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Online Education | Spotlight

9 Tips for Creating a Sense of Community for Distance Learners

With ever-increasing opportunities for online learning, educators must find new ways to engage their students and create a sense of community in a virtual world.

But just how do you, as an educator, do that?

"Whether it's in the classroom or in the virtual space," said Dean Shareski, community manager for Discovery Education Canada, "educators need to actively engage the question 'how do we really create this notion of community?'… How do we engage our students [and inspire them to engage one another]?"

Shareski, in a recent talk at the FETC conference in Orlando, FL, shared nine tips for doing just that.

1. Create a Compelling First Impression
For Shareski, this begins by creating a "course trailer" using basic tools like a smart phone, a webcam and iMovie to build a memorable introduction to the course material. "I'm no actor," he said, "but my students enjoy it," and it's a great way to break the ice.

2. Encourage (or Require) Students To Create Their Own Spaces for Learning
Shareski encourages his students to take ownership of their learning by building their own individualized spaces. These include blogs, wikis, social media and other outlets that are less likely to create roadblocks to adoption than mandated, homogenized resources, such as an institutional LMS. As a side benefit, this creates opportunities for students to begin building an online professional portfolio that isn't locked down in a monolithic system.

3. Connect to Students in Multiple Ways
Students interact in many different digital spaces, which is why Shareski promotes finding the spaces they're comfortable with and letting them take control. "This helps the student own the process," he said. It also gives them the opportunity to connect and engage one another in various ways.

4. Create Support Groups
In these virtual classes it can be hard to connect to others on an individual level, so Shareski recommended creating smaller "support groups" of students who can be there for one another and provide an additional mechanism for learning.

5. Video Trumps Text
For Shareski, one of the places distance courses regularly fail is in understanding that Video often trumps text. "When were talking about connecting with people we haven't seen and then we still have no way to see them ... it's kind of a big deal." Not only does he use video to communicate with his students, but he also encourages his students to use the medium to connect with one another.

6. Audio Trumps Text
Similar to video, audio can add real value to the interactions with students Shareski rarely — if ever — sees in person. One of his favorite tools is the voice memo feature in Evernote. Shareski has students e-mail a mid-term assessment to his Evernote e-mail address. He then uses the voice memo to respond to the assessment and e-mails it back to the student. "To a person," he said, "the students all commented on how great it was to get feedback in that way."

7. Be a Connector First, a Content Expert Second
"I want this learning to be sustainable," said Shareski, and just providing content doesn't work. "Part of what I do is to find ways to connect my students with experts in the field." Finding professionals to add context and value to what is being learned in the class setting, he insisted, plays an important role in the learning process.

8. Play Together
It's important, said Shareski, that students have the freedom to explore new things and play with new ideas and technologies. "We have fun together," he said, and that makes a huge difference in the overall experience.

9. Define the Expectations of the Community
According to Shareski, every class should have to answer two questions:

  1. What did you learn from others?
  2. What did you contribute to the learning of others?

"Essentially," he noted, "what this is saying is: 'Pay attention to the people around you.' We need to take advantage of the community and learn from one another. And," he continued "we need to ask ourselves how we intend to contribute to the learning that is happening around us."

"While [distance learning] can be useful," said Shareski, "just removing the distance is a disservice to the technology. We have to do better than that. I don't have all the answers," he added, "but I like the journey we're on."

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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