How to create community in online learning

Poll students about learning preference and any challenges they're facing
By: | March 27, 2020
During coronavirus campus closures, faculty teaching online learning can regularly survey students to gather ideas and identify challenges.During coronavirus campus closures, faculty teaching online learning can regularly survey students to gather ideas and identify challenges.
Jenna Sheffield

Jenna Sheffield

Creating continuity and a campus-like community in the virtual world should be the first step faculty take when shifting their students to online learning during coronavirus closures.

That starts with polling students about their learning preferences and any lifestyle or technological challenges they face in connecting with their instructors, says Jenna Sheffield, an assistant provost for curriculum innovation at the University of New Haven.

A key online learning question is to ask students whether they prefer live (or, synchronous) instruction, or recorded (asynchronous) instruction. Faculty can also solicit students’ ideas for revamping assignments for the virtual world, Sheffield says.

“A lot of people say we should do asynchronous because students may be in different time zones or they may not have access to the technology that they need to do coursework in the moment,” Sheffield says. “And some students are working more because their parents got laid off and they’re trying to help out and maybe they can’t meet during normal class time.”


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Sheffield, who also teaches writing, says she prefers synchronous instruction because it allows more vibrant class discussions, which are crucial for maintaining that classroom community atmosphere.

Faculty teaching synchronously, however, should be flexible with attendance and always record the sessions for students unable to attend in real-time.

When teaching online, faculty should ask open-ended, engaging questions for class discussions and convey clear expectations for discussions and assignments.

“It’s less about quantity and more about quality,” Sheffield says. “So, you have to tell students what that means—if you have a rubric that says quality engagement means a student is going to push a conversation further—that they’re not going to repeat what the previous person has said—you have to model that. Give students an example of a strong response and a not-so-strong response.”

Faculty making videos should keep them short, no longer than 10 minutes. At the end, faculty should give students a quick exercise or activity to apply the concepts covered in the video, Sheffield says.

She also recommends that faculty also show their faces during online presentations, such as slideshows. Individual slides should not contain too much text and will be more eye-catching if they include a YouTube video or image.

Keeping a lookout during online learning

The shift to online learning has increased concerns around academic integrity.

Faculty can check if their institution has software tools that, for instance, can lockdown students’ browsers during an online exam or randomize questions so not all students get the same exact test.


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Faculty should also be attentive to students’ mental health while they’re working remotely.

The University of New Haven, for instance, has made virtual counseling available to students. Faculty can also hold virtual office hours and conduct additional surveys to check on students.

At her university, Sheffield says faculty are now connecting with each other more frequently to share ideas about online teaching and assignments. They have been conducting live videoconference to collaborate.

“I think this is a time where there’s a lot of opportunity, and what faculty learn will carry over back into face-to-face classrooms,” Sheffield says. “It’s not all bad, and that’s an important message to get out.”


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


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