Three Tools for Building Community in an Asynchronous Classroom

While the techniques we use to foster community in the face-to-face classroom are not always a one-to-one translation within the online classroom, communication is still key to building a student-centered classroom. Learning Innovation has offered workshops and published guiding principles that focus on building asynchronous community, particularly focusing on best use practices for Sakai Forums.

In addition to Sakai Forums, there are other tools that can be used to foster community in the classroom. For example, Duke is piloting the digital annotation tool, and Duke-supported tools such as Sites@Duke (a WordPress-based website builder for instructors and students) and VoiceThread (a multimedia presentation and discussion tool) are also available. These tools can help you design assignments that can purposefully foster student communication. Importantly, you should think of how these tools can be used as part of your plans for authentic assessment to help your students achieve the course’s learning outcomes

Use to Connect Students Through Reading

If you distribute your readings to students through Sakai, you can use the digital annotation tool to create opportunities for your students to read actively as a community. allows your students to think collaboratively about a text, as each person leaves annotations that are shareable with everyone else. Using not only encourages interaction and shared thought between your students as they read, but can also be an opportunity for you to connect with your students, particularly if you do not have live sessions. If you do have live sessions, using will give you the opportunity to see what may be most beneficial to cover during your synchronous time, and students will be prepared to participate because they have already done critical thinking through their annotations. is now integrated with Sakai. After ending the 2020-21 pilot, Duke reached an agreement with for a limited license for the 2021-22 academic year. If you are interested in having added to your Sakai course site, please email us at

To make your document available for annotation, you will need to set up through Sakai Lessons (see a walkthrough of the process).  Importantly, you will need to follow this process for each document or webpage you want students to annotate separately. The PDF documents and webpages that work in are those that are accessible on the web, uploaded to Sakai Resources and made publicly viewable or uploaded to Google Drive. All PDFs will need to be OCR-optimized, so can recognize the text; you can learn more about this process at support: how to OCR-optimize PDFs and Duke Web Accessibility: PDF Accessibility Demystified in 8 minutes. Once the document or webpage has been successfully integrated with, it is ready for you and your students to annotate. 

Collaborative annotation opens up instructional possibilities across the disciplines. By integrating your course readings with class annotation, you could use to:

  • Embed open-ended questions in the text that prompt student analysis
  • Provide explanations to students that might help them understand difficult portions of the material
  • Encourage students to ask their own questions that could be answered by instructors or peers
  • Hold conversations in the text by replying to others
  • Gain an understanding of how your students are consuming the texts based on their annotations
  • Integrate relevant multimedia by posting images and video in annotations provides a Teacher Resource Guide, which includes both technical and instructional assistance, including examples of students annotating a wide variety of texts (novels, scientific journal articles, court cases, etc.). The video series Liquid Margins also features conversations with instructors and learning consultants that discusses how can be used for a variety of disciplines (including math, history and languages) and class sizes. At Duke, has been integrated with the Sakai Gradebook, which allows instructors to easily give students credit for their work. 

Use Sites@Duke to Design Interactive Assignments

If you are designing a course with either online components or a class that is fully online, you may be able to take advantage of this medium by creating digital assignments. Depending on your course’s learning objectives, having students create their own websites might be a project that also teaches them professional skills. Sites@Duke (powered by WordPress) allows members of the Duke community to build their own websites.

Instructors and students can use Sites@Duke to build:

  • Individual blogs that reflect on content related to the course
  • Student e-portfolios
  • Course project websites centered around a theme
  • Podcast websites

Blogs in particular fit well with a class that has asynchronous components, as the genre of writing is meant to be short, reflective and are meant to spark conversations among readers.The University of Wisconsin-Stout has a sample blog rubric that might guide you in purposefully designing such assignments. 

Bloggers using Sites@Duke can enable comments, which allows for students and instructors to engage with each others’ work. (Note: If your students’ projects will be public, you need them to each sign a release form. Please see Duke ScholarWorks for a model form.) This has the benefit of you being able to design an assignment that helps students practice public-facing writing (a skill that you can emphasize as transferable), as well as opening up discussion of course topics within your class. For example, if you have students write a blog post before holding a synchronous Zoom session, you will know your students will be prepared to participate in discussion by building off what they and their classmates originally wrote. Allowing students who might find speaking up during Zoom discussions difficult to leave comments on their peers’ blog posts also opens up new lines of participation. 

Use VoiceThread for Multi-Modal Communication

If you want to incorporate multimedia into your classroom in the form of Powerpoint presentations, short video clips, music or images, then VoiceThread, integrated with Sakai at Duke, could invite students to engage with these materials more interactively. You can see examples of VoiceThread projects in the VoiceThread Digital Library.

Instructors and students can use VoiceThread to:

  • Create presentations
  • Leave voice, video or text comments on VoiceThreads
  • Provide feedback on works in progress
  • Practice their speaking and reading skills in the language classroom

Rather than having students simply watch a Powerpoint presentation asynchronously, for example, you can use VoiceThread to make this component of the course more active. By asking students to leave comments on the VoiceThreads you create, you will be able to see what parts of the material students engaged with and how. Providing students guidelines, like this VoiceThread comment sample rubric, will also clarify for students what types of comments are appropriate. 

Final Tips

While these educational tools (and many others) can enhance the online learning experience, choose tools that are effective and accessible to your students. If you are interested in integrating a new tool into your course, be sure you can model assignments for your students and that you have the skills to help them navigate learning the tool. You also will want to limit the number of tools you introduce into your classroom so you do not overwhelm students. 

For more information on how to purposefully integrate tools into the classroom, please see the Flexible Teaching Guide to Course Delivery.

For one-on-one help with Spring course design, you can visit Learning Innovation office hours every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1-3 p.m. EDT at