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Part II – Community Building

Students need to feel that they are in a safe learning environment in order to be active participants in a class. Building a sense of community is a good way to create this type of environment. The sense of community if essential also for a virtual environment to be effective. In a normal course a community feeling would develop naturally as students spent more time together in the classroom environment. In a web course the instructor needs to play a more active role in community building to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction. They need to make the students feel as members of the group by engaging them in activities that are comprehensible, interesting and confidence building for the students (Fisher, 2003).

Student Introductions and Photos

It is easier for the students to collaborate, discuss and share their ideas if they know some basic information about their peers and are able to connect names with faces. Knowing the students also helps the teachers with their work, e.g. when evaluating students' progress. Thus, in the beginning of the project the students should prepare presentations (with a picture) about themselves, preferably in a creative way that tells something personal about themselves. This type of assignment can be done either individually or in small groups. In addition, the teacher should encourage students to communicate with each other both online and offline if possible (exchanging phone numbers, meeting in person, using email, chat etc (Thompson & Ku, 2005).

For example, students can introduce themselves using the following presentation styles:

  • Comic book
  • Puzzles
  • PowerPoint
  • Prezi
  • Short story
  • Video

Besides the above mentioned possibilities, it should be kept in mind that social networking tools allow the use of closed groups and provide a way for a group to communicate in a less academic way and to get to know each other better. There one can easily connect a name with a picture and see what the person is up to. Social networks are used for more personal level, therefore depening on the duration of the project and the purpose of the group it can easily be determined whether a more formal presentation is more apporpriate or is there room for more private familiarization. 

Rules for communication

One important aspect of safe learning environment and sense of community is respectful communication. The students need to feel that their opinions will be respected even when they are not the opinions of the majority. A teacher's task is to make the students understand the importance of respect and trust. He/she also should ask to be informed if there are larger issues in study groups that cannot be resolved. However, the students should be, themselves, responsible for constant, effective and respectful communication (Fisher, 2003). 

Ice Breakers

Ice breakers are activities that help students become comfortable with one another in a non-threaening manner. On the other hand, ice breaker activities bring the teacher closer the students and show him/her as a real person. Ice breakers are a fun way to start creating a sense of community. With the help of social ice breakers the students are enouraged to share their opinions in a climate that establishes tolerance and acceptance of different ways to communicate and creates mutual respect and trust among students. In a classroom environment they usually take the form of an educational game or group task. (Fisher, 2003, p. 80, 82)

Some examples of ice breakers that can be used in a web-course are:

  • Scavenger Hunt

Students can work in small teams to find items and upload digital pictures.

  • Madlibs

Each student is required to fill in a madlib, chosen by the instructor, and post it. Then the students must choose the person who has their favorite answers and explain why.

  • Two Truths and One Lie

Students would have to post two truths and one lie about themselves. Then everyone would have to guess which statement is a lie.

  • Survey Questions

For example "List three websites that you visit daily".

  • Seven nouns activity

Students introduce themselves using seven nouns and explain why they choose each noun (Ibid, p. 83-84).

  • Itsy Bitsy Spider

Students would compare the song "Itsy Bitsy Spider" to their own careers. They are encouraged to talk about failures. This activity is to show that everyone has failures and that they are ok (Ibid). 

Small Groups

Because international web courses often include large numbers of students, it is a good idea to assign students to small groups in order to facilitate community building. It is not necessary that students stay in the same group for the duration of the class. In fact, groups can be shifted a few times during the course in order to make sure that students are being exposed to diverse ideas and perspectives.

Students should have opportunities to work in small groups, so that they can experience giving and receiving feedback (Thompson & Ku, 2005). Vygotsky's notion of zone of proximal development (1978) can be applied in online learning because it is beneficial for learners to receive knowledge and assistance from learned peers. In addition to feedback the size of a group affects idea generation. In computer-mediated communication (CMC) successful task accomplishment requires contributions from all group members. When the group size remains small enough the group members feel the group to be efficient (Carabajal, LaPointe & Gunawardena, 2003). The group size should be small enough for all group members to be heard but also big enough to have diverse thoughts (Fisher, 2003)

Students can be organized in smaller groups based on different methods depending on the goal and purpose of the activities assigned for the group. For activites aiming at students to get to know one another the best method to organize students in groups is a random method, such as based on alphabetical order. This prevents people with prior friendship from being grouped together. Another kind of method is to organize students by having them select a group by subspeciality, type of project, a book of interest etc. In this way groups are formed with students sharing mutual interest in the topic and may heighten motivation. In some cases a teacher may want to mix students purposefully to balance technological skills, leadership ability, subject-matter expertise and diversity (Ibid). 

It is up to the teacher to make the critearia for assigning people to groups. Depending on the task to be done, the teacher should choose whether synchronous tools like instant messaging are most appropriate for it - in that case Skype or MSN or Google Chat could be used, or if it falls into the asynchronus category tools like Wikis (for collaborative writing), Weblogs (for individual or group study posts) could be used. It can be up to the teacher or student's themselves to find a proper communication and collaboration tool for their task.

Pre-Project Discussions

Another way to help build a real community with students in a web course is by holding pre-project discussions. Pre-project discussions don't need to be directly related to the project. They can cover topics that will help the students to develop new perspectives on a range of topics. 

For discussions, a good way might be to use instant messaging tools or some other ways to communicate that can be commonly used for a group. If online communication is not possible for some reason, then the collaboration tools support the communication as well. It should be however clear how long the community or project is going to last. For short term projects instant messaging shoud very well cover the communication needs, however for multiple year projects perhaps a forum could be created. There people can share their thoughts, create questions, discuss specific topics and everything can be categorized for later reviewing. However, forums only make sense if the group is dedicated to building up a community and staying active there. 

Synchronous Chats

Asynchronous chats are useful in a web course because they give students the opportunity to revisit and ponder what was said during a group conversation, but synchronous chats can still be used to help students feel a more immediate connection with one another. Synchronous chats can be done using either video, audio or instant messaging. As web courses can have rather large numbers of partcipants, it is a good idea to assign students to small groups for these types of interactions.

Online discussions enable everyone to speak at the same time whereas in a traditional classroom group only about 35 percent of the participants can have their input during an average one-hour, face-to-face discussion. As a consequence, in online discussions more students become active participants in the learning process (Fisher, 2003). 

What kind of tools and environments for communication will be used depends on the group or if the majority of the group is more used to some specific tool, like Skype, then it is likely that the rest of the group will follow. Synchronus chats typically allow instant messaging, audio chat, video chat, file sharing, screen sharing, which are all very useful for a group work. 


Carabajal, K., LaPointe, D., & Gunawardena, C. N. Group Development in Online Learning Communities. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds), Handbook of distance education (pp. 217-234). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Fisher, M. (2003). Designing Courses and Teaching on the Web: a "how to" guide to proven, innovative strategies. ScarecrowEducation.
Thompson, L., & Ku, H-Y. (2005). Chinese graduate students' experiences and attitudes toward online learning. Educational Media International, 42(1), 33-47. doi:10.1080/09523980500116878
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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