Creating an (Online) Community of Learners

All, Teaching, Technology

six-word-memoirClasses start at Morehead State University tomorrow morning but I opened up my classroom (in Blackboard) a few days ago and already 17 of my 26 first year seminar students have checked in. Some of those have only checked in to look at the syllabus, but a few have already joined me in an effort to begin building our classroom community and I can’t wait to log into Blackboard tomorrow morning to see who else has added their six-word memoir and me museum.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that community is important to me as an instructor (see posts on my current blog and my former blog). I know community is important for learning in general and writing in specific. I believe strongly in the power of collaboration and that can only be successful with trust and understanding. It is not always easy to create a class community and even more challenging in an online community, but I have been teaching online long enough that I feel pretty good about the community we create. I do feel a bit of added pressure this semester as this is my first time teaching freshmen in a while and my first time ever teaching a first year seminar. I know a lot more (thanks to my new job) about the impact of these early class experiences on student persistence and success. I want this class to be fun and encouraging and supportive to set these students on a good trajectory for success in college. No pressure, right?

badgesHow do I create a classroom community? First of all, I begin as I mean to go on (something my mother taught me long ago). I make it clear that this is an important class project – and in fact community building is a graded assignment. I also make it clear that the class will be the judge of individual contributions to this communal project – using badges – to emphasize that building community is a group effort.

Second, I set the tone from the beginning making myself a real person with a real life and real challenges and worries and real passions and interests. As I introduce myself to my students they can quickly see that many of the themes and elements of our class have direct ties not only to pedagogy (I try to be very transparent about why we do what we do) but also to my interests (the fact that I am a huge Walking Dead fan and total techno-geek is made apparent from the first message I send them). I begin by opening up and sharing – making myself a little vulnerable – showing not just telling. I think it also helps for them to see something in my life and/or interests that they can connect with and respond to rather than just throwing open their life to a blank computer screen.

Finally, I use a number of tools to begin finding and creating connections. We are an online class and we have a comic book theme and we will need to make a variety of electronic presentations before the semester is through so I begin using that from the very beginning. As I’ve mentioned before. I love to use six-word memoirs as an icebreaker, but in keeping with our comic book theme this semester I am encouraging the use of Bitstrips (which I intend to use quite a bit for future assignments) for our six-word memoirs so we will all begin the semester with our own cartoon avatars! I also used Prezi for some of the early messages I sent to students and introduced them to Powtoon so that we can break away from the idea that all presentations need to include a Powerpoint – and Powtoon is the perfect presentation tool for a cartoon-themed class after all. We also begin by creating me museums to expand on the six-word memoirs as a start to our getting-to-know-each-other conversation which will run through the week. Finally, I created our own Google+ community where we can share and communicate apart from the more formal classroom space in Blackboard. Using Google also gives us the ability to easily communicate through backchannels using Google chat and hangouts.

How do you create an online classroom community?