Developing an active online community both within your course and at a programme level is really important. The extent to which participants, staff and students, can project their personal characteristics into the community, presenting themselves as real people, is important because this help enhance the cognitive aspects of the course are enhanced by it. For instance, discussions work better if people can be honest with one another and when there is mutual trust.

Having social presence in your community also helps to enhance retention. Social isolation may be more likely to occur in blended courses compared to on campus courses. Therefore, students are more likely to persevere with a course if they find the interactions in the group rewarding and personally fulfilling.



What you can do

Almost all social media platforms include the option for a profile picture. The profile picture is an important aspect of a person’s online presence. It has many functions, one of which is to help other people to identify you. Although this might seem trivial, it will be important to our students to get to know you and their peers.

One suggestion is to use the same image consistently across many sites, to help people recognise you. Setting the same image for your webpage, email and the image on your course as the same can help others spot you quickly.

Encourage students to also upload an image so others can get to “know” them.

You might want to talk to them about the role of profile pictures for their future careers.

Things to consider

When asking students or colleagues to upload an image of themselves we need to be sensitive to the fact that this may be uncomfortable for some, and therefore allow the option for them to use a substitute image (i.e. picture of their cat or other image that they feel represents them). This will still enable others to associate with them quicker than simply the name or initials associated to posts.

How to do it

  • Links to how to update your profile picture in MyAberdeen:
    • For Staff – Please note that options to Change password or enter Additional Information do not apply
    • For Students - Please note that options to Change password or enter Additional Information do not apply
  • Links to how to update ms teams picture/ profile pictures

Pedagogical Evidence base

Pollard, H. Minor, M. & Swanson , A.(2014) Instructor Social Presence within the Community of Inquiry Framework and its Impact on Classroom Community and the Learning Environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 17(2)

Use of video

What you can do

There are many ways in which video can be used to facilitate communication and learning with students. The teaching presence section provides ideas on how to use video effectively to aid teaching. In this section, we want to consider the importance of being able to see you as the tutor on the screen rather than a voice-over style video. If you are comfortable with including the video feature as well as recording your screen, this is well received by students. If you are not comfortable with this, however, you might want to consider including a photo of the presenter on the first slide, or maybe just a few short seconds of you in the first slide, then switch the camera off and carry on with audio alone.

Some points to remember:

  • Students are not looking for a documentary style production, the inclusion of you in the video is to make you a more ‘real person’ to them.
  • Don’t feel that you need to edit videos to remove all the “ems” and mistakes.
  • Be sure to allow your natural personality to shine through, giving the presentation an air of genuine spirit. This is important when your audience is remote and cannot interact with you in person.
  • Remember, if you sound like you’re enjoying delivering the presentation, then the audience is more likely to enjoy listening to it.

Some ways video can be used to help develop the online community:

  • Get all tutors and students to record and share a short video 'selfie' to introduce themselves and share these via VLE. Provide questions to help them include useful content.
  • Record a short welcome video with your face showing. You might want to also give a virtual tour of your course on the VLE.
  • Instead of always emailing or communicating through text, consider uploading short videos to clarify points, or provide some formative feedback using short videos. Encourage student to also use video and audio recordings for discussions

Things to consider

  • Consider that in some cultures there is a requirement to wear appropriate head coverings. Therefore make sure that, when including any video requirements, that students are aware that it is acceptable for them to wear any head coverings they would normally wear when attending class.
  • Consider the training needs of students and the software available. Panopto is available to all students and instructions should be included on how to generate captioning of the videos (see below). Captioning can be very useful for students with hearing impairments or where understanding the large array of accents in our multicultural University can be challenging.

How to do it

How to use Panopto including captioning:

How to make accessible content (video, web, VLE, documents & presentations):

Pedagogical Evidence base

Borup, J.  West, RE. & Graham CR. (2012) Improving online social presence through asynchronous video. The Internet and Higher Education. 15(3) 195-203

Brady-Van den Bos & Comber (in prep – contact to see the data).

We show that the talking face greatly enhances students’ perception of the tutor as a caring, approachable person. Videos were perceived as being tailor-made to the individual student.

Clear Communication and Instructions

What you can do

On-campus courses are commonly delivered on a weekly basis, on the same day and at the same time. Disruption for students can be minimised by bringing this rhythmic structure into the online environment and by telling students when they will receive a reply to a question and when they will receive assignment feedback and grades.

Sharing with students what they can expect might help them feel at ease in a time of transition and uncertainty. (QM Higher Education Course Design).

Explain to students how they should make contact (e.g. email, via online office hours, through the VLE, etc.), how often they should log in to the class site, which activities are synchronous vs. asynchronous, and any guidelines for communicating with peers (e.g., professional communication, “Netiquette”, etc.). (QM Emergency Remote Instruction (ERI) Checklist).

Students will want to have as much understanding of what is going on as possible, so knowing when to expect a reply/feedback is invaluable. Students will want to be told what to do (i.e. how often they should log into the class site, which activities are a/synchronous, how they should communicate with their classmates).

Plan and pre-set communications through announcements, calendar entries or date released emails. All of these can be written ahead of the course starting and can be set to be released at an appropriate time. Communication can include short messages about things that are planned for the coming week or expectations about where students should be in the course at a given point. All of these messages will help students to feel that staff are “actively engaging” which encourages them to demonstrate the equivalent engagement behaviours.

