Critics of online learning posit the lack of personal contact between student and instructor inhibits the learning process (Jones, 2011). “These educators fear that learners lose a significant part of the learning environment because online learners cannot touch, feel, hear, or sense the direct presence of the instructor and other students” (p. 68). The learner may not develop the critical thinking skills or subject matter knowledge in an impersonal environment, one in which the student has not connected to the instructor or other classmates. Thus, it is essential for instructors to create a learning environment that is collaborative, engaging, and inclusive (Elbaum et al., 2002). A respectful, trusting, and safe community is “a necessary and integral part of a functional learning group” (p. 47).
A 2010 US News report revealed online universities retention rates vary dramatically, from twenty percent to ninety-two percent with an average of fifty-five percent (Burnsed, 2010). A study (Rovai, 2005) found “alienation” and “low sense of community” as the two major factors in low persistence rates in distance education programs. Students felt isolated from the instructor and peers, powerless, and felt as though the online course was disorganized, and instructions were not clear.
Holmberg (as cited by Ni and Aust, 2008) posits when positive relationships exist between the student and the instructor, learning becomes enjoyable. “Students will be able to learn to make decisions, construct meaning, and solve problems” (p. 479). Student motivation is impacted by the use of language and tone used in conversations (Ni et al.). Ni and Aust found “behaviors that reduce social and psychological distance” in online pedagogy (text based, asynchronous) have a positive correlation to “sense of community, learner satisfaction, and perceived learning” (p. 480).
O’Neil (2004) suggests that with encouragement and individualized attention, students will quickly connect to the instructor and begin to provide support to other students. Collins and Berge (as cited by O’Neil), provide the following guidelines necessary for building community in an online environment (p. 130):
Affirm and recognize students’ input
Provide opportunities for students to develop a sense of group cohesiveness
Maintain the group as a unit
Help members to work together in a mutual cause
The instructor is an integral part of the community, too (Elbaum et al., 2002), and “being present” will help develop a sense of community and encourage interaction between student and instructor. Rovai suggests the following strategies when developing a social presence in the virtual classroom (p. 82):
Avoid becoming the center of all discussions, and emphasize student-to-student interactions.
Access discussion forums each day in order to keep up with the conversations.
Post at least one message per day in group discussion boards to suggest postings are being read. However, allow learners time for reflection. Postings can be as simple as expressing appreciation, agreement, support, and encouragement.
Avoid being sharp or overly critical.
MacKnight (as cited by Rovai) asserts it is important to maintain a focused discussion and periodically summarize what has or needs to be done. Also, encourage student dialog by asking thought-provoking questions that stimulate in-depth, reflective discussions and hold students responsible for their thinking (p. 82).