Building Supportive Online Learning Communities

Educators share their best advice for designing richer online learning experiences.

Figure with smartphone surrounded by social media symbols

THE PANDEMIC FORCED professors to scramble to master effective online teaching strategies, while platform providers hurried to upgrade and deploy new features. Those who adapted most quickly to the new reality? Those who already were versed in delivering online education.

We asked several educators to share the best practices for online teaching that they developed—some long before the crisis struck. Below, we highlight advice from two professors at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business in Iowa City, who had been teaching online before the coronavirus arrived; and several administrators from Grenoble School of Management in France, who have helped the school transition to a “hyflex” course delivery model. We also talked to Pooja Sankar, who in 2009 launched the online learning community Piazza, based in Palo Alto, California; today the platform hosts a network of 5 million learners from 2,000 universities worldwide.

The overarching advice these educators offer is this: To teach effectively online, faculty must strike the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous educational delivery. By pre-recording lectures, encouraging students’ use of discussion boards, and uploading supporting materials that students can consume in advance of live sessions, instructors save valuable synchronous class time for discussions that provide a richer understanding of the material. As Sankar says, “COVID has forced all instructors to flip their classrooms.”

Below, find 14 additional pieces of advice for making the transition to online teaching. With the right preparation and mindset, say these educators, business schools can make remote education experiences easier, more supportive, and more effective for faculty and their students. 


Amy Colbert, professor and department executive officer, management and entrepreneurship
University of Iowa Tippie College of Business

1. Communicate clearly. This includes keeping deadlines as consistent as possible from week to week.

2. Don’t try to simply translate face-to-face activities to online environments. Think about things that you can do online that aren't possible in the physical classroom. For example, use online discussion boards where students can help their classmates diagnose a problem in a case before the live session occurs. The instructor can highlight differences in problem diagnoses at the beginning of the live session.

3. Create informal videos to help your students get to know you. While I have used a studio to design pre-recorded lecture videos to be used over several semesters, I also record informal videos in my office at the beginning of each module. That way, I can reference things we had discussed in the previous week’s live session and talk about current events related to the class material. I do not reuse these informal videos—their purpose is to help students stay on track in real time. Students have commented that they feel like they get to know me in these videos. 


Nick Westergaard, lecturer in management and entrepreneurship
University of Iowa Tippie College of Business

4. Think in shorter chunks. The biggest mistake I made early on in my online teaching was trying to do everything I did in the face-to-face classroom in one long, synchronous online meeting. That’s a long time for students to listen and a long time for instructors to talk. Faculty should remember that the younger generation of students has been raised on short, social media videos. Their attention span for online content is shorter than for what we do in person. For that reason, a better approach is to break the components of the class into small chunks. 

5. Change the pace of assignments. As students work at their own pace and digest information, they might not be able to keep up with assignments in the same way they can with face-to-face instruction. You may need to break these into smaller pieces as well.


6. Design online activities that replicate incidental offline moments of connection. Arrive early and engage in chitchat with students. Stick around later and cover additional questions or start some fun side conversations. These moments go a long way toward helping students feel connected with you as the instructor and the class as a whole.


Pooja Sankar, CEO

7. Remember that online learning environments can be isolating. Students no longer can sit around a table in the library with their peers, which means students don’t always do assigned readings or watch recorded lectures. Professors should bake collaboration into these experiences, so that students feel like they have a community as they’re going through the material. In addition, professors must find ways to effectively and meaningfully connect with students that best mimic face-to-face interactions—such as hosting office hours virtually.

8. Create a sense of community. Some faculty are using live question-and-answer functions so students can easily ask and upvote questions, and instructors can answer questions that all students can see. They also have been creating areas online where they can chat, share experiences, collaborate, and, most of all, lean on one another in this time of COVID. Faculty can find ways to share their ideas for keeping students positive and upbeat.


9. Create safe learning environments. In online environments, students need to feel like they can come forward and share what’s on their minds, without feeling judged. Today’s environment is new to all of us, and students are experiencing challenges that none of us expected. Instructors and administrators alike are looking to support students in this experience. It can be valuable to create a dedicated forum where students are encouraged to share what they are feeling. 

10. Demonstrate to students the value of remote learning experiences. Schools should show that their educators truly want to see students learn and succeed. Their courses might not be the same, but effective teaching will take on new forms as instructors around the world solve the problem of disseminating curricula in this new learning environment. They should demonstrate to students that, with time and as practices evolve, their programs will get where they need to be.


Julie Perrin-Halot, director of international strategy
Susan Nallet, director of student experience and employability
Federico Pigni, dean of faculty
Mara Saviotti, international communications
Grenoble School of Management

11. Embrace flexible formats. If students are to continue their educations during the pandemic, they need as much flexibility as possible. At Grenoble, we developed “hyflex” classrooms, which allow students to follow the same classes, whether they are on-site or off-site. Each hyflex room is equipped with three large touchscreen displays, which can display up to 40 people. The rooms also use sound-sensitive cameras that focus on whoever is speaking in the room. Faculty can share multiple documents using a whiteboard or write directly upon the screens.

We designed this solution in-house with our pedagogical team, and with the help of GEM Labs, a facility we launched in January to support business innovation and experimentation. We wanted to create a custom system that specifically addressed our needs. This solution isn’t just more flexible, but also less costly.

12. Identify students who are struggling. It was important to us for these classrooms to include features to facilitate one-to-one exchanges between students and teachers. In this way, teachers can identify and support students in difficulty. We are also working on a system that tracks their level of attention to the class discussion, so that we gain greater clarity on the conditions that reduce their level of attention.

13. Provide extracurricular opportunities for students to connect virtually. For example, we deliver our Welcome Forum for new students in a virtual format. Participants can discover our student associations, business partners, and initiatives; take virtual tours of our campuses in France; make one-on-one appointments with teachers; or take part in live online chats.

Room and avatars on Grenoble virtual campus

New students created avatars to engage with each other within a virtual campus environment during Grenoble School of Management's 2020 Virtual Welcome Forum.

In September, we also invited 700 first-year students in our master’s in management program to gather in the main auditorium of our virtual campus, created on the VirBela virtual collaboration platform. Students created avatars through which they could engage in meetings with our program directors and get to know their classmates.

They also took part in our Back-to-School Challenge. Normally, students would complete this challenge by going out into the city to test out ideas related to a specific topic (last year, that topic was companies’ abuse of consumers’ personal data). This year, students participated in an escape room on our virtual campus, before completing nine days of virtual workshops that each explored one of six global challenges: health, work, energy, food, education, and the city. As part of these workshops, students came up with ideas to solve global problems; these ideas were part of a virtual showcase where students pitched their ideas in front of a panel of professionals.


14. Prioritize student services. We have been steadily expanding our portfolio of services in the areas of financial aid support, disability support, medical teleconsultation, and psychological assistance. In addition, we have launched a hotline that students can call to deal with experiences of sexual and gender-based harassment. To help students and graduates find jobs, our career services office has developed a suite of webinars and workshops, online coaching sessions, weekly Q&A sessions, one-on-one career chats, thematic informational weeks focused on different sectors, and speed recruitment fairs.

The pandemic crisis has made us realize that many students need help bridging gaps they face that could hinder their educations. It has never been more important for schools to offer more and better services to meet students’ needs.

Related Reading

Teaching in the Zoomiverse

Distance Learning: The Top Ten Practices

Transitioning to Digital Learning