How to build community through online learning

Five actions educators can take to keep students motivated—and connected
Whitney Kilgore (left) is chief academic officer at iDesign, and Jessica Tenuta is co-founder of Packback.
Whitney Kilgore (left) is chief academic officer at iDesign, and Jessica Tenuta is co-founder of Packback.

What would have seemed impossible just weeks ago to students, faculty and administrators has become our reality—ready or not.

We’ve debated the merits and efficacy of online instruction for over a decade as an educational community. But for now, educators nationwide are setting the debate aside and focusing on action.

Read: Updated: 82 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

More than 4,000 colleges and universities have closed and either suspended academic activities or ordered all teaching and learning to continue online—affecting more than 25 million students.

Making the transition online

Institutions and outside experts are mounting a massive response—from sharing free courses preparing faculty for online instruction to giving free access to educational tools and building lists of emergency resources—as the community works to navigate this unprecedented period of uncertainty in American higher education.

But going online and remote—even with support—is no easy task. Higher education’s fight for learning continuity is being waged by thousands of professors nationwide, who are faced with the challenge of conducting all teaching activities online with almost no planning or notice, whether they are teaching accounting, biology or studio art.

Read: New to the higher ed digital community?

Carolyn Massiah is the associate chair of the Department of Marketing and an associate lecturer at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business. Ordinarily, she reaches more than 1,200 students through in-person courses. However, as students returned from spring break, UCF began delivering courses fully online—and will continue through summer.

UCF is no stranger to online education, offering more than 90 degree programs in an online format. But faculty and instructional designers are all under immense pressure. Massiah is “molded to her seat,” she tells us, as she settles into the new normal of getting her courses online and, where possible, helping other faculty make the transition.

Many of UCF’s online courses use discussion tools as a way to supplement instruction and boost student engagement. Massiah says that tapping these existing tools and resources is going to be the first step for those involved in continuity planning.

Focusing on community-building

We cannot expect an in-person course that moves to an online format in an emergency to run as smoothly as one designed specifically for the online environment. And we should not use this period as a measuring stick for the full merits of online instruction; what’s happening today is remote instruction.

But here are five actions educators can take to make the transition a bit less painful for themselves and their students—and boost collaboration.

  1. Don’t be camera shy! While some institutions are choosing to use fully asynchronous instruction due to considerations for student schedules and extenuating circumstances, video-based tools can help ease the transition online by allowing students and instructors to see one another and observe reactions. There will be students and faculty who don’t have the remote bandwidth to support the use of cameras, but for those who can, this human experience will be a benefit. So much of human communication relies on nonverbal signals; synchronous tools can help maintain a sense of normalcy in communication.

    So much of human communication relies on nonverbal signals; synchronous tools can help maintain a sense of normalcy in communication.

  2. Let students talk and collaborate live—even if it is awkward. If you are hosting a synchronous online course, make deliberate spaces for real-time discussion. It may mean more “wait time” than in the classroom (as we all learn how to unmute ourselves!), but it is worth the wait. Getting students engaged is important to helping them stay motivated, particularly in this time of isolation.
  3. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and students. Expect the unexpected—from tech challenges to dogs and kids being on camera. As a matter of fact, instructors can build rapport and establish a sense of community with their class by encouraging that they bring their pet to class. Be kind and communicative; we are all going through this together, and each person’s experience is different. Students and instructors who are new to the online class environment will have a learning curve. Exercising empathy and patience will help us get through this challenging time.
  4. Keep students connected through community. Even under the best circumstances, one of the biggest barriers to making an online course effective with students is the challenge of building communities that maintain social connection even in a digital environment. But this piece is critical. When students are exposed to more engaged peers, it has a direct positive impact on their own performance.
  5. Prioritize student autonomy even in these unusual circumstances. An easy way to give students control over their learning experience and keep them engaged is to use inquiry-driven learning. It could be tempting to focus on content delivery (like getting lecture recording just right), but perfection is so much less important than getting students engaged. Faculty can create activities that are driven by students forming and asking their own academic questions—either in peer discussions, in creative assignments or in response to lecture content.

Read: 7 tips for taking on-the-ground courses online

These are just a few high-level strategies that can help faculty get through this extraordinary time for higher education and the country. Every faculty member’s transition online will be different, filled with its discrete challenges and unique pain points. The good news is that higher education can once again showcase its unique talent for collaboration and knowledge sharing.

This semester won’t be perfect. It may not be pretty. But we will get through this—together.

And one thing’s for certain; we are all going to learn a lot this semester.

Whitney Kilgore is chief academic officer at iDesign, and Jessica Tenuta is co-founder of Packback.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

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