Before COVID-19 turned the academic world upside down, community and connection happened almost spontaneously. Students could walk into a classroom and introduce themselves to the people around them and instantly feel part of their learning community. They could linger afterwards to ask a question or organize a study group. Outside of class there were endless opportunities to socialize through clubs, sports teams, and other activities.
Fast forward to 2020 and, for most students, the campus experience, at least as we’ve known it, has become another casualty of the ongoing pandemic. For better or worse, the virtual classroom is now the place for students to find that all important sense of community.
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Feelings of connection and belonging have a major bearing on student success and their willingness to persist in their studies. A survey of more than 3,000 college students in the spring of this year found that the loss of interaction with peers and faculty resulting from campus closures had a significant impact on student motivation. Not only did the emergency shift to remote learning make them feel more isolated and lonely, students were less likely to complete homework and other assignments. Hardly surprising that in more recent research on faculty preparedness for the fall semester, 81 percent of respondents identified fostering community as a top concern.
As instructors are experiencing first-hand, creating meaningful connections online requires a new level of effort. This involves taking a deliberate, structured approach to foster an environment in which there is purposeful interaction among students and the instructor. Put simply, the development of a learning community must be an intentional goal.