How to Build Community in Online Classes Using Online Discussion Boards

When teaching students in virtual learning environments (VLE), creating a sense of community can be challenging. However, using AI-assisted online discussion boards can help facilitate communication and foster a sense of connection among students of different social, ethnic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. 

This article explores valuable tips for creating an effective online discussion board that will help build a sense of community and inclusion in online classes.

Building Learning Communities Through Asynchronous Class Discussions

Participating in online discussions can be an isolating experience for students of asynchronous learning environments. Whether you’re a Higher Education professor or Instructional Designer specializing in VLEs, you may wonder what options there are to foster a sense of community and inclusion in asynchronous class discussions, especially when your online students come from various socio-economic backgrounds.

This is a crucial question because, as Social Learning Theory teaches, learning is a social activity involving peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration, both of which may be harder to facilitate in online classes. As asynchronous learning becomes more common, creating opportunities for online community building and in-depth student engagement is essential to ensure learners develop a sense of belonging, are motivated to participate, and learn from one another.

The role of discussion in online community building has become even more important in recent years. A study from 2020 comparing the sense of community of 1,189 Chinese students in synchronous and asynchronous online college courses during the pandemic found that students had a stronger feeling of the classroom community regarding interacting, discussing, and sharing ideas with one another in asynchronous learning environments, compared with synchronous ones. The explanation was that students in this online teaching format usually have more time to think in order to fully express their ideas, explore topics, interact with and respond to their peers in discussions that take place online, e.g., in discussion forums or boards. This helped them to feel engaged and connected with other students.

As these educational technology studies show, providing students with opportunities for interaction and meaningful discussion is a critical element in any virtual community-building endeavor in the context of asynchronous online learning environments.

AI-Assisted Online Discussion Boards as Community-Building Tools

A new wave of asynchronous learning platforms has emerged on the market with multifunctional features that can help educators create an inclusive, supportive learning environment using artificial intelligence techniques. A key component for building online communities through discussion-based student interaction is incorporating online discussion boards into the course design.

Using AI-assisted discussion boards, such as Ment.io, in your online classroom has many benefits. For example, these boards:

  • Help students engage with the course material while building meaningful relationships with other learners, which creates a social presence and sense of connectedness in virtual classrooms.
  • Promote conversation among participants of diverse backgrounds through threaded discussions, giving them the time and space to engage with one another and develop a sense of belonging and inclusion.
  • Track and record all student activity on the board in real-time using modern analytics features, making it possible to monitor and support individual student engagement
  • Motivate students to participate with asynchronous learning techniques, such as polls, interactive tasks, and quizzes
  • Enable in-depth and media-rich discussion of a variety of course material using embedded file sharing
  • Provide individualized support to inactive or under-engaged learners through online messaging features, helping instructors ensure all students have a positive learning experience.

For these reasons, online discussion boards are great tools for online learning as they provide asynchronous communication channels for your students and give them the space and opportunity to develop a sense of community and interdependence.

With these insights in mind, let’s consider some practical implications.

4 Ways to Foster a Sense of Community in Online Board Discussions

Would you like to try it for yourself? Here are four practical suggestions for creating online learning communities that encourage peer discussion and cooperation, help students feel more connected, increase engagement, and enhance overall learning results in any virtual classroom.

#1 – Set ground rules for communication to create a safe learning space

One of the first steps to creating an inclusive online learning community is setting ground rules and norms for communication. The instructor has a crucial role in establishing these expectations for board users. They should serve as a foundation on which other community members can build trust and rapport.

Ground rules that will help foster student engagement and interaction include:

  • Establishing your online class as a space where asking questions is encouraged.
  • Making it clear what type of topics are appropriate and inappropriate for the board.
  • Creating guidelines students should adhere to when posting, such as avoiding provocative comments and respecting diversity.

#2 – Promote ice-breaking group activities for class introductions

Creating opportunities for students to introduce themselves can have many benefits, especially when building a sense of community is one of the key objectives of online learning. An effective way to bring students together and establish a common ground is by asking them to share topics they’re interested in (e.g., music genres, movies, series, and physical activities), geographical location, and interesting facts about themselves (e.g., hobbies, favorite foods).

Another way to break the ice in online board discussions is by introducing group activities that encourage immediate student interaction. For instance, Two Truths and a Lie is a fun exercise in which students post two true statements and one lie about themselves and then comment on other students’ posts to determine which of their statements is the lie.

#3 – Use collaborative learning techniques to facilitate peer interaction

Another possibility to maximize student interaction is by using collaborative learning techniques within asynchronous communication exchanges. Collaborative learning involves students working together in groups to complete a common task, project, or assignment, such as researching a topic, coming up with a solution, or creating a product. Students can teach and learn from one another to increase their grasp of a subject through peer learning and instruction.

Online collaborative learning activities such as Clustering Techniques, for example, not only allow students to collaborate but also promote active engagement because participants take turns adding ideas without interruption. Alternatively, Collaborative Writing could bring students together to write a collaborative composition, such as an article or story that needs to be researched and planned by the group.

#4 – Monitor individual engagement and encourage participation

And finally, keeping track of individual student participation and engagement is also essential to promoting a sense of community in asynchronous online discussions. It’s helpful to consider such factors as the number of posts students make, how often they reply to other students, and how much time passes between their postings. Providing data-driven feedback to encourage active student involvement shows your learners that you care about their progress and development, which can help create a sense of accountability among them.

AI-supported discussion assessment tools like Ment.io make this process easier by monitoring not only quantitative but also qualitative factors in student engagement such as:

  • Collaboration level – E.g., do they cooperate with all of their classmates or just with a few of their friends?
  • Thoroughness – E.g., do they limit themselves to voting, or do they provide arguments and evidence-based explanations as well?
  • Clarity – E.g., how often do their peers inquire about and build on their claims?
  • Balance – E.g., what is the ratio of their contribution to the debate in terms of arguments vs. counter-arguments?

This information is valuable because it helps educators to promote deeper conversations and more meaningful student interaction in asynchronous learning environments.

Conclusion

Online discussion boards are a powerful tool for facilitating asynchronous communication and building online learning communities. However, they can be ineffective if not used correctly. 

To create an effective board that promotes a sense of connection and inclusion among students of all backgrounds, instructors need to consider the following tips: set ground rules for respectful communication, promote ice-breaking group activities, use collaborative learning techniques, and encourage meaningful student interaction.

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