Building and sustaining community in online courses for adults
Clouser, Sherry Ann
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The purpose of this study was to understand how faculty members develop community in online courses. Four research questions guided the study: 1) Why do faculty members attempt to build and sustain community in their online courses? 2) What challenges do faculty members face when building and sustaining community in their online courses? 3) What strategies do faculty members use to address the challenges they face when building and sustaining community in online courses? 4) What are the differences between face-to-face and online course communities? Nine experienced faculty members in higher education from the Southeastern, Northeastern, and Midwestern United States were interviewed and shared documents from their online courses. Each participant attempted to develop a sense of community in their courses, encountered community-related challenges while teaching online, and devised strategies for addressing those challenges. The data were analyzed using the constant comparative method, resulting in four themes. First, faculty members indicated that sense of community facilitates participation and supportive relationships among students in online courses. Second, faculty members experienced a variety of challenges while teaching online, including delays in communication, conflicts between students, and students who were not interested in course community. Third, faculty members identified strategies used to address these challenges, such as designing courses to avoid challenges, active facilitation of course discussions, private communication with students involved, and leaving the matter for the students to address themselves. Finally, the findings of this study showed that online course communities are different from face-to-face communities. Communication is more difficult online, but online courses tend to allow for more thorough, reflective discussions. While many students feel more comfortable participating in online conversations than in face-to-face discussions, some make comments online they would not say directly to a classmate or instructor. Three conclusions emerged from these findings. First, building and sustaining community is important to faculty members for successful online instruction. Second, when building and sustaining community in online courses, faculty members face technology-related, interpersonal, and emotional challenges. Finally, faculty members address challenges in their online course communities through course design and while teaching class.