As an online or blended learning teacher, it can be hard sometimes to create the same feeling of a community that you can in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting—but it isn’t impossible. Here are five ways you can create a sense of community with your students and fellow teachers in the online world.
1. Team Name: Create a team name for your class of students. Take suggestions from the students in your class or teachers you’re paired with and start calling yourself a team. I’ve found that when you start calling a group a TEAM, magic happens. Then, use a survey tool so everyone can vote on which team name they like the best. After the name is decided upon, start using it in course announcements and emails that are sent to the group. For example, we named our Utah team “The Utilizers.”
The Utilizers' logo and their superhero mascots.
Once you have named a group, it becomes more cohesive by nature. If students feel like they are part of a group or a team, then they are more likely to be actively involved in the course—resulting in better academic performance. This team atmosphere also lends itself to creating a feeling of trust so students are more comfortable and more likely to ask for help if they need it.
2. Team Mascot: Have a mascot for your team of students. This creates an aspect of fun as well as augmenting the benefits of having a team name. At one point in my brick-and-mortar classrooms, I had a ceramic frog angel (which was hideous) that I kept on my desk.
When I needed the students to correct a behavior, I would say, “Frederick needs you to start working.” For some reason, having the mascot ask fora change in behavior helped motivate the students to correct not-so-great behaviors.
You can take this same concept and bring it into the online world. Put your mascot’s picture on your course home page. Then post announcements from your mascot: “Frederick wants you to respond to your peers in the discussion board! Remember, be positive!”
3. Fun Discussions: It’s always easier to feel like you are part of a group if you know a little bit about the people with whom you are with. In online education, one of the best ways to do this is through fun discussions in the discussion board area. *You can even make these extra credit if you would like to boost participation.* For example, after a holiday, post a discussion forum asking students what they did for Halloween (or Thanksgiving or Memorial Day, etc.) and then start the conversation by answering it yourself with something silly and interesting.
If students see that their teacher has a personal life and is a real human being, they are more likely to connect with you and ask for help when they need it. They can also get to know their classmates a little better through this activity, and they will feel more comfortable responding to classmates in the course-required discussion threads.
4. Student Announcements: Your students have awesome ideas, so let them send you announcements about holidays, study tips, help on an assignment, test taking strategies, etc. that you can post in your courses. You can then give that student credit when you post it to the course. Example: “John M. sent me this announcement—thank you John!” Students respond much better to their peers than they do to anything their teachers post, no matter how much they like their teacher! This also gives the student who contributed a sense of being involved in the course while encouraging other students toward the same level of academic involvement. These announcements could also be used for extra credit or remediation for a test or assignment that was not fully mastered.
I’ve found that when you start calling a group a TEAM, magic happens.
5. Contests and Competitions: Integrate competitions or contests into your courses for a little friendly rivalry. You could have students submit poetry they have written and offer prizes for submissions. These prizes could be extra credit, a mention in an announcement, or really anything that you know will engage your students. These competitions could either be within a single class or between multiple classes to up the ante.
Competing with things like: which class or student can earn the most points in a given week or which student or course can improve a grade by the biggest percentage? Students often respond well to competitions and contests that create a sense of fun and urgency.
Tip: Students who are otherwise disengaged often respond to a competition when they haven’t responded to anything else. There is no reason for online students or teachers to feel isolated when there are so many great ways to create involvement and personal interaction within online and blended learning environments!
These five ideas, among many other strategies, can help online and blended learning teachers build a sense of community in the online education world.
About the Author
Kelli Hicks is a teacher with more than twelve years of experience, including four years teaching online English, sociology, and ESL courses for Fuel Education. Additionally, Kelli serves as the State Lead Teacher for Utah, and is a shift lead for the FuelEd Academic Support Team (TAMS). Kelli has taught both online and within traditional brick-and-mortar schools focusing on at-risk and ESL students. She graduated from Utah State University with a bachelor's degree in English education, minoring in sociology education with an ESL endorsement.