12 Cultivating Community Building in Online Learning Environments
Diana Petrarca; Tricia Dwyer-Kuntz; and Terri Jackson
Learning is an active, complex, and individual process shaped by cognitive, biological, social, emotional, cultural, and environmental influences (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; National Research Council, 2000). There is no one-size-fits-all formula for educators to facilitate student learning. However, there are evidence-based findings regarding how people learn and how the design of learning environments might enhance student learning (National Research Council, 2000). For this chapter, we draw from the chapter on designing learning environments from the expanded edition of How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (2000), which frames the optimal learning environment around Bransford et al.’s (1998) perspectives. Optimal learning environments recognize that a community is built through the interconnectedness of a knowledge-centred, learner-centred, and assessment-centred space. While all of these elements are interconnected and critical to enhancing the learning experience, this chapter focuses on the broader and all-encompassing backdrop of community.
This chapter first addresses why community matters so that instructors understand how creating a sense of community in the learning environment enhances the learning experience. Some students may also wonder why time is spent on community building, so feel free to share the rationale and help them understand that learning is complex and multifaceted. Next, we offer general guidelines for instructors to consider and specific examples of establishing community:
- Before the course begins.
- At the onset of the course.
- As the course progresses.
Community building does not simply happen in one isolated event, but rather the process of establishing a learning community is ongoing. Building a classroom community in which students feel safe, included, and understood requires educators to create a deep knowledge of the students (Seravello, 2020). Particularly in a virtual space, it can be difficult for students to feel seen and known (Martin, 2019).
Why Does Community Matter?
By engaging in a learning environment in which shared norms and a sense of community that values learning is established, learners have increased opportunities to engage with others, take risks, obtain feedback, and ultimately learn (National Research Council, 2000). As noted in the Ready, Set, Go – Your First Week chapter, establishing a solid community plays a critical role in students’ learning experiences by helping learners engage with one another (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Lehman & Conceicao, 2014), establishing a foundation for successful collaborative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Nilson & Goodson, 2018), and establishing an environment for deeper learning (Quinn et al., 2019; Savin-Baden, 2007).
In asynchronous learning environments, community-building is still possible using online discussion boards, social media networks, or collaborative annotation tools in shared documents and whiteboards. However, it is essential to note that students who typically engage in independent distance learning experiences appreciate the flexibility of completing coursework anytime and anyplace (Anderson, 2008). We do not want to create potential restrictions on the learner’s independence. Anderson (2008) also reminds us that we must create learning environments that accommodate the wide range of learner-needs and that no single virtual learning environment that meets the needs of all learners exists.
Based on numerous articles and books on pedagogy and online learning, as well as our collective experiences in teaching online virtual classes, we offer the following general guidelines or suggestions to foster a culture of community and connection in your virtual classroom:
- Recognize that community building is not an event. Like all relationships, ongoing maintenance is required. Seek regular opportunities to connect and reflect, both individually and in groups. Do this as often as your schedule allows.
- Establish the context. The nature of relationships varies depending on who you are teaching. For example, relationships will look different in a post-secondary setting than in a secondary school classroom.
- Consider who is in a relationship. Within your community of learners, consider the relationships between instructors and students, students and students, and students and self (both in terms of their evolving self-perception as a consequence of learning and intrinsic factors, like motivation). Each of these will require different supports. Don’t forget the importance of building relationships with caregivers within a high school setting.
- Establish norms. Provide general guidelines regarding establishing classroom norms; begin with modelling. Ensure your expectations are clear yet concise. You may wish to review the chapter on fostering productive social interactions for further ideas.
- Be flexible. Don’t feel bound by your live sessions – feel free to extend your communication beyond your synchronous video meetings. A quick email or a well-timed announcement can reinforce a relationship. Consider a variety of platforms and avenues to build community. Twitter is a great way to connect outside the assigned learning space, expanding the learning beyond the lessons.
- Acknowledge your audience. Knowing that freedom and independence are often major motivations for enrolment in virtual learning contexts, consider how your requirements for community building impact individual autonomy.
- Considerations for cameras. Respect that learners may need the opportunity to choose whether they appear camera on/off (i.e., home environments, bandwidth, learning preferences all impact an individual’s decision to appear on or off-camera). Clearly indicate your preference but acknowledge that individual preferences and needs may vary. Let students know that you value the opportunity to see how they are reacting and consider encouraging them to have the camera on in breakouts even if they are not comfortable in the whole class setting. It might be worth suggesting the option of using a screen background since not everyone may be comfortable sharing the background in which they broadcast.
