Creating a successful online community by using an icebreaker in an innovative way to foster a sense of social presence.


When did you first introduce the innovation?

More than 24 months ago

Please describe the innovation you have developed

I have taken an icebreaker designed to be used in face-to-face contexts and repurposed it for use online. This icebreaker consist of a number of figures clustered in and around a tree. In the online setting, at the start of each week, the students were asked to identify with a particular figure and to give their reasons for this choice. This is a reflective and shared group activity and while it is not compulsory I do encourage everyone to participate (which they do).

What prompted you to develop this innovation?

I had used this icebreaker before when facilitating face-to-face leadership programmes and in my own classroom teaching. By adapting it for use online and incoporating it into the design of my new leadership course I was able to ensure that the things students told me they valued in my face-to-face classes (namely a sense of community, a feeling of trust and opportunities to both give and receive support from their peers) were not lost.

Having participated as a student myself in some online courses (both internal and external to the university) in preparation for teaching online, I was very aware of how isolated I had felt at times and how this affected my both motivation to participate and my continued engagement with the course(s). I was determined to try to provide a more supportive and interactive online environment for my own students.

In your view, what is it about this innovation that makes it different/important?

One of the challenges facing taught online courses is the sense of social isolation felt by students (Ali et al, 2004). It is recognised that this can contribute to higher rates of attrition (Patterson and McFaddon, 2009). This innovation has helped my taught p/g students to feel connected to each other in a fully online course where, over a period of ten weeks, asynchronous discussion boards are the only means of communication between the students. It has both allowed and encouraged my students to feel able to disclose personal information about themselves and about their own experiences of leadership in a safe and supportive environment. Significantly in a diverse multicultural group this innovation has been perceived as a neutral, safe and non-threatening means through which the students could connect with each other without misunderstandings.

To what extent does your innovation make use of existing approaches, resources or technologies?

My innovation is directly based on an icebreaker that I had used before. The innovation was to adapt it and use it online.

To what degree has this innovation led to changes in education or clinical practice?

I know that several colleagues having heard me present have introduced this icebreaker into their own teaching. Some of this has been online but sme of it has been face-to-face.

I am also aware that students who have completed the course have spoken about using it in thei own teaching but have no substantive evidence to show this is the case.

What evidence do you have of the impact of the innovation?

Over several cohorts of students there has been a clear correlation between the students’ interactions with this icebreaker, the degree of social presence and their active and sustained participation throughout the course. In the first cohort (2012-13) each student posted an average of 108 times over ten weeks to the weekly discussion board, in 2013-14 a similar pattern emerged with each student posting an average of 109 times. I do not have the figures for 2014-15 yet but have no reason to think they will be any differernt. The attrition rate each year for this course fort the MSc students who have signed up to it in the three years the course has been offered has been zero. This is very unusual for online courses.

The value of the icebreaker has been recognised and commended by our external examiners who have recommended that it is incorporated into our other online courses.

Student feedback has been extremely positive with students highlighting every year on their course evaluation forms that the use of the icebreaker is much valued by them and ‘one of the best bits of this course’. One student commented that they ‘found it to be thearpeutic’ and ‘it gives the course the human touch’, another commented that using the icebreaker ensured they ‘did not feel alone’ while another student said it was where they ‘found so much support’.

I also know of colleagues within the university but from different Schools and Colleges who are now using it themselves.

To what degree has the innovation been disseminated in your organisation or elsewhere?

I have showcased this work at various meetings within the university. I have also presented it at international conferences e.g.

Carson M N (2014)
Promoting a Community of Practice Online: How Important is Social Prescence?
9th International Conference on Networked Learning, Edinburgh, UK

I have also been asked by academic colleagues at other HEIs in the UK to present this work at seminars and workshops.

Please provide details of any plans you have to disseminate the innovation in the future.

I am currently undetaking some further analysis of the students’ interactions with the icebreaker and hope to disseminate this in the form of a paper in the new year.