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How can I jump-start community building in my online course?
This KB document is part of a larger collection of documents on enhancing online education. More Enhancing Online Education resources.
As the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. Perhaps the most important part of fostering a community in your online course is establishing a welcoming environment and connecting with your learners as real people. Read on to learn strategies for promoting a welcoming environment that encourages relationship-building among course community members.
After reviewing this material, you will be able to:
- Explain the importance of a welcoming online environment.
- Create a welcome message for your learners.
- Prepare an icebreaker activity for your course.
[Note: The content you will explore here has been modified from its original version as an asynchronous micro-course offered to faculty in August 2022. Some language found in the following text and/or videos may refer to this course. Future offerings can be found at ctlm.wisc.edu/deepen-your-skills]
Establishing an online course community
Fostering an online community requires intention and consistency. Unlike an in-person classroom, you can’t rely on students to develop relationships simply by sitting beside each other. Instead, as the instructor, you must promote a welcoming environment that encourages sharing, trust-building, and open communication. There are two key actions that online teachers should take right away to establish an online course community:
- A welcome message that invites students into the course and establishes expectations of engagement.
- Activities that allow students to get to know one another and start to build relationships.
Although you may not be responsible for the instructional design work, there are many ideas for supporting and interacting with your online learners that you can incorporate into your welcome message and/or introductory activities. Read this article to learn more about The online course lead-in: Reimagining the first weeks of school (Alford, Vaughan, & Salzman, 2022) [via UW libraries; you will need to log in with your netID to access the article].
You might also skim through these ideas for online icebreakers from the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Iowa-Waterloo and take a moment to download the Ultimate List of Icebreakers for college from Top Hat (did you know you have access to Top Hat through UW?). Find something that will work for your course welcoming activities. Remember, this activity is primarily for your students to get to know each other and find connections to your content, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be present in the activity as well. Students appreciate knowing that you are learning more about them, too!
Create a Welcome Message
The Welcome message is one of the first things you’ll need to have ready for your online course. About a week before your course starts, you should send your welcome message to your students (you might also want to keep an eye on late enrollments).
What goes into a Welcome Message?
Your welcome message should be brief, informative, and enthusiastic. Here are some ideas:
Tell a little about yourself. You don’t have to get too personal, but you might include topics like your own academic journey, your research interests and current projects, things you like about working at your school. If you’re comfortable, you might talk about your hobbies, favorite things, and/or your family.
Get students excited about your course topic. Relate current events to your course materials and/or projects.
Explain the structure of your course. What should learners expect? Will you have synchronous sessions (and are they mandatory, or will they be recorded)? How often should learners log in to your course? What kinds of activities (independent and collaborative) will they be engaged with? You don’t have to list an entire course calendar; an overview of the typical week/day will be appreciated.
Provide the next steps. Tell learners what you want them to do next and provide direct links to those tasks. Make it easy for them to get started with your course. Direct them to review your syllabus, go through your course orientation, and participate in the introductory activity.
For additional ideas and resources, check out the Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository from the University of Central Florida.
One last tip: We recommend emailing this message directly to your learners. Provide additional steps to your online course in this message. Some students may not be familiar with a learning management system yet, so this is the best way to ensure you reach everyone.
Create your own welcome message and email it to your students at least a week before class. Go further by recording a video and using Kaltura to seamlessly integrate your introduction in Canvas.