- Supporting diversity in learner profile. Always enable closed captioning and offer an unobstructed view of the speaker’s mouth. This practice helps individuals in need of auditory support, English Language Learners, and persons with attention and focus needs (and others!) Providing an opportunity for students to complete a short survey (e.g., Google form) gives individuals a chance to share vital information about their learner profile with the instructor at the start of the course.
- Use of pronouns. Encourage pronoun use (some platforms, like Zoom, allow users to change their display name to include their pronouns). This practice will ensure that you refer to individuals appropriately.
- Consider your professionalism. Both in terms of your surroundings (e.g., leverage filters if you teach in shared or cluttered space) and the comfort of your students (e.g., don’t teach from bed… no matter how comfortable it is!).
- Be genuine. If you are cheesy icebreakers, roll with it… but don’t force it on yourself or your students if this doesn’t fit your personality. Community is built in many ways. Plan it the way you plan lessons.
Activity 1: Introductory Email
Before starting the course, the instructor can send students a brief message introducing themselves, welcoming students to the course, and sharing pertinent reminders connected to the beginning of the course. This message aims to share information and begin to build the bond between teacher/student. In addition, it ensures your emails are getting to the students. Leverage this message to present yourself as an instructor who is present, available, and committed to student success.
As some students may feel nervous and anxious, the introductory email creates a culture of care and puts students at ease. The initial email serves as your first contact with your students – first impressions are critical. The tone you set in this message offers insight into the expectations students can have of you throughout the semester (Brown, 2019). Instructors may include a brief introduction of themselves, either in the body of the message or in an introduction video [0:49]. This introductory message must have pertinent information without overwhelming the students. Resist sharing all the things.
Instructors may wish to include information on class timing, LMS platform(s) and login instructions, contact information, and course expectations within the introductory email. The inclusion of support structures can ease tensions for many new to online learning (e.g., offer to log in thirty minutes before the first class to assist students with testing video and microphone capabilities in providing links to the institution’s technology help desk, introduce unusual software so students can play with it in advance).
If your audience is students below the age of majority (e.g., early high school students), ensure you include parents/caregivers in the introductory email. They will want to know how to connect with you and how best to support their learner.
- Access. Some students (and/or parents) may be concerned about accessing the email or video promptly. In addition, share communication in a space where individuals are likely to access it (i.e., institutional email address, LMS messaging, course announcement page).
- Clarity. Some students may require an opportunity to ask additional questions. Consider creating a Padlet (or similar) as a parking lot of procedural questions. You may also wish to make a frequently asked questions forum.
- TMI (Too Much Information. Sometimes there is a lot of information to share. It is critical that you filter through this and only communicate the information necessary for the students to succeed. Other information can (and will) be shared as needed.
These resources offer further options to consider, as you add a personal flair to your introductory email:
Activity 2: Building Community – Right out of the Gates (Meeting One)
A significant component is student identity – the unique characteristics, talents, abilities, interests, customs, cultural practices, and norms that a student brings into the space (Howard, Milner-McCall, & Howard, 2020). Often, we respond to one another based on assumptions about another’s identities (or perceived identities, e.g., Minor, 2019). As such, seeking opportunities to honour and welcome student identities begins the process of building an online environment anchored in relational trust (Seravello, 2020).
An identity web is a personalized graphic tool that helps us consider the many factors shaping us (Ahmed, 2018). Identity webs can be used as introduction tools to facilitate interconnectedness – supporting us to notice, wonder, and see the humanity in one another (Searvello, 2020). From Sara Ahmed’s (2018) book, Being the Change, this activity has been adapted to a virtual environment.
While not directly connected to community building, some classes benefit from an example/exemplar. For those groups, a read-aloud offers the perfect opportunity to model the creation of an identity web. Children’s storybooks offer utility in both secondary and post-secondary classrooms. We have used Rosie Revere, Engineer [Book] and The Girl Who Thought in Pictures [Book] as the anchor text for our identity webs. Finding a rich storybook allows students to see themselves in the pages and offers opportunities to build vocabulary (particularly valuable spaces with multilingual learners). After reading, the class co-constructs an identity web for the main character in the picture book, outlining the key features and attributes. Consider drawing attention to pieces of your identity and positionality as you collectively work through this. Google JamBoard allows for multiple contributors simultaneously.
For homework, individuals now create their identity web, or alternatively, you could provide class time to do this. They may choose to do this electronically or on paper.
Individuals may choose to share identity webs asynchronously (e.g., on FlipGrid) or live in breakout rooms. Either option allows participants to determine their level of self-disclosure and begins the critical process of building relationships amongst peers.
- Level of self-disclosure. Some students will share a great deal about themselves, while others will share only superficial information. Recognizing and encouraging acceptance of the individual level of self-disclosure will vary considerably is critical.
