Creating Community in an Online Learning Setting

Josh Duke


On April 24, Dr. Vanessa Dennen gave a webinar on the subject of "Creating Community in an Online Learning Setting." You can watch the video of the presentation here:

Dr. Vanessa Dennen is a professor of Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies (ISLT). You can also learn more about our ISLT program here. Recently ranked as the best online graduate program in the field by U.S. News and World Report, the ISLT program at the FSU College of Education prepares graduates for meaningful and highly in-demand careers in instructional design, performance improvement, learning technologies and more. 

The transcription of the video follows:

Jennie Kroeger: Good afternoon. My name is Jennie Kroeger, and I'm the communications director for the FSU College of Education. I want to thank you all for joining us today for our presentation on building community in an online learning setting. We're excited to be able to provide this webinar, and we really hope it helps you as we navigate through this new education territory we're in right now. Before I hand things over to Dr. Dennen, I want to do a little housekeeping. We ask that you please leave your microphone on mute. We will be having a Q&A after the presentation, but if you have a question, in the meantime, we encourage you to post them in the chat. We also ask that if you have not done so yet please turn off your video just in case we encounter some bandwidth problems, and finally this webinar is being recorded, so we'll be sending out a recording and a transcript as soon as we can along with a brief survey afterwards. So I think that covers everything. Without further ado, it's my pleasure to introduce our featured speaker, Dr. Vanessa Dennen.


Vanessa Dennen: Hi, everybody. It's great to have so many people here today and I would like to start out by telling you a little bit about what I'm going to cover today and why I'm going to cover this topic. So we'll be talking about how to create community in an online learning setting and it's a really important thing in an online class because if you don't have a strong sense of community created in that class, you're going to find that students start to drift away from the class. So we need to find ways that we can be connecting with students and making that online space just as much of a space that we want to visit as we would consider our classroom spaces.

Just to give you a little bit of information about my own background and why I'm the person here today speaking about this, I've been teaching online since the last century. I always love to say it that way. It sounds totally impressive, doesn't it? But that gives me more than 20 years at this point of teaching online. I have had some experiences as an online learner as well, which has been really formative in understanding what it's like to be in an online class. And this is also been my area of scholarship. What you see on the screen right now are two books that I have edited on online informal learning and social presence and identity online, and I'm also the editor-in-chief of the Internet and Higher Education. So all of that is to say I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about what it means to communicate, learn, interact with other people in online settings.

Emergency Management Cycle

I need to take a moment also to acknowledge where we are right now, and we're at a really unusual time for education. The image that you see on the screen here is an emergency management cycle. I've actually done some work with emergency management over the years, and I immediately started making the connection with what I see in education right now. We're not at the point of mitigation. We're not at a time of preparedness. We hit a crisis, and it put us straight into response mode. For many of us that meant response for classes that were already well underway, and we had to pivot and make a change in the short term. That change has been less than ideal for a lot of us. Not only to stress we’ve been under and all of these other changes that we’re experiencing in our lives, but when a class is established and underway in one way and then we have to change everything midstream, that's very disconcerting. It's difficult for people, and those of you who have had to do that so far, it's a lot of work and, you know, please along the way while I'm talking, feel free to chime in the chat if you want to. I know many of you have been putting in this hard work.

As we start to move into the next term, we're starting to move from a response phase to a recovery phase, because this change that has happened is already established, and yet what's interesting about it is we're not doing a change to establish classes; we have brand new classes, so we have to establish community, identity, presence—all of these things from the very beginning for these new classes. That's the opportunity that we have at this moment.

Make no mistake: this remote teaching moment that we're in is nowhere near actual online learning, where we spend an awful lot of time getting classes and materials prepared to be online and instructors engage in professional development so that they're fully prepared to be teaching online, and instructors and learners have willingly opted into being online teachers and learners. That's not the moment that we're in right now, but we're doing the best we can in this situation, and hopefully some of the ideas that I'm going to share with you this afternoon will help you do the best that you can.

One of the things I keep telling everybody since we're teaching at a time of crisis is, it's so important that we put people first in this equation, and that's why what I'm focusing on today is people. There are all sorts of things that I could share with you about content and about technology, and I love technology, and it's a lot of fun to work with different people's content, but the people are the most important part of the learning equation. If the people aren't ready to learn, if their other needs aren't being met, then there's no way that we're going to get to the content, and the technology really is just the means to an end. We can do things super high-tech and use the latest tools. We can do things super low-tech, and that's fine as well. It doesn't really matter as long as we're getting the job done. We're meeting the needs of people, and in a learning setting we have them engaging with the course content.

