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8 Tips for Building Community in Online Courses

What makes your online course special? Is it special insights that can be found nowhere else or the world’s most dynamic instructors? Probably not. You can set your online course(s) apart from the rest by building a strong, passionate community around your course. In this guide, Peerboard looks at why it’s so important to build community and some simple, practical things you can do to create your own community.

April 1, 2022
mins read
8 Tips for Building Community in Online Courses

Why is it important to build community?

Online courses have some significant advantages over in-person courses. Enrollees can go through the material at their own pace, review specific sections multiple times, and focus on the areas that are most important to them. However, one challenge with online courses is creating a shared learning experience.

While not always the case, many people learn most effectively within a community of fellow learners. An individual studying on their own may find themselves struggling to stay focused and motivated because they have no one else as a reference point. If a particular point is confusing, they don't have anyone to bounce questions off of.

However, if they are surrounded by peers who are also trying to learn, they'll all push each other forward and offer encouragement when needed, ensuring that everyone succeeds. And the success of everyone really is important. If you want people to spread the word about your online course, you need them to succeed. The more people succeed, the more they will tell others about your course, and those people will succeed, and so on. It's a virtuous cycle.

The data backs up the value of learning within a community. A recent study by the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences of the United States of America found that students learn more when they are actively engaged with their instructors and fellow classmates than when they passively take in lectures. As the study notes:

"Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses. Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline."

The bottom line? The more community you can build within your online course, the stronger your course will be and the more your enrollees will succeed.

8 practical ways to build community in your online course

So, given the importance of learning within a community, what steps can you take to create such a community within your online course? Here are 8 practical steps you can take.

1. Set the tone yourself

If you want your course to be a community, then you need to model that yourself. This starts with setting the tone. Your first few communications should be friendly and welcoming, even if they’re brief. Make it clear that you want enrollees to engage with you and with their fellow students. It can also help to share a few personal details about yourself, such as your hobbies, pictures of your pets, or anything else that gives people a better understanding of who you are as a person.

Additionally, if your course contains a discussion forum of any sort (and it should), make sure that you're active there as well. Invite students to ask questions, share their own insights, and celebrate their wins. Share your own wins and losses so that your enrollees feel comfortable sharing theirs. Remember, you are the "expert" in your course. Sharing the highs and lows of your own journey will encourage those who are a little ways behind you on their own learning journey.

2. Create a "safe" learning environment

One of the most important things you can do to build a community is to create a "safe" learning environment where there are no stupid questions and mistakes are okay. You want to make sure that students feel comfortable speaking up and provide ample support for those who need it.

Depending on your topic, you also may want to create a clear code of conduct that defines what behavior is acceptable and what isn't allowed in order to foster a healthy community atmosphere. Although you obviously hope you don't need to enforce them, you want to have guidelines in place that ensure everyone is respectful and inclusive.

It's also important to make students feel as if they're part of the course, so encourage them to participate and share ideas. When it comes time for feedback, give everyone a chance to have their voice heard. Let students know that they won't be judged, even if they feel like their idea might be silly. In fact, you can model this yourself by raising common questions people might have, making it clear that those questions aren't stupid, and then providing the answers.

Making people feel safe enough to share their thoughts is one of the best ways to foster community in an online course.

3. Offer incentives for participation

While it may seem unnecessary, offering incentives for participation really can increase engagement and help foster community. The incentives don't need to be anything fancy. Just something that will motivate your students to actively participate.

For example, say that you're doing a live chat where you allow students to ask any and all questions. As an incentive for being part of the chat, you could offer a free resource at the end, like a worksheet, template, checklist, etc. Only those who are part of the live chat get access to the free resource. This gives your students a reason to take part in the live chat and also increases the sense of community within your online course.

4. Include a discussion board in your course

Though they've been around since the early days of the internet, discussion boards are still both incredibly useful and popular. Look no further than sites like Reddit and Quora as proof. A discussion board gives students the chance to share their thoughts and questions with one another, which can help them learn and teach each other. It also gives you an opportunity to respond and engage with your students on a more personal level.

