Building Community Online

Interaction among students and between the student and instructor is natural with an in-person classroom environment. In online learning, it is important to proactively create such interactions. Here are some tips and resources for promoting a welcoming environment and fostering interactivity.


Engagement, communication, and feedback are necessary for effective learning both online and on campus. They become more significant in online learning but are sometimes less intuitive to implement. Making a plan for these items is a great first step to crafting an effective learning environment.

Online learning presents challenges and opportunities for learner engagement.

On the one hand, it can open up the potential for shared learning via discussion boards or Slack channels, where some instructors report increased participation. On the other hand, it can increase barriers to creating a sense of class community.

  • Provide a personalized bio and statement that welcomes students to the course in text or video format.
  • Encourage students to introduce themselves with shared general information to encourage peer-to-peer discussion.
  • Include learning activities that support active learning. 
  • Offer opportunities to communicate via Zoom, phone, etc. 
  • Design lectures that require some learner note-taking during lectures and other learning activities (e.g., draw a diagram during lecture, answer a pre-lecture question, solve a mathematical problem, complete a software tutorial, etc.).
  • Incorporate use of discussion boards to encourage peer-to-peer exchanges for reflection questions.
  • Incorporate Zoom for real-time remote discussions. 
  • Use a centralized, forum-based question/answer tool to moderate discussion and track response timeliness (e.g., Piazza).
  • Incorporate use of virtual teams for team-based projects and assignments.

Nexus can provide support to create an engagement and communication plan.

Email with questions or schedule a 1:1 meeting tailored to your needs. Our recommendations may include:

  1. Before the start of the term: Post a video introducing yourself and the course that is available to students when they first log in, and create a discussion forum inviting students to introduce themselves as well.
  2. In the beginning of the term: Email all students who have not logged into the course space after the first week to connect and check in on them.
  3. After the first assessment: Give students who are struggling an opportunity to check in with you. For example, schedule a supplemental debriefing session after the first assessment. Post an announcement in the course to everyone, allowing students to self-select if they would like to attend. You could say, “I see some people struggled on the exam. I will be here at this time to check in. I am going to address the gaps I am seeing, areas where things are going well, and some feedback I have gotten from students.”


Now more than ever, we are hearing that students are looking for communication and feedback from their instructors — but we also know this doesn’t always have to be live (synchronous). An effective strategy for maintaining regular engagement is to establish a communication pattern. Using the Canvas Announcements tool allows for easy student-instructor communication in one convenient location.


Post #1 each week — let’s say every Monday morning — may include: 

  • A greeting for the students
  • A brief highlight or key takeaways of what was covered last week
  • A preview of what students will learn in the coming week
  • A current event, link, or application example of what is being covered in the course to help learners engage with the content beyond traditional lecture methods 
  • Overview of any updates that were made to the navigation of the course space

Post #2 each week — let’s say every Thursday afternoon — may include:

  • An update on FAQs that have come up during the week
  • A summary of what will be addressed during an upcoming office hours or exam review session
  • Important information about your course, such as alerting students about new material or rescheduling a synchronous activity
  • Personalized course or topic insights that you would have otherwise shared with students at the beginning or end of class

The Canvas Announcements functionality allows instructors to post their updates via standard text or to leverage its video posting capabilities. A brief video announcement brings messaging to life, while offering a pre-recorded, asynchronous video tool for instructors.

Here’s a quick ~3-minute how-to video with step-by-step instructions for Canvas video announcements:

Online Engagement Strategies


Discussion boards such as the Canvas ‘Discussions’ feature or Piazza offer a great way to answer learner questions and stimulate peer-to-peer interaction. In addition to building community, this can encourage more in-depth analysis of course topics and often reduce the amount of direct learner-instructor messages. Research shows that instructor presence and visibility can play an important role in the success of an online course.


Blogs offer a unique way to foster engagement and collaboration, in addition to serving as an alternative assessment strategy. Consider a platform such as Blogger — available for free to U-M students and faculty — for peer writing exercises or group work. For example, you may assign teams each responsible for blogging on a different course topic or concept, each team member responsible for writing a post and/or engagement with the other team’s blogs.

Synchronous Discussions

Zoom is an ideal platform for leading smaller classes in live video, voice, or text discussions. Instructors and students may also take advantage of this platform to engage in smaller group discussions via Breakout Rooms.


You may also choose to integrate audio and video interaction into your course. VoiceThread allows students and faculty to post audio recordings or short videos, bringing asynchronous courses to life in a way not otherwise achievable with text-based interaction.

Launching an Online Course

The 2-minute video offers tips for launching your online course in a way that facilitates communication and feedback.

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Would you like to request a custom course? Please email Andrea Schuitman at [email protected] or submit the form below.

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