A Sense of Community in Online Courses
Have you ever sat down to begin reading a new textbook only to find yourself completely confused by the first paragraph? If so, did this compel you to keep trying even harder to understand it, or did it only serve to discourage you and lower your willingness to try at all?
In an Edutopia article about how happiness and education are connected, the latter situation is what is referred to as a “fight or flight” response – and unfortunately, it’s a common one in higher education environments today. As one would imagine, feeling overwhelmed, withdrawn, or defensive doesn’t create an ideal environment for effective teaching and learning to occur. On the other hand, feeling safe and valued within a learning community does just that.
Seems like a reasonable conclusion to reach, and the article goes on to outline solutions for how to do this. Community building, or building relationships and practicing collaboration, is the number one essential outlined. But with more and more of today’s higher education learning environments now online, how can this kind of harmony be achieved in a virtual classroom; particularly for adult learners enrolled in online degree programs?
For starters, many online college courses offer discussion boards meant for students to interact on regarding topics outside of those having to do with their class. This shared space creates a sense of community that helps higher education students feel safe and connected to one another. The problem is that these boards are often underused or neglected completely as students prioritize assignments they are graded for.
Perhaps a solution could be for each class to have an appointed and voluntary ambassador of sorts who would be responsible for keeping classmates engaged on these boards. They could ask a question to get a conversation started and moderate the discussion, keeping it on track and encouraging everyone to get involved. Perhaps it could even be a place to share accomplishments from the students’ personal and professional lives, since receiving validation from our peers is preferable to feeling anonymous and unacknowledged amongst classmates.
To achieve that “magical mix of willingness and curiosity” that results in a capacity for deeper learning, online learners must push themselves and one another a little harder than would be required in a physical classroom. The reward, hopefully, would be that rather than feeling discouraged by that confusing textbook we mentioned earlier, they would feel comfortable enough to ask one another for help.
At the end of the day, the goal of higher education should not only be to walk away with a degree, but with new confidence and connections forged for a lifetime.