How can multiple individuals take the same online course but finish with completely different learning experiences? The decisions, actions, beliefs, and attitudes of each student shape a great deal of the overall experience in an online class (or any type of class).


Despite the obvious benefit of flexibility, pursuing an online education can invoke anxiety for some individuals, especially those who crave regular interaction and collaboration with classmates as a part of their educational journey. Online learning is isolating, right?

Not so fast.

Just because you’re separated by a computer screen doesn’t mean you can’t build meaningful connections with your classmates. As you begin or continue your online education, here are seven tips you can follow to avoid feeling disconnected.

1. Communicate Early and Often

Threaded discussions in online classes provide powerful communication benefits that are not available in real-time communication. You can revisit past conversations with ease. You can take your time to think and carefully craft your response to a discussion. You even have a document recorded of communications.

Given these benefits, have you ever been in an online course where some classmates wait until the end of the week to start participating? That is like going to a face-to-face class and not saying a word until the last ten minutes of the session. All of a sudden, you spout out all of the ideas and comments that came to mind from different parts of the class. Doesn’t that miss the idea of a two-way conversation? The same thing happens in an online threaded discussion unless you do something to prevent it. Log in several times a week to comment, read, reflect, and comment further. You will help create a more vibrant and authentic conversation for everyone by being an active member of the community. You will show deeper interest and respect for your co-learners. You will learn more from others, and you’ll give others the opportunity to learn from you.

2. Be Really Curious

There is a time to speak and a time to listen.  Listening is how we show genuine interest in others. It is also how we learn from others. Imagine that you are on a first date, trying to be on your best behavior.  This means listening as much or more than talking. It means asking good, genuine questions. It means making it a priority to show other people that you care about them and what they have to say. Take on this attitude in an online class and you will quickly build positive, maybe even long-lasting friendships with others.

3. Look for and Reach Out to Specific Individuals

As you go through a course, you will discover that you relate to the goals and interests of other people. You will also notice students with different perspectives or backgrounds. These are people you can learn from. Reach out to them. Send the classmate a private message. Share what you appreciate about their comments. Invite them to connect beyond the course (via Twitter, email, etc.). Explain that you hope to stay in contact to share ideas and learn from one another.

4. Self-Organize Student Activities

You are not limited to the formal activities of a course.  Why not try to arrange an informal study group or a Google Hangout to touch base and further discuss ideas from the class? You can also set up a Twitter hashtag to exchange ideas, create a forum outside the formal class, or create a way to explore a topic that is interesting but does not fit in the planned course discussion. This will help you build a stronger sense of community and it parallels the sort of informal group meetings that happen at many face-to-face institutions.

5. Encourage and Affirm

Online course discussions can get content-focused, which has its obvious benefits but can make it difficult to establish a rapport beyond the course. One way to be relational and content-focused at the same time is to share words of encouragement and affirmation with co-learners. Share what you appreciated about their perspective, comments, examples, and illustrations. Let them know when and how their comments help you, and thank them for it.

Go beyond “Great idea!” comments. Be specific and descriptive. Instead of telling them that an idea is helpful, explain why or how it is helpful. If you think they have an interesting perspective, tell them why you think it is interesting. Give details. Share anecdotes and stories as you encourage and affirm.

6. Challenge and Question

On the flip side, we want to nurture a rigorous learning community. That means disagreeing, challenging, and questioning in gentle and respectful ways. Much learning takes place as we contrast our understanding with that of others. These contrasts join us in a mutual pursuit of truth and more accurate understanding of the subject.

7. Build Upon the Ideas of Others

In some online classes, comments seem like a disconnected collection of individual posts, often driven by the desire to craft a post that meets the instructor’s expectations and earns a high grade. While this is a reality in many online courses, do not let it prevent you from taking the discussion a step further.

Turn posts into a dynamic conversation. A great way to do this is to build upon the ideas of others. Take an idea that someone else shares and add a new example, illustration, or further explanation of the idea. As more people do this, we see progress and discovery through online discussion. We turn disjointed comments into a meaning group discussion.

There are many ways to be an active learner in an online course, but these seven give you a few simple starting points. Try them out to see how it goes. Not only will you feel more connected to others, but you’ll also make the class a more vibrant and positive experience for everyone. You will also increase your chances of building deep and positive relationships that last beyond graduation.

Not sure you’re ready to go back to school? Take our quiz “Are You Ready to Go Back to School?” We’ll give you our expert opinion on your best next step after just 15 questions. 

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