As an Online Learning & LMS Specialist, one of the chief concerns faculty bring to me isn’t about the technology — it’s about building community. The culture or atmosphere we create in our courses can drastically change the level of engagement and the depth of learning. We know that it’s something students want from their online courses, too. But how do we build community when when class takes place asynchronously on a screen, rather than together in a classroom? And, conversely, how can we use technology to enhance the community the students experience in the traditional classroom?

As more courses are offered in online and hybrid formats, instructors will need to rethink how they build community and foster interaction in their courses. Communication in a learning management system, on Twitter, or via a blog is different than the type of interaction we’re used to facilitating face-to-face in a classroom.

To tackle this question, we decided to kick off the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies’ #DoOO series of panel discussions by talking about the ways our faculty and students have fostered community and interaction using a variety of digital tools in their courses.


Panelists included:

Martha Burtis – Director, Digital Knowledge Center (@mburtis)
Jeanine Davis – Assistant Professor, Education (@janinesdavis)
Claudine Ferrell – Professor, History
Nora Forknall – Senior, Biology and German major, Chemistry minor, and DKC Tutor (@agent_forknall)
Parrish Waters – Assistant Professor, Biology
Zach Whalen – Associate Professor, English (@zachwhalen)
Lee Skallerup-Bessette (Moderator) – Instructional Technology Specialist – DTLT

The panelists covered a lot of ground, describing a wide variety of approaches and tools they’ve used to foster community including Canvas, BluePulse, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Slack. Whether on the password-protected pages of Canvas or Slack, or publicly on Twitter or in a blog, the panelists generally had success, but found that the medium influenced how that community took shape.

One of my favorite points from the discussion was made by Zach Whalen, who reminded us that “silliness can help build community.” Of course, we want students to achieve the learning objectives and complete assignments, but community is more than a group of people independently performing the same tasks. Even in a single classroom, community is complex and multifaceted. A student asks a thought-provoking question. The professor gets sidetracked. The fire alarm goes off. When we move our courses online, we should think about the ways we can foster these shared interactions.

Especially in the early days of the semester, modeling your expectations is one way to encourage quality participation. Martha Burtis explained the motto used by DS106 instructors: “We eat our own dog food.” By this, she means that instructors completed the assignments alongside students to model what they were looking for and to engage with the students in class discussions. Modeling doesn’t just help set expectations, it also helps students feel connected to their instructor, which can increase students’ willingness to participate and improve student learning.

Student agency was also a topic the panel circled around — both in how and when students interact with one another, and how the instructor interacts in these moments. When students have a hand in shaping the conversations while the instructor remains attentive and receptive, allows for greater student ownership over their learning. This not only helps foster community, but also student engagement more generally. The students take pride in what they build.

The panel was wide-ranging in their discussion — far more than I can cover here. Join in the discussion in the comments or on Twitter through #DoOO.

[Photo “Moss Spores” by Benjamin Balázs licensed CC0 1.0]