How do You Create Community in an Online or Blended Learning Environment?
Student engagement is an essential quality of any learning environment in 2015. Students are entering both physical and virtual learning spaces with experience as gamers, social networkers, designers, collaborators, questioners, and researchers. What if instructors took those skills and created regular learning opportunities that called upon those traits as academic strengths? Would students feel more or less comfortable while learning? Would the process be familiar or foreign? Would students be more or less prepared for real-life scenarios in higher education or in a career? My guess is that the learning process would start to matter as much, if not more, than actual curriculum – and students just might start to care more deeply and more personally about formal education.
There are several ways that student engagement can occur in the online or blended environment. First, integrating audio and visual components to daily tasks and projects on a regular basis helps the virtual learners exhibit human qualities they possess. Hearing the voice of your teacher as she welcomes you for a unit of study, seeing the facial expression of a teammate, and actually experience laughter with each other in real time are all vivid connections between learners. Emotional connectivity deepens the learning and makes the content stick more personally in our memory. Additionally, teachers can encourage learners to connect on social media platforms (where appropriate) to allow for connections and commonalities to form quickly. Recognizing teammates as guys and girls who share pictures of their families, friends, and adventures can bond a group and make for trusting relationships. Finally, teachers who design learning projects that either require (a) collaboration or (b) peer comments and reviews creates an authentic audience for the work that isn’t naturally there in an online or blended environment. The thoughtful decisions of the instructor to bring in a sense of team and community on a regular basis makes the difference between a high and low quality learning experience.
Finally, teachers cannot underestimate the importance of careful curriculum design to bring in all learners to the conversation. As Bernard Bull tells us, “When it comes to the design of effective learning experiences, one provocative question is worth a hundred proclamations.” Regardless of the physical space, a learner is engaged when good questions are asked and all learners hold each other to a professional exchange of thoughts surrounding that questions. That being said, often times a traditional face-to-face learning experience is not designed with the more reticent, quiet students in mind. Even if an instructor creates ample opportunities for shared writing, discussion, and small group work, the quiet students can often time stay quiet. However, in an online or blended environment, all learners approach the activities with equal opportunities to participate, discuss, question, and share. It provides a platform that is level for all who have access to it. Therefore, online and blended teachers must dedicate time to building opportunities like these for her students on a regular basis, and diverse students needs will and can be met efficiently when these efforts are made.