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Quick Tips for Teaching Online: Course Design for Enhancing Social Connectedness among Online Students (Part 3)

Woman placing sticky notes on a wall as a team of people sitting at a desk with laptops watch her.
Fri, 20 Nov 2020

By Robert Dalton.

Reading time: ~5 minutes.

Featured Image Source: Photo by You X Ventures from Unsplash


The final part of this 3-part post (part 1, part 2) considers

How can pedagogical strategies and course design enhance social connectedness among participants in online courses? 

We can begin with a number of related questions:

  • What type of communication technologies and interactions on the programme contribute to a sense of well-being, engagement and connectedness?
  • Which is better, synchronous or asynchronous interactions?
  • What type of social interactions/spaces and pedagogical design elements would improve the social development process?

How can pedagogical strategies and course design enhance social connectedness among participants in online courses?


Attempts to foster social connectedness (SC) among your cohort should ideally happen during the first few weeks of the blended or online course. However, avoid any ‘box ticking’ or ‘forced’ interactions that evidence attendance only and ignore the affective nature of constructivist criticism and informed discussion that can sustain a sense of group commitment through greetings, acknowledgements and personal referencing. The quality of the online spaces you choose should be determined by the social cognitive qualities of the space that are necessary to capture the pervasive aspects of SC and, in some cases, the relational content of interactions could be of higher importance than the informational content of an interaction.

Live Sessions

There are many benefits to asynchronous interactions as they encourage reflection and offer extended time for discussion. However, it is also recommended to include synchronous design interactions that expedite the social development process and enhance community building online. Both visual and audio representation within synchronous communications contributes to social cognitive processes and supports an enriched learning experience through the dialogic opportunities created by the immediacy of social and visual cues.

If you would like to read more on communication tools, this was covered in an earlier post in this series by Ciaran Lanigan: Communication Tools in Sulis and Ways to Use Them.

Group Work

While collaborative group work and associated synchronous collaboration affords participants the opportunity to revise social schemas and develop social affordances, the capability of such social spaces is not only determined by its ability to develop but also to sustain and foster such affordances that in turn supports the learning experience. The inclusion of connectedness orientated spaces that contain non-content or course related spaces for social chat as a solution to augment the social relationships of participants is recommended. However they need to be included in addition to and not in lieu of academically-orientated interaction.

Designing interactions to purposefully implement collaborative instructional conditions for increasing student learning is favourable. Each interaction with a specific outcome, anchored in institutional objectives and supportive of the learning objectives of the programme. Within this design include opportunities that allow participants to interact on the course but also attempt to provide a wider social context. For example having an event where participants can engage in an activity outside of bounded classroom in a fun way yet still anchored or based on a particular topic raised at module or programme level.

  • Collaborative group work should begin early in the learning journey.
  • Keep group sizes small.
  • Rotate group membership.

A project that incorporated such an approach in Scottish Higher Education was the REAP Project (Re-engineering Assessment Practices in Higher Education). While the project looked at assessment and feedback practices among 1st year undergraduate students to become self-regulated learners, the process of small group work interactions incorporated into the beginning of a programme of study enhanced opportunities for online social interaction, shared learning, the development of learning communities, and had positive effects on student retention.

Support Structures

Participants are often unaware of the support structures and institutional policy guidelines to develop collaborative spaces and relationships within and outside the formal learning environment. It is not enough to highlight structures and spaces available to learners. Expanding the space of learning needs to be supported through flexible design and technical understanding. Where possible, it is recommended to leverage the lived experiences of past students who can provide both a motivational and communicative scaffold to the process.

  • Recommend spaces for collaboration.
  • Provide instructional guidance on how to use these spaces.
  • Highlight the advantages of using these spaces.
  • Encourage collaboration outside the formal learning management environment (study groups).
  • Champion all learners, not all want or feel the need to socially connect.

Safe social spaces created and facilitated by peers can decrease feelings of isolation and allow participants to support each other though challenging times, offer different perspectives and provide motivational support. Further positive outcomes of SC are where participants are drawn ahead of themselves through academic and personal development benchmarking. Social spaces of learning should not be viewed as existing outside the walls of the formal learning environment but instead they are like tributaries where ‘meaning making’ happens through the clarification and elaboration of understanding with a safe and friendly learning environment of trust. This has a very positive effect on the wisdom of the greater learning community where learnings pervade and flow back through the ‘contained’ formal environment.

When education is viewed through the lens of SC, dialogic learning cannot be forced directly through design but it can be fostered through the provision of spaces that contain the social cognitive qualities needed to capture the pervasive aspects of SC. Spaces for dialogic learning should not be determined by the quantity of interactions but by the quality of relationships within these spaces. The higher level SC dimensions of ‘shared understanding’ and ‘knowing each other’s experiences’ not only support the synchronous nature of dialogic reflection within the ‘safe social space’, but the nature of these dimensions extends asynchronous reflective dialogue beyond the traditional ‘transient’ nature of the interaction. In other words, this is not a short-term experience and reflection does not end when dialogue ends.

Opening spaces for dialogue is not only a technical issue but also a social one. When designing courses we need to think more systematically about how to design for and support the broadening of dialogue through the development and sustainability of SC. The process of pedagogy and design must provide the correct balance between (a) facilitating schema development and revision during each stage of the social development process and (b) allowing participants choice and control over their learning environment.

Institutional ‘pace dictating’ asynchronous interaction while intrinsically motivating in the early stages of social development and online interaction, needs to taper off so participants can take responsibility for and structure their own learning. This transition needs to be realised through critical but constructively orientated dialogue. Long term, programme-level small group interaction, supported but not dictated by audio and visual synchronous communicative technology provides one such mechanism. Initially grounded in the challenge of programme content and aligned to learning outcomes, collaborative group work, ideally introduced early in the learning process, establishes a relationship of trust and co-operation through the development of exploratory dialogue. This represents a shift from short term, repetitious, and cumulative dialogue often associated with the striation of over scaffolded design, to one that champions the affordances of the higher subjective levels of SC.

However, it is not enough to just highlight structures and spaces available to learners. Expanding the space of learning needs to be supported through flexible design and comprehensive technical expertise. Where possible it is recommended to leverage the lived experiences of past students who can provide both a motivational and communicative scaffold to the process. 

While this 3-part post provides a brief glimpse into SC, designing for and supporting the development and sustainability of ‘safe social spaces’ for learning is a noteworthy endeavor. The advantages of which can continue to pay dividends beyond the transient nature of the formal learning environment.

Until next time, stay safe.

If you have any queries or would like to extend the conversation in this area, please feel free to contact me directly at