My school is preparing to welcome its first hybrid J.D. cohort this January, when the students will be on campus for a full-to-bursting “Preparation Week.” As we figure out the best way to disseminate important information to our students before they arrive, I have been immersed in the question of how to create communities for online students. During Prep Week, hybrid students will undergo an intense, immersive, and incredibly busy week of law school education more akin to a non-stop, 40+ hour mediation certification course than the very first week of law school. Thus, they need to be able to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive in a way our more typical 1Ls do not. We will have no time to walk these students through signing up for Wexis, to make sure their email and network passwords are synced, to introduce them to the financial aid office, etc.
Additionally, we understand that a lack of social interaction can be a problem for student retention in online education programs. See, e.g., Lin Y. Muilenburga and Zane L. Bergeb, Student Barriers to Online Learning: A Factor Analytic Study, Distance Education, May 2005, at 29, and Steven R. Aragon, Creating Social Presence in Online Environments, New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, Winter 2003, at 57. In order to try to address this issue before it becomes an issue, we want to provide a place where the students can get to know each other, where they can interact virtually with each other (and, when needed, staff), so that, when they get here, we will “know” each other, at least to some extent.
Finally, besides wanting students to know how to do the stuff they need to do before arriving on campus and wanting them to get to know each other and us, we want them to be comfortable with the learning management system they will be using for their courses (Blackboard). To address these three goals, I created a Community for the hybrid students. A Community is different from a course on Blackboard in that the participants are united by interest rather than study. A Community can exist as long as its leaders want it to exist, and the leaders control who has access. In the manner that it operates, however, it looks and feels just like a course.
In this Community, I included areas for each department at the college to explain briefly what they do and how to contact them. There’s a hospitality area that offers advice on where to stay and eat during Prep Week, as well as suggestions on how to deal with the cold weather (we are in Minnesota; many of our students are quite anxious about this). I created custom Google maps showing how far away from campus all the suggested hotels and eateries are. There’s a calendar detailing all the events of Prep Week.
The Community contains an entire section devoted to orienting the students to Blackboard, including in-house video tutorials and screenshots, as well as links to several Blackboard-created help materials. There is also a module students need to complete which requires them to accomplish several tasks (submit an assignment, take a quiz, etc.). This will help them feel comfortable performing these activities before they arrive on campus, and, if they don’t feel comfortable, they will know whom to contact for assistance. There is, of course, an area giving instructions on how to create Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg accounts. There’s a section that provides a to-do list, including the first year book list and first assignment details.
Finally, the Community offers discussion board forums, some of which correspond to the department FAQ sections. This enables the students to ask questions regarding the various departments. The forums are set up so that anyone can subscribe to a forum and be notified of a new post via email, meaning staff do not have to check the forums continually.
Last Thursday morning, we launched the Community. Admissions sent emails to the students, including a video tutorial I made, explaining what the Community was and how to access it. In less than 8 hours, 26 hybrid students had accessed the Community and created 15 discussion board posts. The most popular forum isn’t even one set up to direct questions to us; it’s the “Introduce Yourself!” forum, and the students have been very active on it, describing their situation and what drew them to the hybrid option.
Of course, we know a virtual space alone won’t address all issues involved in creating and maintaining a true community, and we are considering and implementing other initiatives (for example, the SBA started a mentoring program pairing hybrid students with traditional students). I can’t wait to see how all this unfolds over the next few months!
For those who have taught online courses, what do you do in your course to maintain community?