Once students are in an online classroom and the rules of videoconferencing etiquette are sorted out, how do you give students a sense of belonging?
As we’ve stated before, walking into an unfamiliar room is intimidating. Your very first moments in a new setting inform every subsequent experience; who do you know, is everyone smiling or frowning, is there time to get situated, does everyone seem to know way more than you do, and is everyone trying to help each other?
Feeling welcome and greeted are the first steps into any successful community environment--a sense of belonging is a basic human need, one that supports an entire lifespan so that we can dare to challenge ourselves, knowing we have support in case we fall. Conversely, when students feel ignored or excluded, they can feel uncomfortable and unmotivated, lessening the chances for learning success. In sum, a sense of belonging goes far beyond the first step of participation.
In a remote learning environment, especially one that is unexpected and one for which students did not come prepared, a sense of belonging becomes even higher stakes. In such a situation, students enter remote learning environments with great uncertainty.
As educators, we want to build inclusive classrooms and strive for positive outcomes. We’ve entered teaching to uphold the quest of learning and help subsequent generations gain knowledge and ultimately make our world a better place. Yes, this is what educators do. This is how important educators are. How many of us know a special teacher who inspired us to do our very best and instilled in us life-long confidence? Whose words still reverberate within our psyche? This journey begins with creating a strong community within our classrooms, whether online or in-person.
So, let’s discuss how to build community in an online classroom. Many of the principles--nurturing strong teacher-student relationships, providing a caring environment, and setting clear expectations, for starters--remain the same in the realm of remote learning even while the tools differ.
- This may seem obvious--but in a remote learning environment, it’s important to emphasize encouragement. It’s one thing to receive encouragement in person, but when it comes to online learning, you may have to reinforce this in multiple ways; not just in feedback, but through direct messages and in one-on-one conversations.
- Furthermore, amplify your general presence in videoconferences. Be aware that you have to work a little harder at communicating. Subtleties are often missed over video--maybe someone is talking over you in a group discussion or there may be an internet connection mishap. So, make very clear your encouragement with simple acts like shout-outs, keeping in mind your facial expressions and body language as they appear within the boundaries of your screen.
LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY TO HELP STUDENTS COMMUNICATE
- Keep communication open--offer multiple channels for communication in addition to email. Consider setting up a Slack for your class or a blog or other online media, so that they can communicate with each other and you can see what concerns they may have. You can then choose to enable Slack on your smartphone or just your laptop so you, too, can set boundaries for yourself.
- Make time to facilitate real-time learning and discussions via “break-out sessions” or a “student lounge” in videoconferencing platforms or Slack channels.
- Encourage students to use networking sites like Facebook, Skype, or Google Hangouts to interact beyond the classroom. Sometimes the best support comes from cohorts.
- Don’t underestimate the gesture of sending an email to your students, such as thank you notes, specific words of encouragement, and reminders.
OVER-COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR STUDENTS
- Distance learners might need stronger reminders when it comes to deadlines. Put everything important in writing. Use email, Slack, or other communication platforms to keep your students informed and engaged.
- Now is the time to over-communicate--to stay aligned, informed, and to stay socially connected.
- Engage in discussion forums with students. Some ideas include private/closed pages on Facebook or the aforementioned Slack application or the discussion boards on your LMS.
- Offer online office hours where you can have real-time conversations and stay connected with students.
- Conduct check-ins at the beginning of each online class, so that you might have more transparency into students’ state of mind and wellness. In-person classrooms provide windows into student moods that remote learning may not make accessible, so you may need to be more direct when seeking access to this information.
- Enable subtitles in videoconferencing platforms to increase accessibility for students.
Creating a sense of belonging and community in remote learning is critical--as you can see above, the key factor is to facilitate a learning environment with multiple channels for engagement and participation so that students don’t feel isolated and educators can gain transparency into learning. We hope this helps.