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Building a sense of community in digital learning environments

With current world events, I have never felt quite so popular as I do right now as a Learning Designer. In the last few weeks, I have been contacted far and wide from those seeking help to answer the following question, “How do I redesign my face-to-face classes in two days to be fully online?” With no time—and limited resources for a complete redesign overhaul—what can educators and facilitators prioritise to ensure the best possible student experience? Building a sense of community in digital learning environments is an essential component. Read on to learn more.

digital learning environments

Encouraging online participation

My short answer is: If you focus on building online participation you will enable a sense of belonging to the learning community which also affords learning. While it is simple in theory, it can be incredibly hard to execute in practice.

Firstly, digital learning environments generally operate in an asynchronous manner. One of the perks of the digital learning space is that learners and facilitators can jump in and participate in the learning environment at times that suit them. The challenge for Learning Designers is to design a digital learning space in a way that reflects the flow of a face-to-face classroom environment.

For this reason, I utilise two specific elements to create communities in digital learning spaces;

  • a live environment (e.g., online classes
  • asynchronous design elements (i.e., discussion boards).

[Oppida’s guest blogger Kyla Raby has written a fabulous blog on running an engaging and effective webinar which you can read here.]

Overcoming the challenges surrounding digital learning environments

The real challenge in building a community in digital learning environments is within the asynchronous elements. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll focus on discussion boards. The crux of this issue is that you need to participate and design the discussion forums in a way that makes it worth the learners while to show up in them. But how do we do that? 

1. Consistency is king

Make a plan for how you will show up and stick to it. For example, in my online teaching, I ensure I jump onto my discussion forums most days and I like to show up around the same time every day. I communicate my usual hours and how I will show up for my learners at the beginning of the course.

2. Plan and spend time encouraging students to be comfortable participating in the online space

In digital learning environments, use activities that are purposely designed to encourage participation in low-risk ways. For example, in the first couple of weeks use the discussion boards to deliver activities that don’t require a ‘right or wrong’ answer. In week 1, the activity could be about the learner introducing themselves to the community and seeking out things that they have in common with the other learners. 

3. Acknowledge that there are different ways to participate and contribute

In the face-to-face teaching environment, it becomes obvious pretty quickly which learners are comfortable presenting their ideas verbally in class. In digital learning environments, it’s harder to get a read on what students are engaging with. 

We need to be mindful that we can’t just assume our students are comfortable presenting their ideas in the online space. I always add in my responses that I acknowledge those reading the posts and not responding, and I tell them I hope they feel this is a safe space to participate should they choose to. With that in mind, I have a real aversion to mandating or assessing participation. It leaves the discussion board cold and clinical, rather than energetic and playful. 

4. Work to ensure students feel seen in the online community

When a student responds to a post or question, thank them by name and always add a response—such as, “I know there are a lot of people here who are reading your contributions and benefiting from them”. 

5. Show up

As the facilitator, it is important to recognise that, in digital learning environments, the learners are not going to simply participate without your presence. You need to lead by example and show up for them. 

In the first couple of weeks of the unit, this can be incredibly resource-intensive. But the time spent early on will make it a lot easier for the remainder of the online unit or course. Ways you can show up:

  • In the first week, respond directly and personably to each introduction post. 
  • In your responses always ask a follow-up question. Remember we are aiming to get the students to see the discussion board as a live environment which has new information that makes it worth their while to check-in frequently. This habit is formed early in the delivery. If you miss the window, you miss the window. 
  • If a student jumps in and responds to another student’s post or question, respond by thanking that student by name. This does two things, it acknowledges that you see the student helping, but the practices also makes learners aware that you are always checking to make sure the right information is distributed.

6. What if I am getting crickets on my discussion forum? 

So, how do you demonstrate that you are showing up for your students if they aren’t giving you anything to comment on? Remember it is key to build the learners habit of checking in and valuing the discussion board as a live space. So on the occasions where the learners aren’t showing up for me, I go to my bag of tricks of different fun resources. Share videos or talks from YouTube (which is a great resource for this), open up discussions surrounding news articles related to your discipline or topic, and encourage your learners to listen and discuss certain podcasts, etc.

By focusing on encouraging participation (rather than content expertise) in digital learning environments, students are able to develop a strong sense of belonging to their learning community. It is through this sense of belonging that learners start to feel safer within their learning environment and are subsequently more comfortable to ask questions and have a point of view. Use these 6 tips to build your online community and use your participation to lead by example to create energetic digital learning environments.