Engaging Students Online

Building community online is of the utmost importance, so your students are engaged and do not learn in isolation.

Building Community Online

You can create cohesive online communities by designing a sense of presence within the course, where you and your students feel connected as a group. Unlike a face-to-face class, presence in an online environment depends on the course design, facilitation of online discourse, focused instruction, and feedback immediacy.

Online learning research by Garrison, Anderson, Archer and Rourke (2007) tells us that there are 3 types of presence, which cultivate an online community when combined together. These presences include:

  1. Teaching presence
  2. Social presence
  3. Cognitive presence

It is essential that online instructors create all 3 types of presence.

Cultivating Teaching Presence

Creating a sense of teaching presence is a matter of allowing your students to feel connected to you and to see you as actively involved in the course learning. It is accomplished through your course design and online teaching methods. Here are a few ways to cultivate your teaching presence.

Create a welcome message.

Use technologies you are comfortable with to create a quick welcome message. Consider creating a video to introduce yourself and to welcome your students to the course. Post your bio and personal photo using the discussion forum tool. Send a welcome email to your students before the course begins, and include a few introductory guidelines for the course. Consider implementing a combination of all three.

Communicate your course expectations.

Create a Start Here page linked to your course menu that outlines the highlights of the course and basic expectations regarding how to navigate and engage in the course. Include clear directions for all online activities within each learning module. Conduct a 30-minute synchronous session early in the first week of the course to introduce the course and syllabus as well as answer student questions. Try a combination of these ideas.

Send out weekly communications.

Create weekly wrap ups that could be emailed or posted to your online course highlighting the ideas and questions that emerged over the week’s session. Post weekly discussion forum summaries. Survey students for feedback on what’s going well and what questions they may have. Be sure to close the loop by providing feedback in some manner.

Arrange synchronous sessions.

At various points throughout the course, consider conducting 30-60 minute synchronous sessions to go over upcoming assignments, answer questions, or discuss key issues that could benefit from synchronicity. Record the session, so it can emailed and posted to the course site for future reference. Contact the educational technology team at helpdesk@smumn.edu to learn about available conferencing software such as Go-to-Meeting and Adobe Connect.

Hold virtual office hours.

Set aside times during the week where students can contact you via phone, email, chat or virtually through Skype or Google. Note your virtual office hours in your syllabus, and communicate it in your course.

Learn More

Discover more teaching strategies by reading Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom.

Cultivating Social Presence

Creating a sense of social presence is a matter of designing ways that allow students to feel connected to you and to each other.  Here are a few ways to cultivate social presence in your online course.

Provide a virtual space for student introductions.

Set up a space in your course for students to introduce themselves and to see their classmates’ introductions as well. Flipgrid, VoiceThread, student-created videos, or simple discussion forum posts along with a posted photo are just a few ideas.

Create a common area for off-topic discussions.

Encourage your students to create a private virtual space for ongoing conversations. Facebook and Google groups work well for this as well as a private discussion forum in Blackboard or Engage course site. As you could guess, students prefer virtual spaces outside the course site to ensure privacy.

Give students the opportunity to lead and nurture online discussions.

As teachers, we often believe we need to be actively involved in online discussions to show our presence and to shape the discussion. However, the more involved we become, the less students take ownership of the discussion. Try monitoring the discussion and interjecting when there is a need for redirection or for sparking further discussion. Also, consider assigning the roles of discussion leader and summarizer to different students throughout the course.

Learn More

Eight Ways to Increase Social Presence in Your Online Course

Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Course

The Power of Social Presence for Learning

Cultivating Cognitive Presence

Creating a sense of social presence is a matter of designing ways that allow students to make meaning of the course concepts through discourse. Here are a few ways to cultivate cognitive presence in your online course.

Create engaging online discussion questions.

Discussion forums are an excellent online strategy for nurturing higher-order thinking, exploring complex ideas, and considering alternative viewpoints through rich online discussion. This does not happen naturally. We need to design discussion questions that are open-ended with no correct answers. Jay Howard, author of Discussion in the College Classroom, suggests shaping discussion questions so they promote analyzing, reflecting, relating, or questioning while tying the discussion back to core course concepts.

Create small group activities.

Design online small group activities where students need to work together in a virtual space to apply their learning. There are many ways to do this, such as online presentations, video recorded role playing, case studies, topic research, product design, etc. Use technologies for presenting the outcome of their learning, such as Google apps, Blackboard work spaces (e.g., wikis, discussion board, etc.), Slideshare, websites, blogs, and more. Contact the instructional technology team for more tech tool ideas at helpdesk@smumn.edu

Assign learning journals.

Learning journals or learning logs are a wonderful way for students to provide reflections on learning or to begin building their graded assignments. To be effective, students need to have specific prompts as guidelines and to receive constructive feedback from you, the instructor. Doing so will encourage students to continually engage in the completion of their course assignments and to receive continual feedback for growth and improvement.

Learn More

Eight Lessons Learned From Teaching Online

The Community of Inquiry

Online Learning Journal


Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2007). Assessing social presence in asynchronous text-based computer conferencing. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 14(2), 50-71.