Transactional Distance

So with that in mind, I'm going to be really practical today, but there is one theory that I want to introduce to you because it really frames this whole idea of online community and why it's so important. This is the theory of transactional distance. It's just what it sounds like. So whenever we talk to each other we're transacting, and there can be a perception of distance there. We're in a face-to-face setting. It's pretty direct. We all see each other and we are getting immediate feedback. You can see that somebody is looking directly at you. You can hear in their voice when they respond to you. It’s not just their words but you get their inflection, you have a sense of how they feel. You can tell from their body language if they're engaged or if they're turned away from you trying to leave the conversation. There are so many things—are they looking down at their phone? There's a lot of information that we get when we have minimized transactional distance, but once we start working in a mediated environment, even like we are today in this webinar—here I am, and I'm talking and I'm looking at my screen and I'm looking at my camera. I’m assuming you all see me, but I'm not seeing any of you right now. It's kind of like talking into a void. It's a very strange experience. That's the transactional distance. Then when we move into this online learning setting if that's what you're doing for remote learning, you'll find that the different media that you use will give you different experiences of transactional distance. So we all know that email is not immediate, although some people want to expect immediacy from email, in the same with text messaging. It feels like it's immediate but it isn't always immediate, and in those instances, we just have words that we’re working with. Maybe emoji that people have used to try to soften their communications a little bit. But you never really have that same sense of another person being there as you do when you're interacting with that person face-to-face.

Video like this? It's pretty good at minimizing transactional distance, especially when you have just one or two people communicating and they can see each other. When we start doing things, say through discussion boards, if we're in a learning management system, like Canvas, again, the transactional distance can often be greater for people, and that causes some more challenges for us as we're trying to create these online learning communities and build engaging learning experiences.

Three Main Concepts

So with that in mind, there are three main concepts that I'm going to cover, and as I cover these concepts, I'll do a little bit of storytelling from my years of experience and from my research. I'm also going to give you some tips and tricks. A lot of them seem like they're pretty common sense, but they're things that we don't think about as we make a transition into the online setting. You'll figure it out usually through trial and error at some point, but I'm hoping that I can help you all proactively with some of these things.

So I'm going to be talking about identity. Who are you? Who are your students and how do we know who everybody else is? And then there's presence. Can we feel that other people are there or do we feel like we're alone in a course? And both of those build into this larger idea of community. Do we all belong together as part of something that is greater than any one of us? And ideally that's where we get in an online learning setting because that sense of interdependence that we have in community tends to motivate people and move everybody along to perform their best.

Gilbert and Finance

I'm going to start with a little story. When I was in high school, I took a distance course. I took a correspondence course, and I did it by mail. It's really interesting thing to take a course by mail. I never met my teacher, and I started to develop this whole sense of who he was based on his name. His first name was Gilbert and I was a little girl growing up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and I read all the Anne of Green Gables books. If anybody else has read them, there's a character in there, Gilbert Blythe. So I started imagining that Mr. Gilbert, my instructor, was Gilbert Blythe because I needed somebody or something to focus on. I didn't have very much. I would just fold up pieces of paper, stick them in the mail with my assignments. They’d come back a week later with a check mark and a grade on the top. That's all I knew of my instructor. It took me a long time to finish that course. I wasn't very motivated. There wasn't anything about it to really push me along. I didn't have a relationship with my teacher.

There's another experience that I had. This was an online learning experience that came many years later with somebody who, yes, was actually named Mr. Finance, or at least that's what he was calling himself. I was taking a course that was part of an online MBA program, and the instructor was presented to us as Mr. Finance. Now that may sound totally ridiculous to you, but now imagine what it's like if you are simply presented to your students as Professor Smith, and that's all that they know or Mr. Jones. Miss Johnson. That doesn't tell us very much about a person.

I knew somebody else who was in the class and we started having these back-channel conversations about Mr. Finance. Do you know who this is? Is it even a mister? Could there be three people sitting behind a Mr. Finance account pretending to be Mr. Finance? We found that we didn't really want to perform in this class because this person was getting to know about us, our vulnerabilities as learners. We didn't feel very confident in the class, and we didn't trust our instructor because all we knew was Mr. Finance. So that's definitely not an identity that you want to project.

Learning Management Systems

That said, there's an opportunity that a lot of instructors miss, which is to give information about their identity right inside their LMS—their learning management system, whatever you're using. So we use Canvas at Florida State. I'm seeing a lot of Google Classroom being used in the K-12 system right now. They're all sorts of Learning Management Systems, doesn't matter. They all have a profile function. So here's my profile in Canvas. I had mine filled out already, but I went and took a look around and noticed that a number of my colleagues do not have theirs filled out. The reason why it's important to fill out these profiles—and it may not feel very important if you are teaching a face-to-face course because your students see you all the time and they may just be using the technology as a pass-through to exchange a few documents. It's an assignment. It's not the primary point of. But for online learning it is the primary point of contact and students will see your face every time you post something—or not! If you don't post an image there, then all they're going to see is that blank, generic, “There is no image posted” here. That tells them that you're not very invested in that space.

You also have the ability to control in your profile what you want to share with your students. So in this instance, I give a link to my official university profile and to the website where my blog is housed, and I'd rather have my students find that first than just go on and do random Googling of me and find me elsewhere. It's a controlled message of what I want to share about my identity with my students.

