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When I talk to my colleagues about teaching online, I get the standard responses: that must be so hard, that must be so boring, students can’t possibly learn as much from an online course as they would in my actual classroom, the technology is so glitchy, etc. As someone who is trying to convince these faculty members to teach in our online program, I can point them to this study or that one. Those of us in this online teaching space have compelling answers to these questions.

But what I really want to say is: it’s not you, it’s them.

Teaching online involves creative pedagogical strategies, yes. But we can’t just focus on what the teacher does. Students themselves can make or break an online course by checking in or checking out.

I direct the Duke Environmental Leadership Program, a hybrid master's program for midcareer professionals. We have a small cohort -- 15 students max per year -- and these students really get to know each other. While we do have short place-based sessions on campus, most of their time is spent in online classes. One powerful place where students get to know each other is, gasp!, the discussion forum.

I’ve become convinced that the discussion forum can actually be where a lot of the learning gets done in my classes, too. Not because we have a fancy forum with bells and whistles; we use the basic forum in Sakai, our online learning management system. By setting up the forum with great questions, you can invite students to have meaningful exchanges and learn about each other and from each other.

Recently, I have been using music as a unifying theme and community-building exercise. For each course I teach, I ask students to submit a song title, and I then create a Spotify playlist for the class. I frame this assignment as something like “what song are you listening to get you through writing your master's project?” or “What song is playing on repeat in your house?” or “What noncheesy song speaks to your interest in the environment?”

A student contributes “Sabrosa” by the Beastie Boys, commenting that he’s using it to get his young children pumped up for the first day of school. Another suggests “Follow the Sun” by Xavier Rudd to keep her eye on the prize of graduation, while another likes “Human” by Rag’n’Bone Man to keep things real while trying to balance work, school and life.

We learn a little about each other with these simple song picks and receive the gift of a playlist of new songs to enjoy. When I listen to the songs on my commute, I think of my students and remind myself that they are trying to fit my assignments into their already busy lives. I find connections with some through shared favorites and know they are doing the same.

Our program thrives on the connections between our students. When they feel like a community, they can support each other through their journeys. They become responsible, in some small way, for everyone else’s success. This translates into my classroom in the following ways:

  • Students pick up each other’s slack when necessary. We have a lot of group work in my class, and they understand each other’s time constraints. When life happens, they work around it. And they hold each other accountable, too.
  • Students contribute information, stories and networks that they think will help others in the class. Our students come with at least five years of professional experience, and sometimes more. They use this experience to broaden each other’s networks and to provide context for the course material.
  • The discussion forum feels much more like a small group discussion, with students covering the requirements of the post and then going beyond. I have been so impressed with the amount of outside material students link to, with very little prompting, and the directions that these conversations take.

I devote significant time to writing discussion forum posts and divide the class into small groups for this work, because I believe that really good stuff happens here. I tell my colleagues that, really, the students will do a lot of the teaching if you set up the course to take advantage of their experience. Because we offer a wide range of courses, certain students will step up each semester.

The students set this expectation with and for each other. We don’t specify this in our program materials or syllabi. Yes, we emphasize the value of the cohort model. If we help the students to build their community, they tend to set these expectations for themselves.

I have found the playlist exercise to be a fun and useful way to build this community. What strategies have you used in your online courses to do the same?

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