Using Learning Technologies to Create Community in the College Classroom

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Learning technologies continue to evolve as higher education itself does the same. Knowing this, instructors must determine not only how they will include adaptive, technologically-forward materials into their courses but for what purpose. While learning technologies can serve a variety of functions in the college classroom one universal need in all courses, regardless of method of delivery, is the creation of community. Without an overall cohesive classroom experience students do not feel connected to one another but the integration of community building learning technologies will engage students while uniting them as a group of scholars.

Incorporating learning technologies into course content can address isolation in college students, an issue that is commonly associated with online courses. In fact, when interviewing for an online teaching position, instructors who are vying for the opportunity to facilitate these courses are often asked how they will solve this seemingly universal problem. How will you bridge the gap online education can sometimes create between instructors and students and between students and their fellow classmates? Why is it important to foster a strong sense of community in your online classrooms and how will you go about doing this? Answering these questions is a must but backing up those answers with how learning technologies like the discussion board and MOOCS will used to achieve the desired results is even more important.

While it is very important for online instructors to help their students feel as though they belong to a group rather than exist as a disenfranchised individual this is not a dilemma unique to online courses. Rather, all courses, especially with the availability of online platforms in many institutions, can benefit from community creation both when meeting face-to-face and when interacting within a learning management system. How, then, can instructors incorporate various learning technologies into their courses in an effort to bring their students together as unified scholars?

One mainstay of the online classroom that can also be implemented as a useful piece of the learning technology puzzle is the discussion board. Although calling discussion boards the “heart of the classroom” has been perhaps overused in academic circles it does ring true in many respects. A well-crafted discussion board can help students in expressing their thoughts, asking questions in a course questions or Q&A forum, in honing their critical thinking skills through conducting research on and providing analysis of in-depth discussion topics, and, possibly above all, in communicating with both their instructor and fellow students in open, yet moderated forums. Where else can a student enter his or her post at night and essentially “converse” with another student who responds the next morning? Discussion boards are not just for online courses; rather, instructors who teach hybrid courses or augmented ones that make use of a few tools in the LMS by including them in order to continue the discussion once a face-to-face class session has ended. Discussion boards show us that the learning that takes place from interaction among students does not have to cease when class time is over as they allow students to continue to work as a group while they maintain their connections with each other no matter the time or place.

MOOCs take the sense of community in a smaller course and make it a global affair. Students from around the world can come together to discuss a wide variety of topics from macroeconomics to navigating the digital earth using geospatial tools. MOOCs may seem like online-only opportunities to create community on a large scale. While it is certainly true that the distance education nature of this type of course offering contains a certain appeal to those enrolled, hybrid and onground instructors can find ways to integrate open courses into their curriculum as well.

For example, a small Midwestern college recently ran a MOOC that was incorporated into other college’s materials where instructors required students to join the free course and complete some of the assignments located within. In a rather interesting turn of events, high school teachers also required their honors students to review and complete some activities within the MOOC. The enrollees, no matter how they were able to attend class, joined a very large community of like-minded scholars and made connections in a way that would not have been possible if they did not sign up for the massive open online course or if this type of learning technology were not made a part of their course curriculum.

Taking advantage of different learning technologies shows students that their instructors are invested in acquiring innovative tools that will engage them throughout the course while they also combat isolation. It also demonstrates that these tools can be used in a variety of capacities including forming groups both in and out of the classroom. Here, students can come together and get to know one another as they complete their educational journeys.