How can three people take the same online course but finish with a completely different learning experience? The decisions, actions, beliefs and attitudes of each student shape a great deal of the overall experience in an online class (or any type of class). The design of the course and the actions of the teacher are important. However, the student’s contributions make all the difference between feeling disconnected and impersonal, or experiencing a deep sense of connection with others in the class. Here are seven tips you help you feel like that second student.
- Communicate Early and Often- Threaded discussions in online classes provide powerful communication benefits that are not available in real-time communication. You can revisit past conversations with ease. You can take your time to think and carefully craft your response to a discussion. You even have a document recorded of communications. Given these benefits, have you ever been in an online course where some classmates wait until the end of the week to start participating? That is like going to a face-to-face class and not saying a word until the last ten minutes of the session. All of a sudden, you spout out all of the ideas and comments that came to mind from different parts of the class. Doesn’t that miss the idea of a two-way conversation? The same thing happens in an online threaded discussion unless you do something to prevent it. Log in several times a week to comment, read, reflect, and comment further. You will help create a more vibrant and authentic conversation for everyone by being an active member of the community. You will show deeper interest and respect for your co-learners. You will learn more from others. You will allow others to learn from you.
- Be Really Curious- There is a time to speak and a time to listen. Listening is how we show genuine interest in others. It is also how we learn from others. Imagine that you are on a first date, trying to be on your best behavior. This means listening as much or more than talking. It means asking good and genuine questions. It means making it a priority to show the other person that you care about them and what they have to say. Take on this attitude in an online class and you will quickly build positive, maybe even long-lasting relationships with others.
- Look for and Reach out to Specific Individuals- As you go through a course, you will discover that you relate with the goals and interests of other people. You will also notice students with different perspectives or backgrounds. These are people you can learn from. Reach out to them. Send the classmate a private message. Share what you appreciate about their comments. Invite them to connect beyond the course (via Twitter, email, etc.). Explain that you hope to stay in contact, sharing ideas and learning from one another.
- Self-Organize Student Activities- You are not limited to the formal activities of a course. Why not try to arrange an informal study group, a Google Hangout to touch base and further discuss ideas from the class, set up a Twitter hash tag to exchange ideas, create a forum outside the formal class, or create a way to explore a topic that is interesting but does not fit in the planned course discussions? This will help you build a stronger sense of community and it parallels the sort of informal group meetings that happen at many face-to-face institutions.
- Encourage and Affirm- Online course discussions can get content-focused, which has benefits. It also has a downside. Some early studies about online communication in the workplace show that online collaboration was more task-oriented with fewer “relational” comments. One way to be relational and content-focused at the same time is to share words of encouragement and affirmation with co-learners. Share what you appreciated about their perspective, comments, examples, and illustrations. Let them know when and how their comments help you, and thank them for it. Go beyond “Great idea!” comments. Be specific and descriptive. Instead of telling them that an idea is helpful, explain why or how it is helpful. If you think they have an interesting perspective, tell them why you think it is interesting. Give details. Share anecdotes and stories as you encourage and affirm.
- Challenge and Question- On the flip side, we want to nurture a rigorous learning community. That means disagreeing, challenging and questioning in gentle and respectful ways. Much learning takes place as we contrast our understanding with that of others. These contrasts join us in a mutual pursuit of truth and more accurate understanding of the subject.
- Build Upon the Ideas of Others- In some online classes, comments seem like a disconnected collection of individual posts, often driven by the desire to craft a post that meets the instructor’s expectations and earns a high grade. While this is a reality in many online courses, do not let it prevent you from taking things a step further. Turn posts into a dynamic conversation. A great way to do this is to build upon the ideas of others. Take an idea that another shares and add a new example, illustration, or further explanation of the idea. As more people do this, we see progress and discovery through online discussion. We turn disjointed comments into a meaning group discussion.
There are many ways to be an active learner in an online course, but these seven give you simple starting points. Try them out see how it goes. Consider it a social experiment. You will feel more connected to others. You will make the class a more vibrant and positive experience for everyone. You will also increase your chances of building deep and positive relationships that last beyond graduation.