Online student community: What do they need from us?

In Phil Hill’s post, “Student panels: Non-traditional students and consistency in course navigation,” he emphasized the importance of listening to our online students. More to the point, after we listen to those students, we should look at how we might change our own way of doing things. Continuing that call to highlight student voices, Pat James (former Executive Director of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative) and I led a keynote panel of five students and one instructor at the 2019 Online Teaching Conference. [NOTE: check out the video recording of the panel , at link or embedded below – it’s an hour well-spent!] The panel was designed to solicit online learners’ experiences with community in online courses.

The five students ranged from 19 to 38 years old, came fromdifferent backgrounds, and took online courses for different reasons. In somecases, the students took online courses exclusively to allow them to work fulltime and/or raise families. The lone instructor on the panel had taught for awhile, but had avoided teaching online classes. Taking online professionaldevelopment courses through @ONE motivated him to take the plunge intoonline teaching. It also helped him improve his online courses and how hefacilitates them.

The student panel’s tips on building and maintaining online community

As the panelists introduced themselves, they shared someearly tips about how instructors can build community in online courses:

  • Ask students to create videos and upload profileimages of themselves (or something they feel represents them); and

  • Ask students to recall connections with studentsthey know from other (in-person) classes, so they can use those connections asa support network.


All of the panelists felt that it’s important to feel connected to other students in online classes. They gave some ideas about how online teachers can support this:

  • First, use video to introduce yourself—not only asa teacher but also as a person (e.g., your background, why you went into teaching).

  • Then have students do the same thing. That way, students can find and message other students who live in the same area, have the same questions, or are following the same field of study.

The role of instructor presence in building community

Students were also unanimous in feeling that the instructor be present and active in online class activities.

  • Importance of the instructor actively participating in video and text-based (forum) discussions – providing feedback

  • Some panelists described liking video feedback on papers, which made them feel more connected to the teacher.

  • One panelist who received regular feedback from the teacher was inspired to go back and reply to students who had no replies yet. He knew how it felt in prior classes to get no feedback, so he wanted topay it forward.

  • As an interesting note later in the conversation, the panel by and large was okay with online teachers taking a step back if an online discussion is going well.

Fostering community through student-initiated contact

When the topic of student-initiated contact arose, Pat James rightly pointed out that some online teachers might not think about how important it is for students to be able to contact each other independently.

  • In some cases panelists took the initiative to trade contact information with classmates so they could ask each other questions outside of the course environment (via text messages or phone calls). In other cases, the teacher recommended it or asked them to do it.

  • Students want opportunities to have more organic conversations than most structured online discussions allow. Online teachers, ask yourself: Is your discussion question something that will start a conversation?Are you asking students to reply to other students as a requirement, or are you giving them prompts to guide them to give meaningful feedback to their peers?

Building community means something different to each student

One panelist brought up a critical point—today’s student shave very diverse backgrounds, goals, and needs. Where students are in their lives affects how meaningful they find different online course activities. As a38-year-old mother working full-time, the panelist will not pursue an extra credit opportunity to find study buddies, but noted that a 19-year-old just out of high school may want a chance to meet and work with fellow classmates. It’s important for teachers to realize that working parents may just be trying to complete the course requirements so they can earn an Associate Degree forTransfer.

Building community by demonstrating care for students

In response to a question from the audience, the panelists felt instructors cared for them by taking the time to answer their questions quickly, warmly, and thoroughly; by checking up on and encouraging students who didn’t complete activities. In one case, a panelist was pleasantly surprised that she was able to call the instructor and the instructor picked up on the first ring. She did not expect the teacher to be so accessible, and that made her feel supported.

Trying to maintain community during group projects

The last question from the audience asked how online teachers can motivate students in group projects to be more engaged and accountable. Panelists shared that it can be difficult and frustrating not to have any participation or contact by group project team members who are not contributing. One panelist gave a fantastic suggestion to improve group project participation: instead of having big projects at the end of the class, have small projects at the beginning that require and foster collaboration much earlier. Another panelist liked having an opportunity to rate each group member’s level of effort after the project was over.

Overall, the student panel discussion was a big success—worthy of being the OTC19 opening keynote. Many conference-goers expressed that the students provided valuable insights and wished that there had been more time to ask additional questions. To that end, the MindWires team will continue to seek opportunities to highlight student voices and opinions related to the topics covered in this blog. Until then, go watch the recording of the student panel.