This just gives you a sense, then, of how this will carry over in whatever Learning System you're using. So you see an example here of an announcement that's been posted and discussion posts, and my image, my thumbnail will show up with everything that I've posted instead of just some blank, generic thing. It's really nice to have that show up, and students will, if you're in a teaching a large course, you have multiple instructors or an instructor and some teaching assistants—it also helps differentiate who has been posting. It helps students immediately idea identify what has come from an instructor or some sort of some part of the instructional team.

Using Video

Another important part of communicating your identity is perhaps sharing some video. I know a lot of people don't like to be on video. To tell you the truth, I don't like being on video, and I'm making myself vulnerable here. Here's a clip from a video that I used this semester introducing myself and my course, and I did this just as the first thing my students would encounter when they get in the course rather than just getting a screen and having to look around and say, “Hm. Where do I click on this? Where do I start?” There’s this video right away and I say, “Hi! I'm your instructor this professor, or rather I'm your professor this semester. I'm happy to see you. Here's what we're learning.”

It's recorded on my phone. Nothing high-tech or fancy here. A minute, a minute and a half is all you need. But what happens is you give your students a very good sense of who you are, and the kind of feedback that I have received from students over the years have been like the quote you see here on the screen. “I can hear your enthusiasm when I read your announcements,” or, “I see your smile when you give me feedback.” So they have a sense of what kind of a person I am, and all the rest of my very bland, plaintext communications in the course are heard and seen with that voice and that person delivering them. So it's not like me imagining Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables putting checkmarks on the top of my paper anymore. But instead a real live person who's there, so even if it makes you uncomfortable, it’s worth it, because your students will enjoy even if it's just a tiny bit a video that you give them.

The introductions that you do in class are also really important. I have another video clip here on the screen because this is an introduction done in a class using a tool called Flipgrid, and if you think that your class might be willing to do video introductions, you can do them this way. It's a, it's a pretty simple tool to use it's called Flipgrid. If you Google it you will be able to find it pretty easily, but you might also do your introductions in a class by using a discussion forum. It's really important that you do introductions. If you teach large classes, you might not normally do introductions, but you have the ability to do that online because it doesn't matter. You have all the space in the world for these introductions to play out.

I found that you really need to guide students through the introductions. If you don't ask them to share different things with you, they won't share those things. They'll just say, “Hi. I'm Vanessa. I'm a whatever your student I am.” So tell them what you want them to share and then introduce yourself and share parallel versions of it. Obviously, you're not going to share things like your major or what school you're in, but you can share similar types of information. I like to put something on there for fun for them to share, and it actually helps me remember my students. It makes them a little more distinct from each other because I can start to say, “Oh that's right. Stacey is the student who likes this or that.” The other thing I've noticed with doing that is it helps the students that I found with each other as they find the things that they have in common, and they'll respond to each other's introductions and say, “Oh! You're from here? So am I! Did we, you know, go to the same school previously? Do we know some of the same people?” So those introductions are useful.

Student Profiles

From the introductions, I actually make myself a little cheat sheet, and you can see an example of one at the bottom of the screen here. So whatever I've asked students to share in the introductions, I will record and then I keep that throughout the term when I'm interacting with those students. Then I remember little bits and pieces of personal information about them. I can use that to weave it into discussion later on, or it might be important when I'm reaching out to them by looking at this here and I see that Darren is traveling and starting a new job. So if Darren is missing from the class for a while and I want to reach out to him I might put in there “I remember that you are traveling and starting a new job. So I just wanted to check are things okay?” And being able to be a little more personal there helps. It's recognizing student identity. I encourage my students to set up those profiles also because it becomes easier for me to track them as they're interacting with me. I start to identify them by whatever photos they have associated with their profile in the learning management system.

The last thing that I want to say about identity, and I know you've heard this a million times before, but it is important to pay attention to whatever your identity is beyond the learning management system, particularly if you find yourself in a situation where you're now teaching online because that means that your students are online also. If you are in a face-to-face classroom and your students sit there and wonder something about you, they're probably not looking you up at that time. But all they have to do is open another browser window, type your name in and start to find things out about you, so they'll get more than your classroom identity. They might find out you like to travel or the parties that you like to have, the socialization that you do.

So again, you want to be careful about that. It might lead you to put some restrictions on certain online identities that you have if you don't want to have that experience of context collapse happening. And again, it's a moment to think in your own profile, are there certain things that you do online, spaces that you inhabit that you are willing to share with your students? And perhaps you share those proactively and make sure that those you don't want to share are a little more hidden.


I'm going to shift now to you the idea of presence, and I see we have in the chat here about what, you know, how to pronounce students’ names. That is a really great thing or if they go by a different name than the one that showing up in the system, that's something that you can put into introductions. If you are doing some sort of video introductions, it's a great idea to ask them to be sure to say their name at the beginning and model that for them when you do your own because you'll get the pronunciation of their name at that time.

