Creating Community

Students in a large lecture hall.
Does face-to-face guarantee a personal learning experience? (Photo CC by 2.0 Brett Jordan )

Week Two Activities (due February 21):

[Be sure to sign up for a video chat meeting as soon as possible.]
  1. Sign up for a video chat and meet some of your colleagues.
  2. Explore Twitter communities and choose some people to follow.
  3. Complete some “Makes” to personalize your online presence.

One of the biggest concerns about teaching online is that it can be impersonal, lacking the human touch that can make face-to-face learning special.  Many of us have taken–or even taught–an online course that was…let’s be honest…less than inspiring.  These courses can live in rather dull learning management systems and rely heavily on automated multiple choice quizzes, resulting in a bland course with little personality.  The xMOOC model, made popular by Coursera and EdX, features mass enrollment (and mass drop-out) classes that are similarly limited to serving up content (“sage on the stage” lecture videos and multiple choice quizzes again) supplemented by a discussion forum.  Just as with face-to-face classes, courses online can be done poorly.  But online learning can also be more engaging and rewarding.

We can do something different.

Think about it.  If digital communication is distant and impersonal, why do so many people seem so engaged with their mobile phones and other devices?  As they text, share photos, pass links to videos and other content, they are cultivating a community, often moving back and forth between online and face-to-face encounters.

In fact, we know that the Internet is a marvelous environment for learning; it can be engaging, enlightening, and highly personal. An astonishing array of information is available to explore online, in formats that open new possibilities. Enormous creativity has been unleashed online–some silly, some deeply moving, some eye-opening. Friendships, networks, vibrant communities of people sharing their interests in a million different things have been made possible through the tools of online communication.

Can’t some of that be harnessed for education? Absolutely. We can minimize the negative features of learning online and maximize its benefits. We can set the stage for online learners who create, share, discuss, and help each other learn.  We can prepare students for the learning that will take place online long after they have left our classes. But to do that, we need to encourage a sense of community among learners.  Online learning should not be a solitary, depersonalized experience.  So this week we explore communities–both within the OLE and out on the Internet.

For background, take a look at two resources on learning communities.

  • Author and video-maker John Green’s Ted Talk tells the story of how the Internet–and YouTube, in particular–can host a community of learners.  What might we learn from these examples?
  • Kevin Wilcox presents a more formal model of building an online learning community.  How will the elements he describes be manifest in your course?

Activity #1. Video Chat: The Future is Now

You’ll be working with other OLE participants mostly asynchronously, through blog posts/comments, Twitter, and other means. Millions of people build and maintain relationships like this every day. However, it’s not the way most of us are used to interacting with students. Fortunately, video conferencing tools allow us to have something us closer to a face-to-face experience, which can be an important option in your online tool belt. It’s good to know you can do Jetson-style video meetings when you need to.

  1. Sign-up for a Meeting Time In Advance. Choose one of the available time slots for a videochat on the simple sign-up form we’ve created (These times have now passed but we’re leaving the form up to show the example.)
  2. Prepare for the Meeting. Do a “dry run” of the meeting to make sure you have the right equipment and understand Zoom, the video chat platform we’ll be using.
    • You’ll need a web cam with microphone.  You can use a desktop, laptop, or tablet (or even a smartphone if you install the mobile app).
    • Make sure you have Zoom installed on your device. Go to and login using your VCU userID.
    • You can also view additional Zoom instructions and video tutorials within Zoom.
  3. The Meeting.  We’ll send you a link via email to your particular meeting as it approaches.  Our agenda is simple:
    • introduce ourselves, mentioning something about our level of experience (if any) with online courses and how we ended up in the OLE.
    • share our thoughts on (a) What are our biggest concerns about teaching online?  (b) What are our aspirations for our online courses?
    • reflect briefly on the video chat experience. How might it be relevant for your course?  (Virtual office hours?  Small group work?  Something else?) What are the advantages and challenges of this tool?

Other video chat options:

There’s more than one way to hold a video chat.  You may already know Skype or Apple’s Face Time.  We’re using Zoom for this first meeting because it’s now the VCU-supported platform but keep in mind two other popular options; they each have their pros and cons.

+ Simple to use, no need to download any software, no limitations on who can participate.

