5 Tips for Building Community


In a physical classroom, it’s fairly clear how to build community among course participants. In online courses, it’s not necessarily harder to do that. It’s just different. Creating an active, supportive discussion space for your students is the easiest way to immediately build community, and has the following benefits:

  • Higher-order thinking: When given time and space for reflection, students are able to gather their thoughts, push each other to question and dig deeper, and craft responses and queries that benefit all members of the class.
  • Wider participation: Students who might find themselves reluctant to speak in front of classmates in a live classroom are often much more comfortable in an online environment, because they’re better able to gather their thoughts and present them intentionally. This leads to much richer discussions, and broad participation from all students.
  • Freedom to explore: By design, good discussion prompts don’t have a “right” answer, and can be crafted to encourage students to draw from their own experiences and beliefs, in order to enrich their exploration of new ideas.

Peer support: Effective discussions encourage peers to support each other’s ideas and growth, while providing a safe space to explore without judgment.

5 Tips for Building Community in YOUR Online Classroom

  1. Create active, inclusive discussion elements with clear purpose and expectations.
  2. Craft discussion prompts that draw students in, help them to pull from their own experiences, and create space for them to explore difficult questions without judgment.
  3. Create, model, and monitor interactions to be sure students are holding each other to safe, inclusive standards that honor diversity and lived identities.
  4. Identify opportunities to create connections among peers, and between students and yourself.
  5. Be present in the course. Participate in the discussion boards, provide timely feedback, and reach out to students who you feel may be struggling.

7 Ways to Ensure High-Quality Course Design

Course design

At PACE, all of our online course projects use a team approach to design and development. From the very start, you will be paired with a member of our Instructional Design team, who will work with you to help bring shape to your course. We are extremely committed to course quality in all of our offerings and will work with you to share our experience and insights in order to help you create the best possible course or program. Here are some of the ways we work with our instructors to ensure course quality:

  • Quality Rubric: When we design and develop a new course, we apply a vigorous quality rubric to all elements of the course experience. We will walk through this rubric with you at the start of a project, and will use its guideposts to help us create the best possible learning experience for students.
  • Templates: In order to help create consistent learning environments and experiences for our online students, we have developed templates we use as starting points, both for the design phase and the development phase. These templates are meant to guide, but never constrain, and your instructional designer will work closely with you to help utilize them for the best outcomes.
  • Peer Review: Courses designed and developed by PACE are reviewed by multiple stakeholders before they are approved to go live, so you’ll have the assurance of many pairs of eyes on both content and methodology.
  • Student Evaluations: All students are encouraged to evaluate every course they take, and we take those evaluations very seriously. We operate with a continuous improvement mindset, and review all courses every time they run, in order to identify any opportunities for improvement.

7 Ways to Ensure High-Quality Course Design

  1. Embrace your partnership with our Instructional Design team. We will provide everything we possibly can to make your course design/development process go smoothly.
  2. Utilize our course templates in order to help you create compelling courses that benefit from built-in best practices and quality elements.
  3. Refer to the Online Course Design Guidelines put together by UVM’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
  4. Use our Course Quality Rubric to help guide your design choices.
  5. Embrace the concepts of Backward Design and Universal Design for Learning as you plan your course.
  6. Focus on the student perspective. Develop an awareness of a “typical” student who might take your course, and design materials and activities that will intrigue and energize that student.
  7. Keep an open ear as students participate in the course. We will always help you make improvements, and want to.

5 Ways to Empower Students


When students feel a sense of agency in their learning, they are far more likely to be engaged and invested in that learning. Feeling a sense of control over their learning path can ease anxiety and open doors to active, reflective learning. Here are some ways you can start to think about how you can empower students:

  • Guiding, not Controlling: Adult students are often more successful and comfortable when you take the role of “guide on the side,” rather than “sage on the stage.” Sharing your own experiences, both positive and challenging, connects you to students, and encourages students to connect with each other at a deeper level.
  • Working Toward Reflective Teaching and Reflective Learning: Giving yourself time as an instructor to reflect upon what seems to be working, or what seems to be not quite meeting your expectations, can help you adjust midstream, or make notes for future iterations of your course. This reflective practice is vital to inclusive teaching, as it encourages you to look inward and examine how your perspectives have been shaped by your own experiences.
  •  Offering Choice: Not every adult student in a classroom is going to have the same goals, the same reasons for being there, or certainly, the same lived experience. Offering adult students some level of choice within a course can be very empowering, whether it’s choosing from two ways to complete an assignment, or choosing a special topic to dig into and share with other students. Just a tiny sense of control can make a huge difference in how a student experiences a course or program.
  • Maintain Awareness of Positionality and Intersectionality: Maintaining an awareness of the social, cultural, and political contexts that shape your own identity, as well as how the many dimensions of your identity shape how you view the world can help you be far more intentional with how you select and present content and activities, relate to students, and assess their work.  
  • Internalize and Demonstrate Respect for Students’ Lived Identities and Choices: At its most basic, give students the opportunity to identify their pronouns, and be intentional with your efforts to use inclusive practices in your course design and delivery.

5 Ways to Empower Students

  1. Design your course so that students are encouraged to pull from life experiences as they learn new material. This can help personalize the learning for them.
  2. Whenever possible, offer choices. This can take the form of offering assignment alternatives, deeper-dive opportunities, or opting in/out of group work.
  3. Respect all identities.
  4. Offer ample opportunity for reflection by both you and your students.
  5. Commit to using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles as you design your course.

10 Ways to Demonstrate Instructor Presence

Be Present

Instructor Presence is one of the most vital components of an online class, and can easily make the difference between student success and struggle. It’s important for students to “feel” your presence in a course, whether or not they can actually see or hear you. Here’s how strong instructor presence helps students:

  • Increases Student Engagement: When students know that you are “there” and listening, it increases their drive for engagement with both instructors and peers.
  • Supports Achievement: A strong instructor focus on timely, constructive feedback greatly increases the chances a student will successfully meet the objectives of the learning experience.
  • Feels Real-time: Sending announcements, making quick little progress videos, and providing periodic check-ins helps students feel like your course isn’t a pre-canned, unmonitored self-led learning experience.

10 Ways to Make Sure Students Feel Your Presence

  1. Create a quick video introducing yourself and welcoming students to your course. Consider also creating weekly welcome videos. Check out the Tools list below for suggestions.
  2. If you’re not comfortable creating and/or posting videos, you can try an audio recording, or post a text version of a welcome message.
  3. Be active in the discussion board. Be sure your voice is present for each prompt you assign, acknowledging student posts, and pushing them to dig deeper and reach farther as they connect with peers.
  4. Post periodic announcements. These can take multiple forms: deadline reminders, discussion highlights, weekly welcomes, module summaries, or whatever best suits your particular course. Be sure those announcements are emailed to students, if at all possible.
  5. Be sure all students receive timely, constructive, supportive feedback on their work, whether in discussions or in submitted activities. Many online courses are compressed into four or eight weeks, so receiving feedback quickly is vital to student success.
  6. If your schedule and tools support it, consider offering optional virtual office hours so students who prefer to converse in a live format have the opportunity.
  7. Personalize your feedback. Use names/pronouns as students indicate. Celebrate their “successes” with them, however you and students define those.
  8. Check in on students who seemingly fade away. One message from you might be all it takes to bring them back.
  9. Offer additional resource ideas for students who are interested in deeper dives into particular topics.
  10. Be sure all resources and links are current and relevant, so it feels to students like you’re right there, in the present.