Thinking about presence. You can have a lot of presence in your online class, or you can have a little presence in your online class, and there's really a happy medium that you want to find. You don't want to have too much. It can be overbearing, and if you have two little goes in the other direction.

I'll share a quick anecdote from you. This is from a multiple case study project that I worked on. There was one instructor who—he actually said he didn't really like interacting with people very much. You certainly didn't want to interact that much with them online. He was not present in the discussions that he required his students to have so they started to talk about him in the third person. They would say things in the discussion like “What does he want? Does anybody understand what he's expecting from us?” It turns out he was reading it but the students had no idea that he was reading any of this.

The other class had a super present instructor, and this instructor felt like it was his responsibility that every time somebody posted to make sure that they got a response. He actually wrote 52% of the post that showed up in the discussion boards for that class, and that might sound like a great thing and a super devoted instructor at the onset, but it had all sorts of problems. Somewhere towards the middle of the semester that this instructor was teaching, he got sick and he was checked into the hospital for about two days. You think about this for a term. Two days is a very brief period of time ultimately, but on the survey at the end of the semester his students wrote things like, “he abandoned us,” and that's because he had set up this expectation that they were communicating directly with him at all times and not that they needed to be communicating with each other. So when he wasn't there to write back to them, they were at a total loss. The students didn't know what they were supposed to do. They were just waiting and waiting, and he didn't show up, and it was such a big deal that they still felt that at the end of the term and commented on it.

That instructor, however, who had students talk about him in the third person? Nobody commented on that on the same survey at the end of the semester. They had just accepted that that was the level of presence he was going to have and figured that that was appropriate. It wasn't a problem for them. So that's something to keep in mind.

Setting Expectations

With presence, we can set up our expectations for our students, and letting them know from the beginning of a course what their expectations can be for our presence can help them manage that. So you can let them know, you know, when and how they can contact you what your commitment is to responding to them. If you're not answering email over the weekend, that's fine, but you need to let your students know that you're not answering email over the weekend. If you're willing to do phone calls with them or set up Zoom sessions to have one-on-one time outside of regularly scheduled office hours, that's great, but if you have constraints on that and you're only willing to do it during certain hours on certain or on certain days of the week, state that up front as well.

All of that's really important. If your student should can expect to see you interacting alongside them through different things that you ask them to do in the course, let them know. If you don't interact with them, if you don't get in the middle of discussions and you feel really strongly about that as an instructor, then you should let them know that as well because they may have been in other classes where the instructors do interact regularly, and if you don't tell them that you have a purposeful reason for not doing it, they might start to feel that for some reason you're just not there.

So basically you're going to make your commitments, post them for your students, and then you need to stick to your own commitments for the term. And it makes a lot of sense. You know, in a face-to-face class, we have this commitment to be there in the classroom at a certain time, so in an online class, we make a commitment that we will communicate with our students on a regular basis, and this is how we're going to do.

Course Announcements

Presence can be seen in the course announcements, as well. This is a real opportunity. It's a great idea to post announcements on a regular basis. This is one of those expectations I tend to do them weekly, and then I don't do them in the interim unless something really big comes up because the more you start throwing at students, the less they're going to pay attention. When you give them expectations at the start of the term, that's what they want to follow through with, but a lot of people post announcements that are mechanical and may have been written entirely at the beginning of the term, which is not a bad idea to have everything set up and ready to go so you're super organized, but the announcements give you an opportunity to tell students that you've been there all along and you are paying attention to what they're doing. So even though they may log on to the course and not see you there in that moment, you're there and you see them.

So tossing things in the announcements like “you've enjoyed reading posts” or “you can't wait to see their projects”—even things that sound not so good that you've noticed, like people aren’t watching the videos and you think this is going to have a negative impact on their performance in the class—let them know that, “Hey I saw this. I can see how many people in the class are watching this.”

You don't want, necessarily want to use the analytics to get down to the level of person-by-person creepiness. Students don't respond well to that, but it's okay to let them know that there are trends that have been not so good, and that you are responding and you're flexible in the course space, that the course, as much as you have had the luxury of having it designed entirely in advance—that as much as it was designed in advance—your presence, continuously taking the pulse of the course and willing and able to be responsive to the needs of your students in that moment—that's a really important part of presence.

Participating in Discussion

I like to participate in the discussion right alongside my students. I know it's not something that everybody likes, but even the type of presence that you have in the discussion with your students can have make all the difference in the world, and this pertains to whether you are doing asynchronous discussion using discussion boards, or if you are doing synchronous sessions, like a Zoom session with your students. If you have a very corrective presence with your students where you're basically responding to everything that they said, you’re saying, “You're right, you're wrong.” That's what they look to you for then, and what that does is set up the expectation that it's all going to be communication between the student and the instructor, but not among the students and the instructor. That gets you back to that situation of that guy I told you about who was missing from his class for two days and the students were really frustrated because they were entirely dependent on him and he wasn't there. He had very much of a corrective presence.