Ideally, your discussion board should include the following features:

  • Give participants the ability to have private conversations
  • Group-oriented messaging so that participants can send messages directly to specific groups in the class
  • Separate discussion groups and categories so there is room for all types of conversation
  • Real time conversation updates
  • The ability to upload media such as photos and videos

Don't worry if you don't know how to create a discussion board yourself. Platforms like PeerBoard integrate directly with Thinkific and provide all the features you need to foster robust community discussions within your online course.

5. Get feedback from your community members

As your community grows, you'll want to get feedback from them. This will help you see what topics they're interested in and what they find most helpful. You can use the feedback to tweak your course to make it more effective in the future.

Ask them questions like:

  • What materials have you found most helpful?
  • What types of discussion topics would you like to see more of?
  • What have you struggled with the most in the course?
  • How can we make our community more helpful for you?
  • What resources would help you succeed?

Getting feedback from your community helps them feel more invested in it and gives them reasons to stay engaged. If they know that you're going to make additions or changes based on their feedback, they'll want to keep coming back. Soliciting feedback also shows your students that you genuinely care about them and want to help them succeed. This, in turn, makes it more likely that they will tell others about your course.

6. Keep content fresh and updated

The quality of your content is crucial to building a community. If people see that your course content is not fresh and updated, they won't want to stay. Granted, there are some subjects that don't necessarily need to be updated, at least in terms of industry changes or things like that. This would include subjects like painting, fiction writing, etc. But if you want to build a community of students that stays engaged, you still need to find ways to keep things fresh.

In addition to making sure that your course content is still relevant and updated, here are some other ways you can keep adding value to your course over time:

  • Add new lessons/modules
  • Host live stream events
  • Host webinars
  • Add new resources
  • Interview industry experts
  • Partner with other course creators to provide your students with access to new materials
  • Partner with relevant brands/companies to get discounts on tools that are useful for your students

7. Build in multiple avenues for interaction and engagement

In order to grow your community, you need to make it easy for people to interact with you and one another. In addition to standard methods of communication, like email and discussion boards, it can also be helpful to add in other avenues for interaction and engagement.

Some options include:

  • Chat apps (Slack, Google Chat, etc.)
  • Polls
  • Video conferencing (Zoom, Skype, etc.)
  • Live Streams
  • Text messaging
  • Social media groups (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)

Some of these communication methods are better for group chats, while others are better for one-on-one communication. For example, in Slack you could create different channels for different subjects and encourage your students to interact with each other within those channels. For one-on-one interactions with students, you could do a video call or give them a phone number where they can text message you.

The point is simply that to build community you need to give your students multiple ways to engage with each other and you. Some may prefer chat, others might like social media groups, and others might want to use text messaging. Multiple communication methods means that each person can use the one they're most comfortable with, which increases overall engagement.

8. Stay actively, personally engaged

We've touched on this in a number of ways, but it's worth stating clearly. The most effective way to build community within your online course is for you to stay actively engaged yourself.

If you're not regularly engaging with your online course community, don't expect them to engage with each other. Online course communities need to be actively maintained. It's not a "set it and forget it" deal. Make sure you're checking in with them on a regular basis, adding new content, establishing relationships within the group, and helping members connect by facilitating conversations around their interests or needs. The more often that they interact with you and each other the stronger that sense of community will become.

On the flip side, if the only place enrollees see you is in the learning modules, they're not going to be inclined to engage elsewhere. If you want to build a community around your online course, you need to make it happen.

Final thoughts

Building a strong community around your online course can be what differentiates you from others who offer similar courses. If you had the choice between two identical courses, except one of them had a thriving community where everyone was engaged and encouraging each other, which one would you choose? The one with the community, of course.

The reality is, your course probably doesn't contain any mind-blowing information that can't be found anywhere else on the internet. But if you're willing to invest the time and effort, you can offer a strong, supportive, passionate community that can't be found anywhere else on the internet.

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