- Time. Some students will choose to share for extended periods. If you decide to do this activity with live sharing, establish a timekeeper who will manage individual sharing time. In addition, discuss sharing guidelines in advance. Alternatively, you can schedule out-of-class time for this to be shared.
- Lack of engagement. Some students, particularly at the secondary level, may not wish to participate. Opportunities to share an asynchronous video may appeal to these individuals.
Creating opportunities to build relationships and comfort within the classroom will support your work throughout the semester/term. These resources offer further options to consider, should the identity web activity not quite fit your context:
- Me as a Tree – Alternative Identity Activity
- Identity Iceberg
- Discovering my Identity
- Social Identity Wheel [PDF].
Activity 3: Building Community as We Go!
Throughout the term, it is vital to continue offering opportunities for students to feel connected to their teacher, peers, and learning space (Seravello, 2020). This connection can be achieved by providing safe and low-risk activities either intermittently or in schedules (e.g., daily, weekly or bi-weekly).
Students of all ages look forward to starting their day/class with a game about themselves, and it allows teachers to get to know their students on a more personal level. Enhancing relationships between students and instructors increases the effectiveness of our teaching, as it enhances the communal, relatable, transferable nature of the knowledge (Howard, Milner-McCall, & Howard, 2020).
Someone Among Us! is a daily or weekly activity that connects a popular game theme (Among Us! [0:40]) and to an equally popular presentation mode (Kahoot!).
Begin by having students complete a pre-class “All About Me” Google Form where students share standard information (i.e., a telephone number, an alternate email address, allergies, comfort with technology, required accommodations). As the last question on the form, ask participants to include two or three unique things about themselves that others might not know (and that they do not mind sharing with the class!).
Before each class, the instructor then creates a Kahoot game highlighting three individuals in the class. The instructor will turn each idea into a question such as, “Someone among us has travelled to 3 different continents.” Add the student’s name to the Kahoot! and include two distractor student names. The instructor should have all participants turn off their cameras except for the target plus the two distractors and have the class vote on who they think the statement is referring to. As per Kahoot!, students will choose a multiple choice answer. Once the solution is revealed, the target student can share more about their experience.
- Level of self-disclosure. Some students will share a great deal about themselves, while others will share only superficial information. Recognizing the individual level of self-disclosure will vary considerably is critical.
- Varied life experiences. Some students will come to class with a background of rich experiences. Others will not and may have difficulty sharing. Offer examples of things that are both intrinsic and extrinsic to the students. For example, a student who may not have had travel or sport/recreation opportunities can share a talent or interest. To support students, a list of sample ideas could be provided (e.g., chess player, wears mismatched socks, hates the colour red).
- Level of comfort with personal sharing. Students should always have the right to pass regarding personal sharing. Playing the game in small groups may help hesitant students to share with a partner. This game is played over a period of time, so a genuinely reluctant student would not be noticed if they chose not to participate.
Creating opportunities to enhance relationships within the classroom will support your work throughout the semester/term. These resources offer further options to consider:
- Community from a Distance: Building a Sense of Belonging Online Classroom.
- How Can We Make the Most of Synchronous and Asynchronous Time in Distance Learning?
- A Place of (Remote) Belonging: How educators can create a welcoming classroom community during distance learning.
Activity 4: Before You Know it, You are a Graduate!
Making an effort to stay connected with students throughout the year can build a robust classroom community. Therefore it is essential to bring social/emotional closure and celebrate the end of a school year, semester or course with your students.
Students will create an avatar and participate in a virtual graduation picture through celebration.
Using Pixton Class Photo, participants create an avatar that will be included in a Class Graduation Picture. This grad photo can be shared with students and families or compiled with photos from over the year to create a class yearbook.
- Body image: Some students may have difficulty creating an avatar. To avoid having a student be excluded from the final Class Photo, the avatar creation could occur at the beginning of the course, allowing for discussion and support.
- Non-inclusive software. The software must have fully inclusive choices for student avatars. Be sure to know your students and preview the software to ensure they feel included when creating their avatar.
- Pixton: Make a Class Photo
- Twelve Best Avatar Maker Apps of 2022
- Using avatars and virtual environments in learning: What do they have to offer? [PDF].
- Creating Online Learning Communities: THE Campus (part of Times Higher Education) has compiled various ideas to build online learning communities.
- Engaging Students Through Asynchronous Video-Based Discussions in Online Courses: This article provides a brief overview of several video-based tools that support asynchronous collaboration and engagement.
- Great Online Communities for Kids and Teens: This resource curated by Common Sense, a nonprofit organization that provides reviews and overviews of digital tools for students, lists a wide range of sites that support online collaboration.
- 5 Online Discussion Tools to Fuel Student Engagement: Another resource from Common Sense includes five online discussion tools that help students have meaningful conversations.
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