If you can shift yourself to a facilitative presence, like some of the things you can see on the screen right now, you have the ability to extend the conversation, push students a little bit further, you can show them that you value what they've contributed. You don't have to tell them. It's right or wrong you can start to make these other connections, you can connect students with each other, so they may not initially be attending to each other and what each other has posted, but you can tell them that that's something you value by making these connections for them and encouraging them to see each other's posts, and you can model the kinds of sharing that they can do. Come in, and if something came up midweek, post it for them. Or if you get an idea, like they're talking in a Zoom session, you say, “Hey, I saw an article about this recently. I'm going to get this and share this with you,” and if anybody else has seen something relevant you share it, too.” So there is modeling happening as well.

But again, all of this is saying that you are tracking, you are with them, and you are a co-learner. You're part of the community, and we're edging toward talking directly about community now, too.

If you're one of those folks who doesn't like to participate much in the discussion, another option is to provide brief summaries of the discussion. When doing that, it's not really about covering all of the content that's there. I like to be sure to tell students, “I read what you posted. I thought about it and I value your contribution.” So I mentioned their names, and I don't recap everything. I point back to it by giving their names. The students whose names get mentioned get excited. That means something to them. They got noticed and recognized by their instructor. Feedback that I've received from students who have received feedback from instructors using this kind of an approach where the names get mentioned say that they get really motivated and hopeful that their name will get mentioned in subsequent weeks. It makes them want to perform better because they know the instructor is watching and if they do a good job or if they say something really insightful, that their name might get mentioned the next time. It's like getting a gold star for the day, and we all want that, don't we?


So now I'm going to shift over to talking about community. And this is really what identity and presence have been leading up to. What I have here on the screen are examples of not-community and moving toward community. So you can see on the left side these communication dyads and that's very much like that instructor who set up the expectation and that if a student posted, he would respond to it. There were a lot of communication dyads that occurred in that class, but there wasn't this sense of greater communication, where anybody could jump in and contribute and be a part of it at any one point in time. If what you value is this idea that anybody could jump in and it's not your responsibility as instructor to be corrective and tell everybody they were right or wrong, and 100% drive the conversation—and make no mistake in the community approach. You're still driving a lot of the conversation. You're still that person in the center, but if you don't want all eyes looking at you, but instead be able to look around at each other, then you want to take some actions that push it toward community.

Two key principles of having community are trust and reciprocity. If you don't have a safe space, if students don't start to trust you and trust each other, then they're not going to be comfortable being engaged in that space with each other. And this is part of why this identity and present stuff is so important and you do it first as instructor and model it, and then the students will follow suit. People tend to not trust when they don't know who other people are, and so if you don't have trust we don't have reciprocity. I'm going to reply to your post, you're going to reply to my post. We're all in this together. So trust and reciprocity are really important.

Social Spaces

But in order to have community, we also need to have some social spaces that are available to everybody in the class. And here's the funny thing. We don't always use the social spaces, but they're nice to have, or it's nice to know that you can go there when you need to. Actually, I have a 5th grader and I've been watching what her teacher has been doing when they have Zoom sessions for the last few weeks. And what's been really nice is she gets all the kids on Zoom, and she just sits back for the first 10 minutes and she's just there like this. Doing nothing, and she's letting them have social space because right now, in this moment, those kids need to connect with each other and this is the way that they get to connect with each other. Then she brings them all back and she does what she needs to do with them as a class.

Now, we can also designate special social times that we’re going to meet as a class where we have the opportunity to be social. We can make spaces, like discussion forums where it's okay to be social. They may not be the most active spaces, but it's all right. I have done research with classes where the social element has been totally shut down, where instructors have feared people getting too far off-track, and the opposite happens. The students get so paranoid because they've been given warnings about not getting off track that they narrow their communication and they say very little. They worry that even making a personal connection to the course material and sharing that with others is getting too far afield and that they'll somehow be penalized for it. So again, that's something that you really want to try to avoid in that setting.

It's important that we have sharing spaces also, and a lot of our Learning Management Systems, a lot of our learning tools are very teacher-centered. They're very top-down. The instructor controls who posts in a space, who starts a conversation in a space, but it's really important to invite sharing from students, and I really mean this about students of all levels, because whenever I say that people will say to me, “Oh, well you primarily teach graduate students and so, you know, that's different. Of course they have things to share.” But no students of all ages and levels have things that they can share, and when they get, when they're encouraged to share, when they get the ability to do that, what happens is they start to take ownership over the course content, and that starts to move into having greater motivation. This is all part of being the community. They're not just sitting there watching the learning come at them from the instructor, but they recognize that they can be a contributor in that.

