Creating community when teaching online

― Rhonda L. Clark

profile photo Jan 2014

Rhonda Clark.

I teach in an online graduate program in library science. My students are often very appreciative of the opportunity for an online education; many would not otherwise be able to reach their educational goals. Nonetheless, such a learning environment presents unique challenges.

I believe that the classroom dynamic should be just as active, interactive, timely, and “real” as an on-site class. Clearly, there will be differences in the environments; however, by utilizing effective combinations of online discussion, high-impact assignments, and multiple means of communication, the experience can be very positive ― for them and for me. (See also Darla Ausel’s piece.)

I like to use the syllabus to set the tone for my course, so I provide a great deal of detail about course goals and content. In each syllabus, for example, I provide basic information about my courses in a framed box:

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 1.12.38 PMOnline students need as much communication as face-to-face students, although they may need to do it in different ways than we have traditionally provided. I provide multiple ways to contact me. I am in my office at Clarion during formal office hours, but most online students contact me via email and, increasingly, by Skype. I emphasize the importance of communication in an online course with the following message in each syllabus:Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 1.15.07 PMAnother way that I create a warm atmosphere conducive to learning is in my “Coffee Houses.” For several years now, I have included guest discussants in most of my courses, usually twice a term. I ask professional colleagues who are also my acquaintances and friends to call in to our online classroom, usually on a Tuesday or Thursday evening at 7 or 8pm. My goal is that we have a relaxing conversation with a field professional that is reminiscent of the discussions one would otherwise have had in a more traditional graduate program after class or in a library setting. My students have always responded well to the Coffee Houses, which always rate as one of the most-appreciated elements of the class in feedback.

A radiator catalogued by Rhonda's students.

A radiator catalogued by Rhonda’s students.

I have found it important to try to find ways to connect to the online student (and online advisee) through methods that create a visual or audio live connection at some point throughout the class.  Oftentimes, students have admitted to me that they never would have Skyped with a professor until I encouraged them to do so.  After we talk on the phone or on the computer for just a few minutes, I can hear the tension in their voices begin to dissipate and their personalities emerge.  It sometimes also helps to give personal insights from my own world that connects to theirs. I share with them photos and stories about my historic home and the “treasures” I’ve found in it, including a wall map of Warren County printed in 1900.  The map provided was similar to resources we studied in class.  We were able talk about how a Clarion student cleaned and repaired the map and about the positive response of the genealogy librarian who accepted our donation of the map to the Warren Public Library. This all adds a sense that what I teach them is very personal and very real.

Recently, a student said he had “not connected” with my course until we talked in a live session and shared our viewpoints on a class assignment.  Calling our students by name, in front of others, in a live audio/video session gives them some of that affirmation and connection that many of them crave.  Though it is difficult to carve out time in the evenings and on weekends, these times are often prime times for our non-traditional, online students.  I usually hang up the phone or log off with a smile on my face and find our sessions, particularly those with field professionals who log on to talk with us, to be as enjoyable for me as for the students.


Out of the attic. (2013, January). Map of Warren County from 1900 found in Titusville home. Titusville Herald. Retrieved from

Rhonda Clark has taken a circuitous, but highly enjoyable journey to the teaching world of Library Science.  She started her academic career in a small college in Arkansas, studying history and then moved the Minneapolis to study Russian Area Studies (MA) and late Imperial Russian History (PhD) at the University of Minnesota.  She taught history for some years at a number of universities and then decided to go back for an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh to capitalize on her love of archival and historical resources.  She was very fortunate to land a job at Clarion University that allows her to pursue her multiple teaching and research interests in historical/genealogical resources, indexing and access to such items, Russian/international librarianship, and publishing history.  She lives in an oil-era historic (old, bat-ridden) home in Titusville, PA, with her husband, two children and geriatric cat.

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One Response to Creating community when teaching online

  1. Pingback: Creating community when teaching online | Latest News

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