By Sharla Berry, PhD
Assistant Professor of Education Leadership – California Lutheran University
We are pleased to have Sharla Berry, PhD, Assistant Professor of Education Leadership at California Lutheran University author our blog today. Dr. Berry’s research explores how students and faculty define and experience community in online courses and programs. She also examines the interpersonal, academic, extracurricular and technical factors that support and undermine online learning communities. In today’s blog she highlights some of the core findings of this research, and its implications for researchers and practitioners. The highlighted findings are drawn from two qualitative case studies. In the first case study, she draws on interviews with 20 students in one fully online doctoral program, as well as video and message board data from six courses (Berry, 2017). In the second study, she interviewed 13 faculty who taught in the same online doctoral program (Berry, 2018, 2019). In this post, she focuses on the tools and strategies that support community in online programs in higher education.
Finding 1: Faculty Can Employ a Range of Student-Centered Strategies to Cultivate Community Online
In a case study of one online doctoral program at the University of the West (pseudonym), students described their community as an interactive and supportive social group. They developed feelings of membership, belonging, and trust, which they associated with increased student engagement and retention (Berry, 2017). This community was fostered in large part by instructors’ ability to cultivate social presence in the classroom. To establish social presence, students must feel supported in sharing elements of their “real lives” in the online classroom, including elements of their academic, professional and personal identities (Garrison, 2011).
Faculty cultivated social presence by using a wide-range of student-centered teaching strategies (Berry, 2017b). At the start of the semester, faculty would post warm and welcoming content to the course message board. In these posts, they would preview the course and also share information about their personal background and interests. Some faculty would even share photographs of themselves engaged in hobbies and encourage students to do the same. Activities like this helped students build rapport with faculty and with each other (Berry, 2017b). Once the semester was underway, the instructors used a portion of class time to allow students to share personal and professional updates. While some faculty were reluctant at first to cede class time in this way, students said that having some time to share personal accomplishments and work-related challenges helped them cultivate feelings of community (Berry, 2017b, 2019). Students noted that in an online class, you lose the opportunity for “water cooler discussions” that occur when people are in physical proximity. Therefore, it was important for faculty to be intentional about creating opportunities for “small talk” in the classroom.
Finding 2: The Format of Online Delivery Impacts Students’ Experiences
A core finding of my work has been that synchronous (compared to asynchronous) learning has a unique impact on students’ sense of community in an online program (Berry, 2017; 2019b). Several students had participated in distance learning in the 1990s and early 2000’s. They noted that asynchronous communication did not provide them with the same level of engagement and interactivity as synchronous communication. Further, all of the students in the study indicated that synchronous video played a key role in how they were able to connect with each other. Students were required to turn their cameras on during the synchronous meetings. Using a “gallery view”, students could see all of their peers and their instructor simultaneously. As a result of this increased presence (and accountability), students were more likely to be focused on the class than they would have been if their cameras were off. Using video also provided students with an opportunity to build community by learning about the lives of their peers. By seeing photographs, figurines and personal affects in the background, students were able to find similarities between peers and touchpoints for conversation (Berry, 2017b). In this way, synchronous video prompted more intimate interactions between students. These findings suggest that practitioners should consider opportunities for synchronous communication, including the use of video, when it is equally accessible to all students (Berry, 2019).
Finding 3: Faculty Need Support for Cultivating Online Learning Communities
In a case study of 13 faculty, I found that there was a wide range of faculty preparedness with regard to online teaching (Berry, 2018). Using the TPACK framework (Koehler and Mishra 2009), I found that some faculty had limited technical knowledge about how to operate a learning management system (LMS). These faculty benefited from targeted professional development that allowed them to tinker with the LMS (Berry, 2018). Other faculty, including early-adopters and self-taught technologists, desired professional development that focused on online pedagogy, which includes “deep knowledge about the processes and practices or methods of teaching and learning’’ (Koehler and Mishra, 2009, p. 4). It is here that institutional offerings were limited. Weekly faculty meetings formed a temporary substitute, as faculty used the time to discuss challenges associated with facilitating specific content online. However, faculty were unsure of different strategies to cultivate and assess deep learning in fully-online environments (Berry, 2018). There is a need for research and practitioner guides that address online pedagogy.
In this post, I have offered important considerations for teaching and learning online. Faculty may need to employ different teaching strategies and tools than they would in face-to-face classrooms. Drawing on my research, I have argued that online teaching can promote community through student-centered strategies. As practitioners make decisions about how to deliver online courses, this research urges them to consider the affordances of synchronous video. Finally, I found that faculty need professional development that is targeted toward their skill level, interest, and content area. Just as students find personalized teaching beneficial, faculty need personalized professional development to build online teaching capacity. This piece, and the related studies, provide starting points for researchers and practitioners who seek to promote a sense of community in online courses and programs.
Berry, S. (2017). Exploring community in an online doctoral program: A digital case study (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California).
Berry, S. (2017b). Building Community in Online Doctoral Classrooms: Instructor Practices that Support Community. Online Learning Journal. Retrieved from https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/875/265
Berry, S. (2018). Professional development for online faculty: instructors’ perspectives on cultivating technical, pedagogical and content knowledge in a distance program. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-018-9194- 0(0123456789
Berry, S. (2019). The Role of Video and Text Chat in a Virtual Classroom: How Technology Impacts Community. In Educational Technology and Resources for Synchronous Learning in Higher Education (pp. 173-187). IGI Global.
Berry, S. (2019b). Teaching to connect: Community-building strategies for the virtual classroom. Online Learning, 23(1), 164-183. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i1.1425
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive
presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.
Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. New York: NY. Routledge.
Koehler, M., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK)? Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1), 60–70.