Faculty Focus


Developing Online Learning Communities with Faculty and Students

In a recent faculty-development program focusing on online learning, the number one request from participants was “How do I create a sense of community in my online course?” Online tools and technologies can help us create a sense of community to enhance teaching and learning at our institution. The following are benefits of such an undertaking:

  • Keeping our audiences in contact with us, and with each other, will have long-lasting benefits for teaching and learning.
  • By using online tools to foster and establish communities among faculty, we can model behaviors in terms of best practices for establishing these communities within a course setting.

In traditional faculty-development events, faculty participate in one-off workshops or a series of workshops and seminars. Online technologies now have the ability to take these “one-off” faculty-development events, and turn them into a continuous, community-building experience that continues to support faculty over a much longer time. Let’s examine two examples that show a great deal of promise toward the development of an online community to support faculty in teaching and learning.

One example is the use of online discussion boards to support Online Learning 4000 (OL 4000), a course designed to assist faculty in developing their own online courses. Faculty used discussion forums for basic introductions but also used them to post things like lesson plans, syllabi, and outlines for feedback from both the facilitators and colleagues. Participants unanimously requested the online course section remain open, so they could not only continue to download resources but also to continue interacting with one another via the forums.

A second example is the incorporation of a course blog in a multi-session, blended or face-to-face Course in College Teaching (CCT). Over eight weeks, faculty participants used a course blog to access online resources, discuss issues that were of interest, continue discussions that began during a regular session, and respond to prompts presented as part of the blended course session plans. Participants found the blog to be a place to share ideas, vent frustrations about teaching and learning, raise questions, and interact with one another. Multiple participants in the blended course requested that the blog remain available so they could revisit it and continue discussions. In the face-to-face section of the course, blog interaction was encouraged but not required. Still, of the 25 active participants, 20 different commenters and authors posted 35 entries and 75 comments to the course blog.

An important aspect of building an online community is that the facilitators need to model the behaviors necessary to establish, and then expand, the community. In both of the examples above, the facilitators spent significant time not only creating blog entries and starting discussions, but also leaving comments and messages on the participants’ contributions. The efforts put forth by the facilitators encouraged participants to contribute not only in the form of responses to facilitator-created questions, but to also post new ideas on their own and interact with one another. By putting forth a dedicated effort early in the course to use the two mediums regularly, interacting with most of the participants online, the facilitators created a foundation for the online community that participants then began to build upon.

Moving forward, we are exploring the idea of workshop or seminar “alumni.” What this means is that after a faculty member or graduate student participates in any event, they have an all-access pass to continue to interact not only with their own cohort, but cohorts that came before them and cohorts that will come after them. With the CCT, the blog can remain intact from semester to semester, and participants continue to have the ability to post and comment in this space even after completing the CCT experience. This can create a larger network of faculty that want to engage in teaching and learning topics, and also expand the online community, with each semester bringing more and more faculty into the mix. OL 4000 was run within our Course Management System, which typically closes down each course section after the completion date. Instead, we are opting to keep this course open, allowing past participants to continue to engage in dialog and stay in contact with one another, as well as interact and share ideas with new members of the course in upcoming offerings.

This method of faculty development can take many isolated instructional events and turn them into long-standing development opportunities to greatly increase engagement around teaching and learning. Creating online communities is difficult, but by modeling behavior early we can provide the foundation for faculty to build upon, creating an environment where they can stay engaged with one another and with us. Finally, we are illustrating some of the behaviors necessary to foster an online community that a model faculty can then take to their courses and re-use to foster and create student-centered communities around course content.

Barton K. Pursel is an undergraduate education and instructional researcher and Crystal Ramsay is an instructional consultant both at The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at The Pennsylvania State University.

Reprinted from “Developing Learning Communities with Faculty and Students.” Online Classroom, (October 2011): 3.