University, where she has taught online classes, mentored graduate students, and served on dissertation committees since 2008. Donna has over fifteen years of experience in supporting higher educational faculty members in leveraging technology, and has co-authored several articles and given presentations in this area. She recently had a book chapter, The Importance of Governance: Ongoing Engagement with the Campus Community around the CMS, published in Research on Course Management Systems in Higher Education (2014). She also has experience teaching at middle, high school, and higher education levels (both F2F and online teaching environments). Donna was awarded the NC State University 2011 - 2012 Workforce & Human Resource Education Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Service, and a Pride of the WolfPack Award (for outstanding service) in August, 2013. Donna holds a BA in English (Elon University), a Masters degree in Information Science (North Carolina Central University), and an Ed.D. in Adult & Community College Education (North Carolina State University).