Dr. David Joyner on Building Community in Online Courses

Published in
3 min readMar 26, 2020


As instructors around the world begin to make the rapid transition to virtual education, Dr. David Joyner, Executive Director of the Online Master of Science in Computer Science program at Georgia Tech, shares suggestions on how to build a sense of community for your students online.

Be Visible Online

In an online setting, the visibility that course instructors have in the classroom is no longer automatic.

When you are teaching in person, you get in front of a classroom, students see you there. They know you care because you are present. That goes away quickly online. If you don’t do something visible, they don’t know you are there.

Make an effort to be visible in various different ways. We use Piazza constantly in our program. It doesn’t have to be big systematic things, endorse a student answer, post a check-in, post a cat GIF — it doesn’t matter. The point is to let them know you are there. Letting them know that someone is there.

Visibility is not as automatic online. You have to be proactive about it. Make sure you are doing something deliberately visible so students see your presence.

Foster interaction Online — Create Anchors for Activity

“Peripheral participation” disappears in an online setting. Create dedicated spaces for students to share interesting resources to increase interaction.

In person, there is “Peripheral participation.” I’m sitting in a classroom and I see the other 50 students. I know we’re all in this together because I see you. This goes away online. It can be an isolating experience. Not knowing what your classmates are going through can contribute to this isolation.

Try to find ways to create anchors for activity. Create the kind of environment students want to interact with. We use “megathreads” to share educational articles, posts dedicated to a subject for students to share articles. We also do Wednesday debates where we throw out a debate problem — the morality of the AI Trolley problem, which creates a debate for students to go back and forth on.

The important thing is to create opportunities for that interaction.

Create a safe place for students to share what is going on in their lives to seek support.

To build a classroom community, create a space where we say this is a place when you are allowed to say “oh my gosh everything is going terribly and I am struggling so much.” This is the place where it is encouraged to share that. It creates an understanding that we are in this together — that it is more than just shifting classes online. Communicate that what comes first is our health.

We will continue to share tidbits from instructors on how you can stay connected. If you have your own insights, email us at team@piazza.com and we’ll work to share it with the world.



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