In many online courses, it is possible to learn a great deal and earn a good grade without getting to know others in the class. You may be interacting with others to accomplish this, but the interaction can feel limited, even contrived. However, I contend that participating in an online course can be about much more than earning the grade and learning something. I’m an advocate for online learning communities, with community being a central part of the experience. Some people who still see the Internet in terms of technologies may not quickly understand what I mean by this. They may think that community and relationship are terms that are specific to the face-to-face world or online environments that mimic part of a face-to-face interaction. I can usually identify such people because they may speak about being advocates for online learning, but they almost always gravitate toward synchronous communication (tools like Skype, Hangouts, and phone). Others, like myself, think of the Internet largely in terms of connections. From that perspective, the Internet simply provides new ways to engage in community, cultivate relationships, and build meaningful connections with others. For this to happen, it requires an intentional effort from people, especially the learners. Toward that end, here are seven behaviors, perspectives, or strategies that can help one become a vibrant part of an online learning community, both giving and receiving in significant ways.
1. Communicate Early and Often – Threaded discussions continue to offer many powerful communication affordances that are not available in real-time communication: empowering students who are largely on the sidelines of discussion in the face-to-face class, creating a record of communication that can be revisited and extended for weeks or months, demanding more careful consideration of one’s thoughts before sharing them. With this in mind, have you ever been in an online course where some classmates wait until the end of the week to start participating? That is the equivalent of going to a face-to-face class and remaining silent until the last ten minutes of the class session. Then, all of a sudden, you start spouting out all of your thoughts from throughout the entire class. That entirely misses the idea of a conversation. The same thing happens in an online threaded discussion unless you take part in the online discussion in an ongoing way, logging in several times throughout the week to comment, read, reflect, and comment further. That makes for a much more vibrant and authentic experience, and it is a way of being an active part of the community, showing deeper interest and respect for your co-learners, learning from others, and allowing others to learn from you.
2. Be Really Curious – There is a time to speak and a time to listen. Listening is where we show genuine concern for and interest in co-learners. I often suggest that you imagine that you are on a first date, trying to use good first date conduct. This means listening as much or more than talking, asking good and genuine questions, making it a priority to show the other person that you care about them and what they have to say. Taking on this attitude in an online class is a way to quickly build positive and often long-lasting relationships with others.
3. Look for and Reach out to Specific Individuals – As you go through a course, you may discover that you resonate with the goals and interests of another student. Or, perhaps there is another student who has a very different perspective or background and you would like to learn from that person Why not reach out? Send the classmate a private message, sharing what you appreciate about their contributions and inviting them to connect beyond the course (via Twitter, email, etc.), explaining that you would be interested in staying in contact as a way to share ideas and learn from one another.
4. Self-Organize Student Activities – You are not limited to the formal activities of a course. Why not try to arrange an informal study group, a Google Hangout to touch base and further discuss ideas from the class, set up a Twitter hash tag to exchange ideas, create a forum outside of the formal class, or some other means of exploring a topic that some are interested in but that doesn’t necessarily fit in the course discussions? This goes a long way in helping to build a stronger sense of community and it parallels the sort of informal group meetings that happen at many face-to-face institutions.
5. Encourage and Affirm – Online course discussions can often get rather content-focused. In fact, some early studies about online communication in the workplace indicated that online collaboration was more task-oriented with fewer “relational” comments. This can be seen as a benefit and a drawback. However, one way to be relational and content-focused at the same time is to share words of encouragement and affirmation with co-learners. Share what you appreciated about their perspective, comments, examples, and illustrations. Let them know when and how their comments help you, and thank them for it.
6. Challenge and Question – On the flip side, we want to cultivate a rigorous learning community and that means disagreeing, challenging and questioning when appropriate, but doing it in a way that is gentle and respectful. Much learning takes place as we contrast our understanding with that of others, joining in a mutual pursuit of truth or a more accurate understanding of the subject at hand.
7. Build Upon the Ideas of Others – In some online classes, individual student comments seem like a disconnected collection of individual posts, often driven by the desire to craft a post that ensure them the highest grade. While this is an unfortunate reality in many online courses, don’t let it prevent you from taking things a step further, trying to turn posts into a dynamic conversation. A great way to do this is to build upon the ideas of others. Take an idea that another shares and add a new example, illustration, or further exposition of the idea. As multiple people do this, we get a sense of progress and discovery through online discussion.
There are plenty of others ways to be an active participant in an online course / learning community, but these seven provide simple starting points. Give them a try and let me know how it goes. By the way, if you are an online course instructor / facilitator, perhaps your challenge is the figure out how to encourage these sorts of activities.