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.
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.
The good news is we needn’t look far for ideas and insights to guide us on the journey. The world of social media management in particular offers a good deal of inspiration and a number of best practices to help faculty embrace a shift in role from that of instructor, to ‘community manager’.
Get clarity on your objectives for student engagement and what success looks like. Some level of expectation—even if this is your first time teaching an online course—provides a baseline you can use to gauge progress. It also helps ensure your students understand what good participation looks like and how their contributions will be rewarded. Participation, the depth and quality of student responses to discussion threads, sentiment surveys, and even reducing the volume of student emails in your inbox are all objectives worthy of exploration.
Have a plan
With so much to do, it’s pretty difficult to think about driving discussions and interaction on the fly. How can you calendarize events and course milestones to get ahead of the curve? What activities will you use in class to get students learning and interacting together? A plan breeds consistency, which will help you and your students build the right habits and get everyone into a steady rhythm. At a time of continued uncertainty, it will also help maintain focus and keep everyone on track in the event of (more) disruption.
Understand your audience
What are the backgrounds and areas of interest of the people filling your class? A student interest inventory, which can be delivered through a simple survey, is a great way to peel back the covers on what interests students, what they find meaningful or humorous, as well as their goals and passions outside of class. Insights here provide ample fodder to make interactions more relevant and engaging by connecting course content to things students care about. Have students answer these questions as part of an introduction to the course. You can also review the results with the entire class as an icebreaker to get students discussing and reflecting together.
Understand your personal brand
The best brands have a distinct voice and personality, which adds a sense of authenticity to their communications. In teaching online, it is far too easy to have our personalities get lost in the shuffle. Reflect on what makes you tick. Is it your sense of humor? Your passion or sincerity? What lights you up outside the halls of academia? Take these insights and use them to personalize your communications.
Jody Donovan, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, makes a point of sharing who she is with her students, beyond her academic credentials: “I’m a white woman. I have an invisible disability. I talk about the pieces of who I am and how that informs how I show up in the classroom. Then I ask students to introduce themselves in the same framework.”
Set the rules for engagement
What level of participation do you expect? Will this be reflected in the grading process? Students who don’t actively engage in discussions or group work can detract from efforts to build a vibrant learning community. It’s also important to recognize that the normal academic rigors such as policing proper grammar and punctuation may inhibit engagement, particularly in online discussion forums. Relaxing the norms and recognizing memes, GIFs and video snippets as valid forms of communication will invite participation by allowing student personalities (and, yes, typos) to shine through.
As the instructor, you carry the banner for your online learning community. Model the behavior you want to see in your students. Participate actively in discussions, chat rooms and make yourself available as a resource for group work and other activities. Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at North Eastern University, practices what she calls ‘radical availability’, doing her best to respond to texts and discussions in the moment, rather than dedicating specific blocks of time. While this ‘always on’ approach may seem like more work, you may find it reduces the need to deal with mountains of student emails at the end of a week.
Give students opportunities (and the means) to interact with one another
Building a learning community isn’t just about an icebreaker or what you do in the first few minutes of class. It’s the product of good course design. When it comes to getting students working and collaborating together, group projects, assignments and embedding active learning exercises into class time are the true workhorses. Nothing creates a shared sense of purpose like being challenged to work and struggle together toward a common goal.
Having the right tools certainly helps. Laura Freberg, professor at California Polytechnic State University, uses Slate, a free communication tool, to provide students with digital spaces to communicate, collaborate, and build a sense of community. She also uses it to monitor the chit-chat amongst students and jump into the conversation to offer support with resources or a reminder about her office hours.
Measure and optimize
Any community manager worth their salt takes time to reflect on their goals and activities. How are your efforts at building learning community progressing? Your plan, however detailed, serves as a benchmark for student engagement. Now you can use insights from those exercises to identify and carry forward what’s working and leave behind what isn’t. Creating community and connection isn’t about knocking it out of the park on the first swing. Treat it like the iterative process it is.
The learning experience of every student and the effectiveness of every instructor is influenced by what goes on among and between the people who fill a classroom—virtual or otherwise. As the celebrated academic, author and social activist bell hooks notes in Teaching to Transgress, “our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” With a planful approach, and by making community and connection an intentional goal, you’ll get more students invested in each other and your course.
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