7 Recommendations for Creating a Connected, Collaborative, Supportive Online Learning Environment

“We, as humans, are social beings. Whether we are going to communicate in an online environment or face-to-face, we like to have contact with each other,” says Karyn Holt, associate clinical professor and director of online quality in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University, paraphrasing the social learning concept that underlies her approach to online learning. “We’re trying to blur the line in the online environment so that it looks very similar to face-to-face learning.”

In an interview with Online Classroom, Holt and her colleague Paul Clements, associate clinical professor in the Division of Graduate Nursing, offered the following recommendations for fostering a connected, collaborative, and supportive online learning environment:

  • Ask students in week one about their subject knowledge and online learning experience. Each group of students is different, which is why it’s important to gauge their abilities and knowledge. Holt asks questions to better understand her students and adjust the course accordingly. She asks her students to answer questions such as the following during that first week: What do you want to get out of this course? What are your biggest fears about this course? What do you think are your strengths that you bring to this course?
  • Provide optional synchronous support. When a substantial number of students in an online course express uncertainty about their abilities to succeed in the online learning environment, it helps to offer an optional synchronous session toward the end of the first week. Holt offers hour-long synchronous sessions to illustrate what students need to do in the learning management system. “I start with week one and walk through the course. I tell them, ‘Here are the objectives. If you can meet these objectives, you move on to week two.’ Then I scroll down through week one and say, ‘Here are the ideas that will help you answer [these objectives].’ It illustrates and models to them exactly the behavior that I expect of them in the online classroom.”

    Offering synchronous sessions increases the instructor’s social presence, providing opportunities for faculty-student and student-student interaction. Synchronous sessions also provide opportunities to discuss the relevance of the content to the students’ learning and future endeavors.

    Holt records these synchronous sessions for those who cannot attend and for those who would like to review them as the course progresses.

  • Offer multiple levels of support. One of the challenges of offering a rich online learning experience is that some learners, due to lack of experience, may struggle to use many of the features of the online course. “I try to make technology blend into the background so the students don’t perceive that their use of technology or lack of confidence in their use of technology would be a constraining factor for them to participate in the program,” Holt says. “The whole idea is to make the technology fade into the background.”

    The challenge is meeting the diverse needs of all the learners. Holt does this by offering three levels of resources—beginner, intermediate, and expert. For example, resources for a beginner might include just-in-time videos from the software developer; intermediate resources might include one or two key videos from an instructional designer on quick steps to using the technology; and the advanced level might offer brief instructions with screenshots.

  • Create a synopsis at the end of each discussion. The online instructor should be actively engaged in online discussions; however, it’s important to not be a dominant presence. “I tend not to take over [the discussion]. That would just reenact the lecture-learner approach. I like to guide the learners, so at the end of the week or two weeks [depending on the length of the discussion] I give them a brief synopsis,” Clements says.
  • Provide regular update notes. The online classroom can be an isolating space. Without regular contact, online learners may feel adrift. This is why Clements sends his students a weekly update note to let the students know what’s going on behind the scenes, such as grading. “Students, even adult students, tend to catastrophize if two weeks have gone by and their graded assignments haven’t come back. A little update note once a week in the main announcements board goes a long way toward making students feel connected,” Clements says.
  • Encourage learners to help each other. Clements is a strong proponent of the often-overlooked informal water-cooler/café discussion area. “I encourage students to use that freely for questions to me and to others. That way everybody sees it. It’s an informal, anything-goes discussion. … If I start to see an escalation around a certain assignment and there seems to be a common theme, then I take the reins and make an announcement,” Clements says.

    Holt adds, “It’s not just about faculty-student interaction but also about student-student and student-content interaction. And it’s our job as instructors to make sure that all three of those components are being addressed and that there is a place that they can all be met. It goes back to social learning theory: we are human, and we crave interaction and feedback.”

  • Use technology to create presence asynchronously. Holt and Clements encourage judicious use of “bells and whistles” to enhance the online learning experience. There are many tools that fall into this category. Holt offers three that help increase the instructor’s social presence:
    • Jing (www.techsmith.com/jing.html)—This program allows you to create narrated screencasts. Holt uses it to provide feedback on writing assignments, enabling her to better express tone and provide overall impressions on assignments. It enables the instructor to approximate synchronous communication while providing the flexibility of asynchronous communication.
    • PowToon (www.powtoon.com/)—This program enables the instructor to create cartoons to add a visually interesting and lighthearted introduction to topics. For example, Clements created a PowToon in which a character comes out and waves and says, “Welcome to forensic science. I’m here to tell you about the most important things you need to do to start off this course.” It then proceeds to the next cell, in which Clements uses the function that depicts a human hand writing text in a speech bubble, and Clements records the cartoon as he types text. “Even though it’s asynchronous, it gives the illusion that I’m right there writing it,” Clements says.  
    • Tellagami (https://tellagami.com/)—This program enables the user to create an animated avatar that uses his or her recorded voice. This creates an engaging, personal element that enhances the instructor’s social presence.


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