Building an engaged online community

The information on this page was prepared in Spring 2020 for the transition to emergency remote teaching. In preparation for Fall 2020, Duke Learning Innovation has developed a new resource, Flexible Teaching, which features a series of guides for course design, delivery, and materials. Please refer to as you prepare for your fall course(s).

Build ways to increase and maintain that sense of community that will help keep students motivated to participate and learn. Communication between you and the students is important, but it is also important that students engage with each other. 

Suggested practices

  • Communicate to students early and often. Provide reminders of how students can reach you, and when they can expect a response.
  • Show interest in students as people – ask students how they are doing, ways they are handling being online or other non-course topics.
  • Encourage students to use video or pictures of themselves in Forum posts and online sessions so that other students can see them and know they are engaged. For example, start off class by creating a discussion forum especially for students (and you) to post introductions of themselves, including a photo, audio pronunciation of their names, or short video. 
  • Use the Sakai discussion forums with thoughtful prompts to engage students. Use forums for students to post substantive responses to course readings, to respond to their peers’ comments, to ask/answer questions, and for other purposes.
  • Set a tone for online discussions with discussion guidelines.
  • Provide (or suggest) ways that students can talk with each other – encourage student study groups. Provide a forum where students can post the times they are available (or their time zones) and their own Zoom link so they can virtually get together. Use breakout rooms if you are hosting a live session so students can speak in small groups. Use the chat function in live sessions and encourage students to respond to each other.
  • If circumstances allow, hold one or more live Zoom class sessions a week to maintain community (but recognize that not all students may be able to attend live, so record the sessions and don’t make them required). In sessions, require students to turn on their video, if their bandwidth allows, to increase student engagement. When possible, make the live sessions interactive rather than lecturing – use breakout rooms, have discussions, have students solve problems or do role plays, practice speaking, and more. 
  • Prioritize asynchronous work, but design for interactivity between students by asking students to respond to peers’ posts and discuss together. If your class is larger than 8 students, consider putting students in smaller groups to allow them to engage deeply with peers on the Forums without being overwhelmed by the amount reading and commenting. Have one member of each group post summaries to the main discussion board, to also reduce instructor workload (you can skim the group discussion and read the summaries). 
  • Use Piazza in Sakai for Question-and-Answer style engagement; ask students to crowd-source responses to peers’ questions, before you tag the best answer. 
  • In general consider how you might encourage group/peer work, study groups, homework teams, and provide other means of structured student-to-student connection. Since students won’t have in-class time as the default for coordinating work on their projects, remind them to set explicit deadlines for various parts of the group work, and be clear with each other where and how group communications will happen, so that everyone in the group stays aware of progress. 
  • Be sure to link the group work to course goals and outcomes, though. The activity should help them meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments, as well as fostering course engagement and reducing feelings of isolation online. 
  • Hold students accountable, but also be flexible in consideration of any mitigating circumstances they may be encountering. You do not have to assign points for forum posts, but you may ask students to detail their contributions and how their contributions (or others) helped their learning. 
  • Do not overwhelm students with options. Learning new technologies takes time, and may isolate some students with limited access. 

Tools for engaged class community

Links to help with Zoom, including students setting up their own zoom rooms, how to use chat and breakout rooms. Help students participate in Zoom.

Sakai Forums or Piazza for asynchronous engagement:

Voicethread for engagement with media, supported by Duke and can be used within Sakai.