One of the main priorities at the beginning of any semester is to create an environment that is welcoming to all students. A space where students can feel comfortable interacting with the instructor and the other students, and a learning environment where students can engage and be successful. That may look a little different when we are putting it in a hybrid or online environment.
Four Strategies for Classroom Community Online:
While describing the importance of building community in online classes, Hulett (2019) states that, “Humans do not learn in a void; learning is a social event.” Going beyond the weekly discussion posts, she schedules periodic 15-minute individual conferences to engage students in discussion about their work, to provide feedback, and to make connections with students. This provides her insight into what students are thinking and opportunities for students to clarify their understandings of the content and expectations of the assignments. Video conferencing brings more personal, human interaction than simple text, chat, or audio conferences. Another form of using video conferencing for student-to-student interaction is the asynchronous video platform, Flip (formerly FlipGrid), in which students can post their discussion responses via video and respond to each other. This can be used for discussion boards, peer feedback, collaborative planning, or book discussion groups.
Brown described the importance of the instructor modeling community building behaviors in the online environment: “Modeling, encouragement, and participation by the instructor helped community form more readily for more students in computer-mediated classes.” (p. 31). This modeling included providing supportive interactions, posting substantive validation and specific feedback to student posts, and modeling respect for each class member’s contributions and opinions. Young and Bruce (2001) reported that programs and instructors who focused “specifically on how to produce increased engagement and sense of community” resulted in “enhanced student satisfaction and persistence in online programs” (p. 226). They suggested helping students connect via social networks such as twitter, blogs, or Facebook. LinkedIn or Flipgrid would be other potential tools to accomplish such personal and social connections. Young and Bruce conclude from their research that “student engagement and sense of classroom community are closely related to one another; students who feel a sense of connectedness rather than isolation are very likely better prepared to become more actively involved with course learning, successfully persist, and experience real world success.” (p. 227)
Hybrid Learning Environments (when part of a class is in the physical room and part of the class is attending via Zoom) present unique challenges for building classroom community. It is especially important to avoid having a two-tiered system of “participants” and “observers.” Everyone must have equal opportunities to participate and equal attention from the instructor if you are to keep everyone engaged. To begin with, consider designing your hybrid class as a fully online class, avoiding prepping two versions and making sure everyone, no matter the location, has access to all the materials, activities, and communications at the same time. Require all students, including those in the room to have a digital device to view the chat, follow the slides, and use breakout rooms. Designate someone to monitor the chat area of Zoom, so they can alert you when anything is posted. Consider using two screens; project the Zoom room (participants’ videos) onto the physical classroom screen and use the classroom laptop screen to advance the slides. This helps bring the virtual students into the room. Have students upload a photo on their zoom account so when they are not using video, they are still there. Make a conscious effort to speak directly to students in Zoom and the physical room. Greet them as they arrive. Arrive early so you can ask how they are. Just as with any other classroom community, show empathy and kindness; students can still believe you are “on their side” even if your expectations are high and your course is rigorous. Be authentic; show your passion and enthusiasm. Use active and collaborative learning strategies to engage students in their learning and with each other. Use Zoom annotation tools, polling, share screen, and breakout rooms. Encourage students to use Zoom backgrounds that tie in with the course content. Consider requiring backgrounds that visually represent the reading or key concepts for the week. Offer a weekly extra-credit point for the student with the best background, and allow the students to vote. Engagement strategies and collaboration help to establish a community of learners.