So allowing for those connections to happen between course content and personal interests, allowing students to share content, inviting their contributions and their presentation—so if a student emails me and says, “Hey, I found this really great thing that relates to the class,” then I might share it with the class and say, “Hey this student shared this with me. I want to be sure I'm giving them full credit,” or better yet, I invite them to share it in an appropriate way. Let's say the class is about to have some sort of live session. I would say, “Would you, would you please take, you know, two or three minutes and share this with the rest of the class?” so I give them time to prepare, or I might encourage the class—sometimes I'll even reach out to students and say, “Hey, I'd really like it if some students shared some things at the beginning of the next live class. Would you be willing to be one of those students?” and I send them out to find things. Once I've done it once or twice and some students have set the models for the rest, it tends to flow through the next for the rest of the term, and again, it builds community when we do that.

Feedback and Choice

It's important also to ask for feedback and offer choice. It can be constrained choice. You know, it's just like you can, for those of you who have children, when you have a toddler, they love to have choice. You're not really giving them a huge amount of choice. You're not letting them go in directions you didn't want them to go in in the first place, but giving that little bit of choice adds ownership to that learning space. It makes it so that it's not my space as the instructor driving the show, but rather it's our space, and we all shape it however we want and need it to be for us.

Peer feedback can also be a nice part of community and creating a sense of interdependence among students. Now, I say this with caution because I know if I were to say group projects, everybody goes argh! Right? There's always that team member who has let you down in the past. There is the person who will ghost, and this does happen in online settings all the time, and I'm not saying that interdependence requires absolute dependence between two or three people on each other directly, but rather we can have this larger sense of class interdependence.

So we can make it a requirement that our students do have to reply to each other. That makes them have to read what each other has said and shared. We can use breakout spaces and send students off from live sessions, or even if you're doing things asynchronously, you know, give them a task, put enough students, and take the pressure off if somebody doesn't participate in their group that it's going to be okay, and overall the idea is that you nurture a sharing culture, and then peers are going to naturally start giving each other feedback. If you think you can get there all the way and have people doing peer feedback on drafts of assignments, that's great, but even if you can't it's still this idea that students are interdependent on each other that will help create that sense of community.

Wrapping Up

Now, I'm going to move off of community. I'm going to start to wrap things up, but there are a few key thoughts that I want to leave you with and one really big tip of mine.

Checking emails. This is a great way to connect with students. You're already there in a Zoom session or on a discussion board interacting with students en masse all the time. You leave them feedback and a gradebook about how they did on an assignment. You're posting announcements to the class. It may feel like there's a lot of communication going on, but I like to use check in emails with my students, and I send an individual email to each student. It doesn't necessarily take as long as you would think that it does, but what you get back from it is wonderful.

The way that I do this is I will start with a form letter. It's a basic email that kind of encapsulates like where we're at with the class right now, what I want to know from the students. Look, is this working for you? Is this not working for you? And then I'll customize it for everybody and send it out individually. For some people, the customization may just be their name, but other people I may know from prior communications that they have some sort of concern or I just emailed with them yesterday so I don't want them to think that I'm ignoring the fact that we just talked, so I'll mention that in the email. I share my thoughts about how the class is going and I ask them for their thoughts about how the class is going. I say, please reply. Everybody, reply. Even if all you're going to do is say, I'm okay—and some of them will just say I'm okay—and I tracked the responses on a roster so I know who hasn’t responded to me along with who has, and I will reply to them, but I don't end up having to spend a lot of time with the replies. I get very useful information about how the class is working for people.

I also find that students often need me, but they didn't ask. They didn't want to bother me, is something that they might say, and I think I'm a pretty approachable instructor. But once I invite all of this very directly on a one-on-one basis, it starts to come in, and I'm so glad to know these things for my students. It's the kind of thing that they kind of got into the course evaluations as well, that they really appreciated having that ability to have one-on-one communication.

I see some of you posting in here about doing things like offering one-on-one synchronous meetups, and absolutely. That's an important thing. Allow people to be individuals when they need you as individuals. There are a lot of times we can do things as a collective whole and the one to many, but in the end there needs to be moments where everybody is an individual.

Class Culture

Now this is about overall culture that we create in a class. I think if you set this up to be your class culture, it will follow through for you. You know, people show up when they know they'll be missed. If they think you don't see them or don't miss them, then it doesn't matter as much. People will perform if they know you're depending on them to perform. Not everybody. Okay. I get it, because there's always that guy who didn't show up and didn't do anything, but most of them will when they know that it matters and when it's part of the values and the culture. If they know it's okay to fail or to get something wrong if they talk in class or they post on the forum, then they're more willing to take a risk, especially if they know you're not going to come out and say, “That's wrong!” But instead you're going to find a way to more gently redirect them or help explain why something might have been a misconception. They'll give you their best work when they know that you value that. and they will forgive you when they know that you're doing your best also, because we are all far from perfect. I have never run a perfect class in my life, but I had lots of student forgiveness because they know that I’m trying my best for them.

It's important to remember that what you model will be mirrored by your students, so you set the tone in your class. If you want your students to do certain things, you do it for them first. If you want them to communicate in a certain way, you should be communicating in that way. What you do is what they will follow. If you ask them to do something and you haven't done it yourself, they will notice the hypocrisy of that and they won't value doing the thing that you've asked them to do.