–  Only basic video chat; no additional features.  Modest image quality, some lag time. Limited to 8 participants (better with fewer.)

Google Hangout

+Includes screen sharing; can be recorded to YouTube video as Google Hangouts on Air, and is supported by VCU Tech Services.

– More of a learning curve; requires Google+ sign-up.  Modest image quality, some lag time. Limited to 15 participants (better with fewer.)

Activity #2. Twitter Following

Twitter is one of those tools that makes very little sense to most people at first.  “Why would I ever want to use Twitter?” most people ask…until they spend a little time and learn to use it.  We’re not talking about tweeting photos of your lunch.  We mean Twitter for education.  We’ve already suggested one way to use Twitter: to share messages among a small group (like a class) using a particular hashtag (#vcuole).  Most academic conferences, for example, now have such a “back channel” discussion using the conference’s hashtag.  In fact, there are many, many education-related hashtags from K-12 to higher ed used for a wide variety of reasons.

Another use of Twitter is to learn about, share, and discuss resources related to your area of work with a larger community of colleagues.  (This is also a great way to have students get a sense of the activity in your field in real time.) To do so, you need to find some people and organizations related to your field to “follow.”  Here’s some quick tips on doing that.  (Clicking on the double-arrow icon in the lower right-hand corner will open the video to full screen to make it easier to see.  When you’re done, click the arrows again to return here.).

After you learn what people and hashtags are relevant to your area, you can join in and begin sharing and discussing.  For now, though, start easy if you’re new to Twitter.

  1. If you’re new to Twitter…use Twitter’s search function (or Google) to find at least 10 resources related to the course you intend to teach online.  This could be prominent researchers or educators in your field, journals with Twitter accounts, professional associations, or informal discussion groups.  Try to find some hashtags related to your field that seem active (#nursing?  #biology?  #homelandsecurity? #sculpture? #arts? #management?).  They can lead you to more good resources.
  2. If you’re an experienced Twitter user…share a few Twitter tips for new folks, using #vcuole.  How do you use Twitter?  And take a few minutes to expand your network.
  3. Retweet (here’s how) at least one thing you find to be of interest, adding the #vcuole hashtag to share it with the group.

One more tip:  Once you start finding folks to “follow,” the Twitter stream can get overwhelming quickly.  You can manage your Twitter stream using Tweetdeck (or other similar tools), which enables you to set up various columns to sort the tweets coming your way.  It makes Twitter much easier to use.

Postscript: Twitter has conventions that take a while to de-code.  Here’s a tweet, with notes on the conventions used.

This tweet shares a resource.  In doing so, it mentions the author’s Twitter handle (@hrheingold) so he’ll be alerted.  Next come the hashtags that make this tweet visible to various networks–our #vcuole group as well as the larger #vcualtlab group.  Finally, a hat-tip (h/t) to acknowledge the source of this resource, @tressiemchphd, who had retweeted something from @dankruta that mentioned the original resource.  In a single tweet, four people, two groups linked by hashtags, and whatever followers happen to notice are connected to a great resource!

Activity #3.  Personalize Your Social Media with Some Makes

Think of “Makes” as an à la carte option for smaller assignments. The goal is to do the “Makes” that appeal to you while earning the number of “stars” you need for that section.

The focus of this particular series of Makes is personalizing your presence on the web and easing into some possibly unfamiliar waters. Personalizing your web presence is part of building an online community and combatting the depersonalized version of online education.  Your goal is to earn at least four stars. You can do that through any combination of Makes you choose. More advanced users–or anyone, really–can do them all. 🙂

We’ve asked you to tweet a specific hashtag with each make (along with #vcuole) so we’ll see your progress on each Make’s page and you’ll get a chance to practice using Twitter hashtags.  We’ve also estimated the difficulty (“weight” in stars) of each Make but, of course, this may vary considerably based on your experience level.  If needed, use the Internet to get help (Google search, Twitter, our discussion forum, etc).  Some of these Makes link out to simple instructional screencasts from ALT Lab’s Tom Woodward.

And don’t forget to have fun.


  • New users: at least 5 stars
  • More experienced users: do them all!
  • Click on any one of the makes below to get instructions.