Building Community in Asynchronous Online Courses

In the face of the current Coronavirus outbreak, Duke Kunshan University (DKU) is moving all classroom instruction online. In order to support this effort, Duke Learning Innovation and DKU’s Center for Teaching and Learning are creating materials to help faculty effectively transition their traditionally in-person courses to an exclusively online environment. We will share some of these materials via our blog in the coming weeks. Read more about the entire effort in this Duke Today article.

Welcome students to class

  • Students in online classes “come into” the online course through the course homepage, like students in face-to-face classes enter through the classroom door. Be sure there’s a welcome statement on the course homepage, and that it’s clear to students from the homepage what to do or read first, where they will find what they need, and how to get their questions answered. 
  • Ask students to introduce themselves in a discussion forum for that purpose, including a photo or short video, and an audio pronunciation of their names. Post your own introduction, with a greeting for your students.
  • Since your students are used to being able to connect with you directly in person, it is important to clearly explain to them how they can “virtually” contact you; when and how will you hold office hours, what are the best ways to contact you other than office hours, and how they can get help if needed.

Set expectations

  • Be very clear about your expectations for activities and assignments. A key aspect of online courses is that instructions and expectations need to be exceedingly clear and consistent. Thoroughly explain each step of assignments so there is no confusion about what to do, where to post, etc. Explain how you will handle due dates and assignment deadlines (including the time zone you’re using when you set the due date and time). Link to any necessary technical tutorial documents that students should view to complete course activities and assignments (these normally already exist; you shouldn’t have to create them yourself).
  • Generally, put yourselves in your students’ shoes and think about what information they will need to do the work you hope they will do in your course. 

Foster respectful discussions

  • Use a set of community discussion guidelines designed for online courses to make clear to students what the expectations are for written and verbal discussions in an online classroom. You could have students agree to the standards, discuss them and propose additions, or just have a brief Q&A about them. See an example set of discussion guidelines here.
  • To build an active, connected community where students care about their peers, consider having a “social” discussion forum (sometimes called a “water cooler,” “break room” or similar) for non-class-related conversation. DKU students may do this in WeChat groups, but having an option for it in the course site may also be welcome. 

Organize and manage online discussion forums

  • A key tool in asynchronous teaching is the discussion forum, where students can respond to prompts, summarize their understanding, ask and answer peers’ questions, and “think in writing” about any course content. Ideally, online courses use discussion forums frequently to engage students in critical writing and analysis. 
  • Asynchronous discussions allow wonderful, rich interactions around course content and topics, and are particularly supportive for introverted students, those who have the class language (English, at DKU) as a second language, or who need time to process and develop their thoughts before responding.
  • Rather than having students respond only to the instructor (by answering a posted prompt, for example), have students post their own response and also read and respond to others’ prompts in order to build rich discussion threads.
  • Be sure to consider the volume of others’ posts that you are asking your students to read. If you have a class with 20 students, each of whom is asked to write a half-page to a page in response to a prompt, that can be a lot of additional reading and thoughtful commentary you are asking students to do, one or more times a week. Instead, consider breaking students into smaller groups of 6-8 students to discuss a prompt together – each group could perhaps post a summary of their key outcomes into a main course forum. 
  • You can also assign students roles which vary by week. For example, different students may be assigned to post a readings summary one week, to take a “pro” or a “con” stance on an issue, to post an initial response to a prompt, to post a follow-up, to design some sample assessment questions about the readings, or other activities – with roles rotating in different weeks. Each student is doing SOMETHING each week, but each may not be doing all of the tasks. 

Hold office hours, and reach out

  • Schedule online office hours once or twice a week at different times of day to accommodate students in different time zones. DKU faculty can use Zoom for live office hours; use Zoom’s waiting room feature with your personal Zoom meeting room to control which student enters your meeting room for 1:1 meetings.
  • If you find that you’re not hearing from some students frequently in live class meetings, you can set up some short reserved time slots and have students sign up, to get a better sense of how they are doing and what they need more information about.
  • Overall, learning online can feel disconnected to some students, so encourage student-student and student-instructor interaction and sharing in as many ways as possible. Consider more frequent announcements with reminders, check-ins, updates for the students. If there are social media tools or other ways that students use to stay connected, consider whether to have a class space in those tools, or a class “handle” for ad hoc interactions (but do set guidelines for the types of information to be posted in these tools – social only? or is academic content and discussion ok?)

Use synchronous class sessions for interaction

  • Often in online classes, synchronous class meeting times are reduced (or eliminated) compared to traditional face-to-face classes. This means it’s even more important to use the virtual class meeting time for interaction rather than content presentation.
  • Instead of lecturing in your virtual class meeting, assign readings or pre-recorded videos that cover your usual lecture content, along with problems or prompts based on the material for students to work through on their own. Students can read or view ahead of time and be ready to discuss or ask questions when the class meets live (this “flipped” mode works well online – students can absorb their first exposure to the course content at their own pace prior to “class,” and then in the short, live sessions the focus can be on diving deeper).
  • Before a live online session, ask the students to send you questions and to identify difficulties they had with the assigned readings or problems.  During synchronous sessions, use the time to answer questions and guide the students through common misconceptions on the assigned material and problems, rather than lecturing.

Design online courses for student learning

  • When faculty first transition traditional classes to online, mostly asynchronous courses, they can find it difficult to conceptualize what the class will be like without in-class time. It’s a good reminder that, even for traditional face-to-face courses, most of students’ engagement with the course materials and activities is asynchronous (outside of the classroom, on their own time).
  • To think about how to move a class online, start by focusing on the existing learning objectives for your course. In your learning objectives, you have already stated what you want students to know and be able to do as a result of your course. Consider whether those will now need to change due to the change in course modality. Think creatively about how the same learning objectives could be accomplished in an online, mostly-asynchronous environment – you might be surprised by how little your planned course activities need to change.
  • Use individual assignments as an opportunity for students to engage with your topic, rather than just asking them to read or work through problems. 
  • Give your students a case study or experiment to carry out or a multi-step problem they must solve through reading different material or watching videos that show the stages and steps involved.
  • Give students assignments that require them to work together outside of a synchronous session to solve a problem.  Students can work together in ways that are accessible to them – chat, Zoom, email, or other tools.  You can ask the groups to briefly report on their results at the next synchronous session, or in the discussion forum. 
Seth Anderson

Author: Seth Anderson

Seth works with faculty in the Humanities, and across the university, in order to help them improve pedagogy and enhance meaningful student learning.  His interests include active learning techniques, the educational use of mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.), wearable technology, online course development and delivery, digital video and imagery, virtual and augmented reality, and Web-based educational tools.