photograph of an empty canoe on the shore, but pointed out toward the water seeming ready to go

Image: A photograph of an empty row boat at shore, pointing out toward the open water. Photograph in the public domain.

To embark on a journey into the wilderness in the absence of human companions and guides can prove to be a very lonely experience for many people. Feelings of isolation may even drive us to give up and go back to where we were. While we might not anticipate it, the same can be said for a learning journey. Learning, like paddling, is best done with others.

The degree to which students feel connected to the course, their peers, and their instructor plays a large role in their ability to complete an online course successfully. Your students will find online learning more engaging and meaningful when the sense of community they enjoy with their peers and instructors on campus in class extends to the online learning space as well.

While faculty teaching face-to-face courses have the built in benefit of sharing time "on the ground" in class each week, thoughtful designed online courses can also support student connection, engagement, and presence. Below we share a collection of readings and examples that focus on course design and pedagogies that effectively cultivate presence.

The idea of "presence" comes from the Community of Inquiry model and builds on theories of teaching and learning from Dewey to Chickering and Gamson, and more recent research on the psychological and sociological aspects of technology and learning. In sum, students' success in an online environment relates to how present and engaged both the instructor and the students are in the virtual space. In the Faculty Focus article, What Online Teachers Need to Know, all four of the basic elements listed there are part of online presence.

Collaboration Online

The relationship between instructor and students is a key component of a successful online course. Equally essential for student learning, however, are the relationships students are able to build with one another within the online space. Creating opportunities for students to know each other, learn together, share their stories and experiences, and strengthen the online network of classroom support is no small task and often requires faculty to engage teaching strategies and tools that are not often required (although might be beneficial!) in a face-to-face classroom.

To build community and open communication among students, there are numerous platforms that are available: discussion boards, google docs, blogs, and real time (synchronous) virtual sessions.

How to choose?

First, identify your desired outcome. Revisiting the learning goals and outcomes from your course map should be the first step toward choosing tools/platforms to integrate into your course.

What are you trying to achieve?

  • Creating a sense of community and connection?
  • Collaboration among students?
  • Reflection on a reading or course theme?
  • Getting help?
Then, identify the tool that is most appropriate for your goals.

Collaborative editing and writing tools like Google Apps suite offer excellent strategies for supporting student engagement and helping them build relationships with one another in an online course. These tools are easy to engage and most students will have little to no learning curve to joining the conversation. Each of these items will foster and support student interaction in (hopefully) meaningful ways with each other as they engage with course materials and/or their own writing and reflection.

Engaging All Learners

Universal Design for Learning aims to ensure that course content and activities are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles. Principles of Universal Design compliment the other practices that faculty engage to create a classroom environment that values diverse learners and is inclusive. While many students at Muhlenberg are accustomed to navigating student support services and disability-related accommodations, online learning can present different challenges and faculty teaching online should encourage students, with a statement on their syllabus, to meet with you to discuss any special learning needs.

Planning for accessibility doesn't automatically mean creating multiple versions or discarding activities, assignments, or content up-front because it could be inaccessible for certain students. It means thinking through how to make course materials and experiences accessible for diverse students who might register for your class.

As you plan and prepare activities and assignments in your online course, think through how they may provide challenges to students with visual, hearing, or motor disabilities.

  • What specific parts of the activity/assignment may be problematic?
  • How could you potentially revise the activity/assignment to improve accessibility?
  • What might an alternate version of the activity/assignment look like that would still meet the learning outcomes but eliminate the accessibility issues.

We have created a simple accessibility checklist for you to use when setting up your course. This checklist includes a resource list to helpful websites that can check your design and content.

Your Trail Guide

For guidance and support on the path to developing your online course, we encourage you to use Open SUNY Course Quality Review (OSCQR) every step of the way. OSCQR helps ensure quality in online course design through its standards and robust repository of helpful resources and examples. More about OSCQR can be found at https://oscqr.suny.edu/

Specific quality standards related to interaction, can be found here:

OSCQR items 38-43

Continue on to learn about Active Learning.