Feeling Isolated? Strategies to Create and Foster Community in Your Online Course

Black and white photo of person typing on a laptop.

Published December 10, 2020

A typical semester is grueling. An atypical semester during an ongoing pandemic is even more so. While I’ve appreciated the short commute to my “home office” and replacing the early morning coffeemaker conversations with family breakfasts, it’s exhausting being on hours of daily Zoom calls. Working in isolation is a daily challenge that we are all experiencing, especially our students.

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“Communicating information is only effective if the listener is engaged, and your vocal delivery plays a significant role in that. ”

If we’re not able to be fully engaged every day, how are we to expect our students to be? Continuous engagement is a challenge, but does it need to be? Are we setting unfair expectations of our students? Of ourselves?

Student engagement is a hot topic right now. My conversations with faculty center around student engagement, specifically strategies to encourage students to establish a presence, any presence, in their course. Zoom burnout is an actuality and should be addressed. This is a challenge regardless of classroom environment or instructional model. Students need to feel, at the very least, a sense of comfort within the classroom environment to participate. It is the job of the instructor to guide everyone to build a classroom community that is inclusive, but also, supportive and genuine (See my previous blog post on inclusivity).  

I don’t have a specific student engagement recipe that can be replicated and applied to each and every class. This is because each class is different and class needs vary. However, I can provide best practices and tools that you can incorporate into your course that will help you and your students build a classroom community where frequent participation occurs, and most importantly, is flexible and supportive of every student. Student engagement begins with building a classroom community, and the Community of Inquiry Framework is a great place to begin. Establishing a social presence in your course is vital to the success of creating an engaging and collaborative learning environment.

Who are your students

Be mindful of who your students are. I’m not suggesting to make assumptions, but instead to be aware. If you’re teaching a freshman seminar, consider that the students in your course just ended high school remotely. This is their first college experience and it is completely different than they expected. If you’re teaching hot button issues in a sociology course, be sure to incorporate inclusive strategies that allow for everyone’s voice to be heard, not just a select few. Increasing the classroom community’s awareness will create a comfortable classroom environment which will positively impact student participation.

Additionally, keep in mind that online teaching and learning is a challenge for everyone. The majority of students, just like instructors, were not expecting or anticipating to have to learn online, and were hopeful online learning would not be for this long. Students are continuing to work hard at figuring out a multitude of elements simultaneously for multiple courses. These responsibilities range from coping with their current situation, finding a supportive learning environment, balancing screen time, organizing assignments, developing self-regulation and learning skills at a rapid rate, learning the how to of digital platforms and tools, and trying to understand expectations and criteria without the beneficial support of the daily interaction of the typical classroom environment. These are only a handful of responsibilities. There are numerous, and each student’s responsibilities are different. Recognizing the authentic challenges students face is an important and necessary initial step in course design.

Another important consideration is to take the time to get to know your students. Doing so will go a long way. E-mail your students before the course begins and provide an informational survey to complete. If that’s too big of a lift because you’re teaching a lecture of 400 plus students, then share three (3) questions that require short, specific responses. This way you’re able to scan the student responses and have a better understanding of who you’ll be teaching. Taking this time will have an enormous impact on your classroom community, as well as student participation.

I’m suggesting that you become a detective and gather the information that you feel is necessary so you’re able to build a classroom community that encourages students to participate. However, it is not only the students who should share, but you, the instructor as well. It’s important for your personality to shine through your course, regardless of the fact that it’s online. Your students want to know who you are. You can establish your presence even before your course begins. In the email I suggested above, you can include your responses to the questions. In doing so, students become aware of who will be leading them through the course. Establishing your presence right from the beginning is so important to the success of your classroom community blueprint. You’re able to establish your presence in additional modalities as well. Video is a popular avenue. Here’s a great resource to help you overcome the fear of creating a video. In sum, working towards building and incorporating a collaboratively engaged community within your course will help engage your students and encourage them to participate.

Student engagement strategies and best practices

Zoom

I’ve spoken with many instructors and my colleagues about their experiences with what I’ve coined as the Zoom blackhole – individuals who decide not to activate their web camera during a class or workshop. While this can feel frustrating for the instructor or facilitator, it’s imperative we respect individual choices surrounding this. Certainly, a classroom community can feel more authentic with activated web cameras. However, this is not always possible, and the web camera isn’t the only device that can establish engagement and participation. Students can participate by sharing their questions in the Zoom chat either for everyone to see or for only the instructor to see. Additionally, instructors can use breakout rooms to help reduce anxiety experienced by sharing out to the whole class. Another strategy is for an instructor to have a live document where students can anonymously pose questions, confusions, or ask for clarifications. The reality is that students are experiencing many emotions around Zoom and we must be aware and respectful and incorporate strategies so students’ voices aren’t lost from the classroom community.

Using Zoom to check-in with students is another strategy to consider incorporating into your course design. You can set-up the waiting room for your synchronous class meetings and/or office hours. This allows you to admit students one at a time. You can have a quick check-in to see how each student is doing. If you’re doing the check-in prior to class, after meeting with a student you can then send the student to a breakout room either to work independently or with a group on a specific task. You can also use breakout rooms to increase student engagement by incorporating debates, case studies scenarios, role plays, and fish bowls to your class sessions. My suggestion is to think about all the engaging activities you have conducted in your face to face courses and identify one activity you think you can modify for your online course.

UB Learns

There are a number of interactive tools within UB Learns that can help you build an engaging and collaborative virtual classroom, regardless of the instructional model. You can incorporate collaborative projects such as discussion boards, blogs, wikis, or portfolios. These projects will help your students engage with the content independently and collectively, wresting with the higher order cognitive skills so they can transfer their understanding. While group work is often seen as an unwelcome challenge for both instructor and students, with the proper preparation and clear expectations and guidelines, group work can be very successful and a tremendous asset to your students in achieving the course objectives.

If you’re looking for ways to feel more connected to your students, you may want to consider incorporating journals or surveys into your course design. Journals are like a diary, they're a private dialogue back and forth between instructor and student. You could incorporate a weekly reflection where students are sharing something they learned and a challenge they're still experiencing. Surveys are a nice tool to use for a measuring stick. For example, you could create a survey similar to the one you may have created at the beginning of the course, simply to see how your students are doing within and outside the classroom. Taking the time to engage with your students this way will allow you to gather feedback so you’re able to provide the continuous instruction, guidance and support students need to have the most successful and significant learning experience possible.

Beyond UB Learns

UB Learns has a number of integrated tools that you can incorporate to increase engagement and participation in your course. Top Hat is a platform that provides polls, games, shared notes and quizzes. Piazza is another platform that increases dialogue amongst instructors and students. There are a number of others, and I encourage you to check them out.

You’re also able to incorporate third party tools. EmTechWiki is a great resource to review. Be careful that if you choose to use a third party tool that you become the expert and help desk for that specific tool.

Regardless of whether you decide to incorporate a digital tool that is or is not integrated into UB Learns, be thoughtful of how this digital tool will enhance and support your students’ learning experience. Meaning, ask yourself this question: How will the digital tool help support students achieve the learning outcomes you’ve set? Doing so will make your students learning experience significant and meaningful.

As is evident, there are a number of factors to consider in order to design a course that builds and establishes a dynamic learning community that is engaging and participatory. Taking the time to establish your presence, as well as allowing students a platform to establish their presences, is an important and necessary step. You can do so by incorporating the strategies and best practices I’ve shared. Good luck with your course (re)design. If you’d like direct support, request a one-on-one consultation with CEI.