What COVID-19 taught us about creating community

The embrace of technology tools while building learning for the future has made higher education much stronger.

The pandemic has served as a stark reminder that interacting with one another is a crucial part of our mental, physical, and spiritual health. All the time spent isolating indoors gave us space to think about everything we were missing by not being together. And now, as we navigate a slow and steady return to being in-person again, rebuilding that sense of community is many higher education institutions’ top priority.

But at the same time, it’s not quite right to say that the COVID-19 years have been totally community-less. Of course, it’s popular to argue that the digital ways we communicated were worse than face-to-face interaction. But making that argument misses an important and more nuanced truth: it’s possible to create community in other ways. As a matter of fact, there are times when online communities are the best kind.

This is a lesson I’ve learned firsthand after more than two decades working in online learning. When I began my career as an educator serving adult learners who lacked the time or resources to pursue traditional higher education, the rise of the internet was opening up entirely new possibilities. In many ways, we built stronger communities online than we ever had in person. Even in my first few years as an online instructor, I was having all sorts of conversations — often with students who wouldn’t have been as comfortable or confident speaking up around a table.

The novelty of online learning, not to mention our (often justified) skepticism about new models, had an unexpected side effect. We paid attention to the design of online educational programs in ways we’d never done for in-person classes. We developed whole new fields, like instructional design, and whole new approaches to inquiry-based learning and engagement. No education system is perfect, and we still have so much to learn about the right way to implement technology in the classroom, but it’s also clear that approaching online learning with intentionality is starting to pay off.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see community and engagement top the list of technological priorities for instructors in a recent survey of faculty members conducted by Packback, where I serve as an advisor. More than one-third of respondents said that throughout the pandemic, technology tools that support student community have been the most important they used. And nearly four in 10 said that investing in technology to support student motivation and retention should be a top institutional priority for 2022 and beyond.

Findings like these suggest that instructors and higher education leaders are beginning to recognize the role of technology in facilitating stronger classroom communities, even as we look ahead to the possibility of a post-pandemic world. That didn’t happen because faculty members were completely devoid of community interaction in online settings. It happened because the remote environment helped them understand what kinds of communities can form both online and off, how those communities differ, and how they complement each other.

It’s important to note, too, that online and technology-driven communities are far from perfect. Perhaps most troubling, research suggests that remote learning environments are particularly challenging for first-generation students or those from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Those learners are more likely to face external challenges like economic insecurity or family responsibilities that can interfere with an online learning experience.

But that shouldn’t be a call for us to abandon these remote models entirely. Rather, it should encourage us to work harder to close those gaps and build engaging online environments that can help students from all backgrounds join a supportive and fulfilling community. That’s why it’s heartening to see institutions like Ivy Tech Community College System invest in research to see how online discussion platforms can help to address racial disparities in engagement and academic performance. It’s a reminder that, even nearly three decades in, we’re still only at the beginning of a big experiment in online learning.

But if there’s one thing we learned from that experiment when it first began, it’s that online learning never runs out of ways to surprise us and spark creative solutions to age-old classroom challenges. In the wake of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to approach this new normal with the same kind of care and structure that many of us took in the early days of online education. If we do that, who knows what kind of transformative communities we have yet to build?

Marie Cini is Acting CEO of Ed2Work. She previously served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at University of Maryland University College (UMUC, now UMGC).

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