People Come First

So, I'll go back to my big idea that really is about teaching anytime, that people come first. And I hope that some of these ideas have been helpful for you with that, that you focusing on identity—first yours, and then getting your students to communicate their identity and thinking about how we're going to be present in our virtual spaces with that identity. And finally, how does that bring us together as a community? What makes us interdependent? And how are we going to interact with each other? That allows us to have successful experiences with the course content, and it enables us to think of using our technologies in ways that support the content and the interdependence and communication of the people, instead of having the technology be the flashy thing that comes first but perhaps doesn't actually have the substance or meet our needs underneath it all.

So that's all that I had to share. I've got some contact information and some other information on here. I'll go into questions in a second, in a moment. But just to let you know a little bit about, this has been scratching the surface today of the kinds of things that I teach in the instructional systems and learning technologies program at FSU. We have—a lot of this comes out in our graduate certificate on online teaching and learning. We also have graduate certificates—these are five course certificates—on instructional design and technology and human performance technology. People get more of this in our master's program online and on-campus. I love teaching this stuff. I'm actually teaching a class this summer about using Web 2.0 and social media tools to support learning and performance, and in the fall, I get to teach a class on online pedagogy and course design where we really go in-depth on this stuff, and hopefully you see my enthusiasm about the topic right now. I am happy to I'll be answering questions in a second, but I'm also happy to have any of you reach out to me personally through email or Twitter. I give you my blog URL there. I have been posting. I had to take a little pause at the end of the term, but I will be posting more and more tips, tricks, thoughts about shifting classes online different types of activities getting more and more at things like the pedagogical element and some of the technologies that you might use to support you, but thank you for coming today and happy to take questions.


Question: Any ideas on how to choose good times to have ‘live sessions’ for online classes?

You know, well, isn't that the big difficulty? I like to send out a poll which I see you already got somebody respond to that in the chat. I like to send out a poll to the class and see what times generally work for people. You know, ideally in the world of online learning if you're going to have synchronous classes, what happens is there's a time that was set from the beginning of the term and people signed up for the class knowing about that. What we have to do in these times really is just do our best to meet everybody's needs. Sometimes you might want to repeat a session multiple times. Have a morning session and an evening session, sometimes lunch hour sessions work well for people. I don't know what's working right now that so many people are on work at home, which adds some flexibility but adds some extra constraints with children at home and Zooming all the time, so that there will be no perfect answer to this, but by asking people you can find out. And then I would say be sure you record those live sessions so the people who couldn't show up in the moment won't feel like they have missed out on a critical part of the experience. They always know that they can go back and watch that.

Question: Do you ever supplement communication with Twitter-type things?

Yes, and I almost put something in about that today, but I knew that I was going to have people coming from across the educational spectrum, and I know you don't necessarily go into social media stuff quite as much or in that way if you're in the K-12 setting. In higher ed, absolutely if I think it's germane to my course. It's a great way for me to give a space for students to share things if they want to because it's so easy to share as you're following online. So if I'm teaching a class, for example, where I think my students will either be finding online resources or there's a lot that's happening in terms of current events that somehow could relate to the course topic, I will set up a hashtag for the class to use and I will encourage my students to tweet to the hashtag. Not everybody in a class will be comfortable with tweeting, and the nice thing is that people can still follow the hashtag and if they want to share something but they're not on Twitter, they can send it to somebody else in the class and ask them to share it that way, so lots of options there.

Question: What are your thoughts on recording class sessions for students to view later? Does that have a chilling effect?

Well, you've got an obligation to tell people that you are recording a class. That's an important thing, and they can make choices then about how they're going to participate. If I see that everybody in a class is has shown up, I might not opt to record that day. I could ask people if they think it's important. I could just give them a slide deck later if that was a part of it, or I can take snippets of it. I can get the video later, and I can cut out the parts where people in the class were talking so it's just the part that I did that seems a little bit like a lecture that might be really important for people to have later. There are a lot of ways of controlling that.

I don't feel a lot of privacy concerns in terms of people going to take this and share it beyond the class. I do a lot, though, to say to you how important it is that we have this class culture, what the expectations are, so this is for our class. This is not for the rest of the world. I'm not going to share it with other people. Let's say I want to talk about the same topic to other people. I'm not giving them the presentation that I did on Zoom for our class with you all there. I'm going to have to go record that separately for a wider group because that's not fair to my students. I can't control what people do or don't share but I can set that expectation. It really doesn't seem to be that big of a problem, though. I do put the recordings in a secure space, however, so they're not going to be shared broadly.

Question: What are your thoughts on how to create culture when people have various backgrounds (i.e. from all around the world)?

