Social interaction in online classrooms: How to make it happen and why it’s worth the effort

A conversation with Associate Professor Femke Buisman-Pijlman, biologist, social neuroscience researcher, and leader in online curriculum development at the Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education.

Most teachers will appreciate the significance of social interaction in the classroom, and the way ‘connectedness’ helps students to build the skills they need to engage with others and discover who they are.

But as we have all made a rapid pivot to online teaching, many fear that the online format risks losing the sort of social engagement which is so essential to a positive learning experience.

Associate Professor Femke Buisman-Pijlman has more than a decade of expertise in online education and a passion for creating connection in a virtual study environment.

She says many teachers have needed some help or guidance in creating a connected learning community.

I think a lot of teachers are struggling because it feels like all the ways they usually work have been taken away. And many must be feeling ‘now I have to teach people and I can’t even see them’.

Femke reassures educators that all the components they need are still there, they’re just not there in person.

Looking back to when she first began teaching online, she says she tried to mimic what she did in the physical classroom, but soon discovered how ineffective and frustrating that was for both herself and her students.

She quickly understood that the concentration span is very different for online learning and discovered that ‘chunking everything down’ into several short parts with short assessments was a better approach.

Teacher presence supports social interaction

Most importantly, Femke found that she needed to have a clear presence in the online learning management system, demonstrating to students what her motivation was, what her experience was, and what they could expect from her.

For me, it was also about finding my online persona. So how do I come across? Because teacher presence is really important online. It helps a lot with people feeling connected to you, trusting that they will have valuable learning experience, and also feeling confident that they can ask you questions.

Unlike a face-to-face classroom, where social interaction is engineered to occur, online study can be less spontaneous, so even peer-to-peer social interactions often rely on teachers setting up a supportive environment. Femke found that trying to be readily available for students was critical to their:

  • Stress
  • Engagement
  • Success

That doesn’t mean sitting on Zoom from 9am-3pm with students, but rather creating an environment which supports engagement in different ways.

“Creating a learning environment like kindy and primary school teachers do, is very similar to creating a positive, exciting and safe learning environment online,” she says.

Discussion boards facilitate connected learning

One tool Femke uses which she cites as being more efficient than email and more effective in generating meaningful conversation is discussion boards.

“Where you pose a question to scaffold learning or to get students to think about the core concepts,” Femke explains.

“And you can stagger it, so you have a simple version, a middle version and a challenging version so that people can pick which one they're up to.

“In fully online courses, it works well to make it clear that while participation is key, it doesn’t have to be correct. People need to start trying to grow their skills.”

Teachers can also ask students to take turns in supporting the discussion, which helps to facilitate learning as the teaching load is shared. In turn, this creates a sense of community that allows the standard to lift.

I can only explain a concept in three different ways, but somebody who has a completely different way of looking at things may be able to describe it in a completely new way, and all of a sudden that concept clicks for a student.

There are other benefits of discussion boards too, often garnering a sense of community.

“People always think that they’re the only one struggling with [a problem], but an open discussion board can help students appreciate that they’re not alone.”

Building 21st Century communication skills

In the discussion board context, Femke says teachers can encourage students to expand on their communication skills:

Challenge students to move away from a ‘texting’ style approach where opinions are just ‘plonked’ in the forum.

Encourage students to think about how they word things, and how they want people to read things.

Promote language that people want to engage with, and that people are persuaded by.

Challenging students and driving them to be more articulate through the use of discussion boards help develop communication skills that students take with them beyond their education.

Femke says thoughtful, written responses can prepare them for the global workplace, where these skills often hold the key to advancement.

Success in the workplace is not necessarily about the level of knowledge you have, but whether you can actually convey it in an effective way.

“Something students have let me know after they go on to the workforce is that, through practicing on the discussion boards, they’re able to have a big impact because they’re able to voice their opinion in a constructive way. It’s clear, it’s convincing, but it’s also friendly.”

Helping to facilitate collaboration
Another technique to help students engage in group dynamics online include role playing, where teachers encourage students to step into a different skin to voice alternative opinions.

While acknowledging it can be hard to get students to undertake group activities, Femke says there is enormous value in co-creation. She suggests:

  • Small, highly directed group assignments
  • Groups of three students are optimal
  • Allow collaboration offline, where students can use shared files to work both autonomously and as a team

The effort pays off for students
Femke has noticed COVID-19 shining a light brightly on the importance of social interaction.

“If students don't have any social interaction, they feel very Isolated and they're generally not going to be able to succeed,” she says.

While online teaching has forced many to make a rapid transition, and is not without some challenges, but teachers’ innovation and effort does not go unrewarded.

In helping to foster social interaction in their online classrooms, teachers are making a profound contribution to their students’ wellbeing – now and into the future.

About Associate Professor Femke Buisman-Pijlman
I’m a biologist and I’m also a researcher who loves human interaction. My research has been on social interaction, and I’m interested in the physiological response you get when you connect. How does it make you feel? Social connection makes you feel good. It makes you feel more in command. It makes you feel less stressed. It is key to student success.