By Rebecca Korn, Teaching Assistant for the School for Studies in Art and Culture

My very first teaching assistant position took place during lockdowns, social isolation and online learning. When I began brainstorming activities for online tutorials, the very concept of fostering communication within online learning spaces seemed daunting.

Teaching assistants hold a unique position, part facilitator and part student. Placed in this dual role, I began to think about what it was that I appreciated about education, what exactly fuelled my passion for subjects while in the classroom? I quickly realized that without a sense of community in educational spaces, the taught subject and learning in general may begin to feel more like a chore than a passion.

Education is so much more than a grade or being handed a paper when you graduate. Education is an opportunity to learn from your peers, learn from their diverse perspectives. It’s a chance to discuss difficult topics with like-minded people but also those with differing points of view. Learning in a safe and diverse community-based space is what motivates me, it’s in-part how my sense of self and world view have been shaped and re-shaped.

With this said, in an educational community, learning from peers through discussion is, I believe, equally as important as any subject being taught. The question remains, how can we better facilitate community? In this article, outlined are two strategies for fostering community in online courses, stemming from the educational values of discussion and participation. Fostering a sense of community in online learning spaces promotes (and is promoted by) collaborative learning, the development of relationships and overall confidence in students (Sharoff, 2019).

One strategy to approach collaborative learning is to include various group-based activities or discussions where students and educators may get to know respective, and likely varying, understandings of material more thoroughly. Such group-based activities may include but are not limited to: collaborative annotations of weekly readings, group-based projects, group facilitations and in-class weekly group-discussions.

When implementing any of these collaborative activities, it is important to note that providing students with ample time to familiarize themselves with the material to be discussed in a group setting is crucial for garnering student confidence and, in turn, community through participation (Nilson, 2017).

For in-class group discussions, in terms of group size, placing students in groups of five to seven participants avoids overwhelming students and promotes diverse and lively discussion (Sharoff, 2019). Regarding the distribution of students into groups, randomly assigning students to groups cultivates meeting other students in the class and provides students with the opportunity to learn about diverse perspectives on the subject (Sharoff, 2019).

Another strategy for fostering a diverse community in online learning spaces is by including discussion forums. Discussion forums are also useful for bolstering class community, student participation and, through educator feedback, a sense of connection between instructor and students.

Group-forums that facilitate class communication should be asynchronous in consideration of the varying geographical locations of students, and to provide each student with enough time to ponder material before responding (Chada, 2017).

Regarding educator participation, the online forums should be aimed at student thought development and the instructor or facilitator should be sure to leave room for the voices of students. For example, feedback from the educator should be clear, concise and employed to foster further discussion by directing student thinking (Nilson, 2017). Thoughtful and consistent feedback is an essential component of student online-course success as it provides a sense of educator-student connection (Nilson, 2017).

Discussion-forums not only foster a sense of educator-student connection and communication, they also further promote interactive peer-discussion, advancing a greater sense of class community (Chada, 2017). Along with other course requirements, the guidelines of the discussion forum should be outlined clearly at the beginning of the course and maintained throughout (Yuan, 2014).

This concept of consistency in online learning spaces is a key factor of student-educator trust which leads to a trustful and thriving class community. To amplify this consistent presence of the educator, I have found in my own TA courses that providing a TA-forum provides students with a clear avenue of contacting their TA/instructor and allows a transparent space for students and instructor to communicate, contributing to a greater sense of community in which the instructor takes part.

In conclusion, facilitating a sense of class community when teaching online courses is an important aspect for educators to consider while designing their course, planning group-work and providing feedback. Providing opportunities for students to get to know one another through class material nurtures awareness of diverse perspectives and promotes an online course community.

A consistent educator presence through thoughtful and directive feedback generates a sense of educator-student trust and connection, adding to a cultivated course community. Discussion groups and discussion forums both enable, if structured according to the above outlined guidelines, student awareness of diverse perspectives within the class.

It should be reinstated here that consistency and clarity are key when employing such outlined strategies. The course structure, trajectory and community building strategies should be clearly stated at the beginning of the course and carried throughout. Through creating a safe and diverse online course community that is based on interactive communication between both students and instructor, education may be renewed as passion rather than chore.