When we consider the reasons why students drop out of courses, a number of factors immediately spring to mind, including excessive workloads, timetable clashes, problems of personal chemistry with fellow students and the teacher and inappropriate levels of difficulty. Conversely, feeling a valued and significant member of a community may encourage students to persevere, even when they experience some of the problems mentioned above. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons why teachers devote so much time to creating group-work exercises and encouraging interaction between their students.
When it comes to online courses, however, it would seem that fostering the kind of interaction that gives rise to such a sense of community is more challenging. At worst, other students are simply hashtags in a forum, which is far from ideal for forging social bonds. Naturally, various tools that simulate face-to-face contact can be utilised, including various video conferencing platforms, as we have seen in our own ONL18 course. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to argue that these technologies offer anything like the richness and depth of actual face-to-face interaction.
The answer would seem to be to engage with opportunities offered by online learning rather than attempting to mimic face-to-face teaching. For instance, online learning is particularly suited to activities like blogging and the creation of collaborative documents like wikis. According to some scholars, these activities can act as an effective substitute for face-to-face interaction (see e.g. Price 2016, p. 133), and thereby add the vital social component to online learning environments.
Price, G. (2016). Student Motivation in Online Courses. In Supporting the Success of Adult and Online Students. CreateSpace.