Community Building in the Virtual Classroom
Activities that Help to Welcome Students
Creating a welcoming experience for students is one of the key challenges when starting a session. Equally important is the initiation of a virtual classroom. Studies have shown that schools and universities with a positive learning environment help students become more successful.
There are plenty of community building techniques that are already in use in traditional classrooms. These have been part of teacher education for some time now. But do not make the mistake using the same techniques without adaptation to your online classes — especially in this time.
Make your students feel welcome is the “new normal”.
We live in an uncertain time. No matter where you’re from, we all feel somewhat intimidated and worried about this pandemic. We do not know what the future will be like. How different our lives will be after all this.
This is why it is important to make your students feel welcome in your class to face sudden changes in the learning environment. It is difficult for some of us to get used to the virtual world. Not having physical contact or being close to our friends is a real challenge.
It is essential to dedicate at least a few minutes in your virtual classes to explain the new online courses’ value and how everyone can make most of it together with all other participants.
Create a personal connection
To continue with the first point, it’s crucial for virtual classrooms that students have a personal connection with one another. To make the virtual environment feel as close as possible to the real one, we need to make sure that students have a personal and emotional connection.
Rachel Toor, a Professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University, recently wrote in the Chronicle an interesting article about how to use personal essays as effective tool in building relationships in a synchronous virtual classroom.
In her courses, she asked students to write a personal essay (ungraded) and to post it on the course website — the so-called “sandbox” — for later discussion. In the virtual session, she divided the class into small groups (in breakout rooms) and asked them to comment on one another’s essays in the sandbox.
Over the course, those students got to know one another better by reading. Prof. Toor recommends also some other things that will be helpful in every virtual or real classroom:
- Allow for small-group interactions. Let the ‘shy’ and ‘reticent’ as well as the ‘dominant talkers’ form their own groups to allow them all to speak.
- Let them “chat” during virtual classes. Most videoconferencing tools have an integrated chat functionality to let also those less inclined to speak up.
- Less is just as good, or better, than more. Use shorter assignments that will help to accomplish the same learning outcomes.
- Grades don’t have to be an additional stressor. Do not penalise late work in intermediate assignments as students often have family obligations or other work to do.
- Peer review is a great tool. Create a rubric for the required analytical essay or for other class assignments, so that students can give one another guided feedback.
- Hold regular office hours. Schedule meetings with your students during the office hours.
- Email, email, email. Remote learning and virtual collaboration heavily relies on email, especially to exchange few personal words and to track those students who were lagging behind.
- Make all assignments due at the same time each week. Assignments should become a routine over the semester. So, schedule them at a certain day and time.
- Identify students who are struggling early. An initial written introduction of each student will help to assess their strengths and weaknesses.
- Give strong students more responsibility. Giving students specific tasks such as note taking or writing recaps will help those students who missed a class — but keep in mind to balance work between students.
- Meet at scheduled times. Be punctual. Virtual collaboration does only work if all participants meet at the scheduled time.
Furthermore, you can also use peer teams to lead online discussions. As Liam Rourke and Terry Anderson found in one of the earliest study of this kind:
“Students preferred the peer teams to the instructor as discussion leaders and reported that the discussions were helpful in achieving higher order learning objectives but could have been more challenging and critical.”
Have some common rituals
Finally, creating some common rituals is essential to make sure the classes will be efficient and productive for students’ learning and engagement. You can achieve this by having some kind of orientation program when the course starts. The students will get a chance to get to know each other, which creates a sense of community.
Eventually, all of these activities have roots in real-life community building. It is about creating a positive and “homely” environment for the students to feel welcome and nurtured in a virtual environment. This is equally important in all your teaching.