Things to consider

  • Be brave enough to show that we are all learning together, for example, show some humanity, make some mistakes. Although students often look to staff for a sense of security, they also like to know that staff are approachable.
  • Try to be understanding if some students find accessing the information difficult or miss an instruction. You may need to give the same information multiple times and use some form of response system to check that everyone has understood what is happening and what is expected.
  • Be clear about when and how you will respond to students, and live up to the expectations you give them.
  • Utilise verbal feedback when possible – it is good to hear a voice.
  • Offer live Q&A or ‘ThinkAloud’ sessions which allow for informal educational engagement.
  • Offer online Office Hours. Students will need to be reminded of these and ideally they should be consistent in terms of timing.

How to do it



What you can do

"... icebreakers reduce both student and instructor anxiety; foster both student-student and faculty-student interactions; create an environment where the learner is expected to participate, the instructor is willing to listen, and where learners are actively engaged from the onset; convey the message that the instructor cares about getting to know the students; and, make it easier for students to form relationships early in the semester so they can work together, both in and out of class."

From: Icebreaker Activities/Creative Teaching-Ettes/Teaching & Learning Resources

Be careful when choosing which icebreaker to include as students studying online are conscious of how their time is being used and may choose not to engage if they do not perceive an exercise to be directly relevant to their course. This approach tends to increase as students’ progress through the years, therefore you may want to alter icebreakers to make them subject specific at the higher levels. This web article has some really useful things to consider when designing your icebreaker.

Things to consider

  • Be aware of cultural issues in topics chosen (e.g. reference to a 1970s European pop band may not be received well by all).
  • Provide clear, advance notice of the icebreakers so students know what to expect.
  • Consider that the very nature of icebreakers often requires students to take social risks with people they barely know. They often involve having to publicly share some kind of personal information. For an icebreaker to work, carefully consider it and avoid those which may make students feel anxious or inferior.

How to do it

The activities tied to the links below are examples of icebreakers originally developed for the face-to-face classroom but have been modified for use in the virtual classroom. They represent a variety of methods and tools that can be used in the virtual environment to conduct successful icebreaker activities. (PDF versions of each icebreaker are attached to each activity for printing.) (From: Online teaching strategies for Adult learners)

Pedagogical evidence base

Gilly Salmon 5 stage model -

Clear, T. Daniels, M (2001) A cyber-icebreaker for an effective virtual group? ACM SIGCSE bulletin 33(3) doi/10.1145/507758.377662

Breaking the ice: using ice-breakers and Re-energizers with adult learners

Chlup, DT. Collins TE. (2010) Breaking the ice: using ice-breakers and Re-energizers with adult learners, Adult Learning 21(3-4) 34-39 doi/ 10.1177/104515951002100305

Support discussion

What you can do

Online discussion can take place either via a discussion board/forum system, or a live chat system. The main difference between the two is that the former is not dependent on all contributors taking part at the same time (asynchronous) whilst the latter requires participants to be present at the same time (synchronous) as messages are relayed instantaneously.

It would be easy to hold online discussions to higher standards than discussions happening face-to-face. Not all students participate equally in a face-to-face class, however, and consideration should be given to whether it will be a requirement for all students to contribute in this environment. Many students will choose to learn by observing and may not wish to contribute.

Some great ideas about discussion boards can be found here.

Groups, with their own meeting spaces, can also be created using MyAberdeen (discussion board, collaborate room). Asking students to decide on a group name, derived from a discipline-related word/name will help create a social identity.

If you are using MyAberdeen's fora then you have the option to check who hasn't contributed yet; these students could be sent an encouraging message or asked if anything is preventing them from participating.

Things to consider

  • Setting ground rules about forum behaviour (e.g., not dominating a discussion, respecting other people's views) and enforcing them, may help students feel more confident to take part.
  • If someone is particularly enthusiastic to participate and consistently raises their hand (in a synchronous session), make sure to ask for other viewpoints after calling on them. The equivalent of an asynchronous discussion is to reply to the first post inviting others to share their opinion or ask if others agree or disagree. This helps to make sure discussion is not dominated and removes the common student experience of having the same person answer every question.
  • It is important to be aware of cultural differences in willingness to communicate and acceptability to being challenged or challenging another person’s views. You may need to provide some additional advice and support around what is expected and acceptable depending on the cultural diversity of your student group.

How to do it

We also considered discussion boards when looking at how we encourage participation in the online environment HERE

For some really good examples of how to create and facilitate discussion boards please see these resources from Blackboard.

Pedagogical evidence base


  • Peng, JE. & Woodrow, L Willingness to Communicate in English: A Model in the Chinese EFL Classroom Context (2010) Language learning. 60(4), p.834-876. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2010.00576.x
  • deNoyelles A. (2014) Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10(1) 153-165
  • Kebritchi, M & Lipschuetz, A & Santiague, L. (2017). Issues and Challenges for Teaching Successful Online Courses in Higher Education: A Literature Review. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 46. 4-29. 10.1177/0047239516661713.
  • Stearns, S. (2017). Student Responsible Learning: Getting Students to Read Online Discussions. College Teaching. 65. 1-10. 10.1080/87567555.2016.1244654.
Virtual Social Event

What you can do

During Covid pandemic there has been a huge increase in the number of people who are enjoying virtual social events, with everything from coffee and cakes, pub quizzes and virtual bake offs. You could ask for volunteers from the class to set up a virtual social committee who can come up with social events throughout the semester that others can join in ( this may work better at a programme rather than course level) but could be adapted to suit.

There are numerous sites with ideas for virtual social events, and with a bit of creativity some of these can be reworked to contribute to subject knowledge. These can include challenges such as bring and share the news article for this week which has the least basis on scientific evidence ( you could pick a topic specific to your discipline or leave it open)

Things to consider

You need to be sensitive to alcohol consumption and culture.

Also consider time zones, although some of the suggestion are for longer run events which could cover all time zones

How to do it

Here are nine Social activities you can do by online chat and video

Here are 10 Clever University Event Ideas to Keep Students Engaged