Thursday, October 7, 2010

Finding the Right Community-Building Tools for Your Online Course

A throw back post from last mid-terms and eventually finals approach, these tools/ideas may be helpful in giving students a different way of digesting information.  Please drop by the Center for Academic Technology in Building 41 Room 106 if you'd like to find out more on these tools.

Finding the Right Community-Building Tools for Your Online Course
By Rob Kelly

There are many ways to create a sense of community within the online learning environment. The challenge is finding tools and techniques that suit your course without creating too much of a burden for you or your students.

The process of selecting the technology to create an online learning community should be “very purposeful so that it has meaning and adds value,” says Dr. Fran Cornelius, associate clinical professor at Drexel University.  Cornelius and her colleague Mary Gallagher-Gordon,  assistant clinical professor at Drexel University, recently spoke with Online Classroom about how they develop learning communities in their online courses using the following tool.

Voice email—Before a course begins, Cornelius sends students a voice email welcome message to set the tone for the course. Also, when giving students feedback on their assignments, she often includes a voice email message with the marked up assignment to reiterate the main points of her feedback and to “soften the blow because a lot of times a marked up paper can be very intimidating,” she says.

Voice board—Each course begins with an introduction. The instructors ask students to talk about where they live and work, where they see themselves in five years, and any other personal information they would like to share. Voice recordings convey personality. For example, one student recently had two young children lead a cheer and introduce the student. It was a unique way of introducing herself and clearly demonstrated that she likes children—something this student deemed an important part of who she is.

Once the course is in session, the voice board can also be used as a means for students to share their opinions.  “It’s a very good opportunity for students to very succinctly state a position. Like NPR’s ‘This I Believe,’ it forces them to be concise,” Cornelius says.

Photo gallery—Students have the option of posting photos of themselves to further convey something about who they are and what’s important to them.

Student cafĂ©—To encourage students to interact informally, Cornelius and Gallagher-Gordon set up private areas within Wimba, a collaborative online learning platform that features voice and text chat, breakout rooms, and other tools. There also is a program-wide area that serves the same function for a broader group of students. “It’s the virtual equivalent of the student union, and it’s off limits to faculty unless they are invited by the students,” Cornelius says.

Voice over PowerPoint—The purpose of narrated PowerPoint presentations is to provide students with content that they can access independently so that when they meet synchronously, the focus is on discussion rather than lecture.

Synchronous class sessions—Cornelius and Gallagher-Gordon use Wimba for their synchronous sessions. Like other virtual classroom platforms, it has several tools that can help create learning communities, including the ability to create breakout rooms for group work and a polling feature, which generates interaction similar to what occurs with face-to-face use of clickers.

“We don’t want to waste people’s time with content and activities that they can be doing independently. That’s really critical when planning those synchronous sessions. For us, it’s very important philosophically to have students to be able to think on their feet. If you have a synchronous session and you pose questions and generate discussion students have to articulate their positions and be able to pull the information together and connect the dots in a more spontaneous situation,” Cornelius says.

In addition to synchronous class sessions, Cornelius and Gallagher-Gordon encourage students to meet within Wimba independently to work on group projects. “If it is a group project, we tell students that it might be easier to be in the same time zone or to have the same clinical background—some variable that pulls them in,” Gallagher-Gordon says. “They come back from [these breakout rooms] with strong relationships. They find out that these are the people from their last couple of classes who they have never spoken to. A lot of times it’s online in a room using Wimba where we first see communities develop.”

Blogs—Cornelius and Gallagher-Gordon primarily have students use blogs for their private journals, which encourages them to reflect on the learning experience.

Wikis—They use wikis for collaborative writing and, in the case of an education course, students create a course within a wiki. “The wiki allows the students to utilize a wide variety of available tools to create an interactive online course, which at the end of the term becomes public and is peer critiqued,” Cornelius says.

Virtual office hours—Cornelius and Gallagher-Gordon often develop mentoring relationships with students that continue after a course has ended. One tool that has helped facilitate these relationships is the virtual office hours, which they conduct in Wimba.

Contact Fran Cornelius at and Mary Gallagher-Gordon at

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