Oh, I love that question. I actually have a group of doctoral students right now working on a project about online learning and what's called othering, so the feeling that you are different from other people in the class, and that is something that that definitely happens when people identify as having cultural differences from the rest of the class. Funny thing about it is that in a class setting you'll find that—something that they've found through this research is this tendency for everybody in the class to other themselves for some reason. Everybody will find some reason why they think they're different and they stand out. So what we can do is create a culture where we want to see and hear from those differences and give—this is the beauty of doing things online actually is that we have all the space in the world for people to share things, so I can post something in a discussion forum and say, “Hey, how do you anticipate using this in the future?” or “How have you experienced this concept in the past? How does this resonate with the career path that you want to take? How does this fit with where you come from where you went to school?” Anything like that and there’s a space for everybody to share it. Then I show again that I value it by coming back and doing a little bit of weaving together and mentioning students names and making sure that everybody sees that we have these differences and our differences are really wonderful and I value them here. But again, as the instructor you don't want everybody to be dependent on you. You want them to be interdependent, but you can still be there in the center pivoting the direction that things are going to take. So what you value the rest of the people in the class in turn will value.

Question: Will you be giving more sessions?

I've got more coming out on my blog. I'd be happy to do more sessions like this going in-depth on other topics. It's certainly something that we can explore.

Question: How can we be mindful of modeling courses with equitable access to course content for students who don’t have internet connections that can support video/synchronous content? Or differently-abled students who can’t interface with video/audio?

This is a very real problem that we're facing right now as we're in the midst of this crisis and also dealing with differently-abled students. That was another part of the question. We do have to be mindful. Following the guidelines for universal design is really important. We may or may not have the ability to do things like live captioning. I mean, it's actually a possibility if you have somebody who can join in and do the live captioning if that is what the issue is. Or you can save it as a recording. This will get saved as a recording. A transcript will come out of it, so a student who maybe doesn't have the video, couldn't participate in that way, they can still get a copy of the slides and they could get the transcript and they would be able to interact with that later on in that way. If I have a lot of students who are working under this consideration, under those conditions, I'm probably not going to choose to do the bulk of my teaching or the most dependent parts of my teaching in that way. I will try to move to a medium that is going to work for the majority of students. And again, I will reach out and work individually one-on-one with the students who need that to figure out what's going to work for them. Often the solution isn't a solution that you have to do one-on-one. You come up with something that's going to solve a number of those technology problems, those access problems that different people in the class are going to have.

But there are a lot of ways of dealing with these issues and it's, you know, the first step is being aware of it and attending to it. So right now, I think a great thing to do is to ask your students. Normally under normal conditions, I'm teaching an online class, I assume that you signed up for an online class knowing what you're getting in for and that you've got the right equipment and you can handle this stuff. If there is some sort of disability that’s going to make it prohibitive to participate in one way or another, we can work with that, but in this moment, you need to ask. People didn't sign up to be online learners. I actually have a blog post where I can give a list of questions to ask students right now and I welcome people to take those and modify them. I've learned a lot this term about what my students have needed, and it's been very different whether they were the undergraduate students, many of whom went home to their families, but some who were in rural areas and didn't have good connectivity or were missing campus computers, versus my campus-based doctoral seminar, which really seamlessly went to Zoom and everything was great there, and my online class for master’s students, where—as it turned out, you would think it was online, I didn't have to make changes—I did, because these were students who suddenly found themselves at home with new job expectations and kids at home with them, and I needed to be flexible for those kinds of issues to help keep the learning going on.

So, I mean I'm going to go back to this people first, content second, technology third every time figure out what people need, and from there you can have a successful learning experience.

Responding to a comment in chat about transcription/translation services:

Here at FSU, if you're here, we can upload these to Kaltura which will do auto-captioning. YouTube, and I see somebody just posted in there about YouTube, YouTube will auto-generate captions. These captions mind you are not perfect. You have to go in and edit them later on. You know what? You can also ask a student to go in and help with editing these and making the captions look great. It's a great way for a student to reinforce their own learning by having the opportunity to go back over the session again and do that, and then they've made a contribution to the class community. So that works really lovely as well.

See a lot of great ideas coming in here in the chat. I hope I haven't missed anything in the chat. I've been trying to follow and talk and there been times that things have been going very quickly.

But I do thank you all very much for coming this afternoon. And again, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me. You can follow along on my blog. There's a follow there and every time I post new stuff about this you can get it. A lot of times when I post stuff, I will tweet it out also, so if you're on Twitter, you can feel free to follow me. I don't put a lot of personal stuff out on Twitter, so you won't get a lot of random stuff for me. It's usually more professionally oriented.

Reshare the blog address? Yes. There you go. I keep things simple. I always use my name. So I'm at If you get to the website, you can click to the blog. It's all right there.

I wish you all the best in your online teaching and learning endeavors, and really don't hesitate to get in touch, whether you want to know more about any of this or if you happen to want information about the ISLT program. Yes, I'm biased but yes, it's totally awesome, too.

Jennie Kroeger: And just a quick note: FSU has waived the GRE for all master’s and specialist students for fall 2020. The ISLT program has a deadline of July 1, so you've got some time if you're interested. But thank you all again for coming. We really appreciate it.