Colleges Can Turn Classes Into Virtual Communities. Here’s How.

Oct 22, 2020

COVID-19 has not only shaken up the way we deliver instruction, but the pandemic also threatens the bonds that connect students to each other and their campuses.

Institutions enjoy a certain amount of brand loyalty from their existing students, but this may change radically going forward, especially if students are not connected to their campuses physically. And if incoming students do not see the difference between the online instruction offered by their community college and by a traditional four-year residential school, many university administrators should be nervous indeed.

To stave off this potential defection, how can we instructors promote virtual community? We have always been one piece of the community-building process on our campuses, but now we serve as an even more important bridge between students and institutions. We can’t substitute for tailgates and late-night debates over coffee, but we’re not helpless either.

One of the most empirically supported best practices of online education is for the instructor to “be present.” This extends well beyond meeting with students periodically in class or in office hours. In an online-only world, it’s imperative for students to see you as a human being, not merely as an instructor. So it’s okay if your pet walks across the keyboard or your child asks for juice while you’re online. In fact those moments humanize you and help students feel connected.

I try to “be present” by following many best practices that institutions developed over time for online-only programs.

First, introduce yourself to your students right away. While serving as an online psychology instructor for Argosy University for 10 years, I was required to call each student on the first day or two of class—an old-fashioned voice call. This is certainly more feasible with Argosy’s class sizes of 12-15 students than for my Cal Poly San Luis Obispo classes of 50-300. Nonetheless, it seemed to have a huge impact on my students, most of whom were first-generation, non-traditional learners.

With larger classes, making a “meet-the-professor” video sharing some innocuous personal insights might suffice. My Australian shepherds star in many of my videos, and students are amused to learn that my ringtone is the theme from “Legend of Zelda.”

Second, you can’t employ too much video. Don’t just use video for lectures; the format can also be used to welcome students to your class, provide feedback (much preferred by students to print feedback) and walk through assignments.

Avoid long videos, though. Faculty accustomed to speaking in 50-minute increments need to break things up. Take a look at the length of most YouTube videos. You have about 5 minutes to make your points. You can make lots of small videos instead of whole lectures.

Third, be responsive. I’m not one of those professors who gives out her cell phone number for texting, but I do try to keep an eye on my email and learning management system messages. The faster instructors respond, the better. A clear, upfront communication policy stipulating response times can be very helpful for avoiding misunderstandings.

Fourth, be brave and conduct a mid-term, anonymous evaluation of your course. Traditional end-of-course evaluations do your current students no good. I have adapted a template in Top Hat, education software I use in my courses, that contains my favorite questions: What should your professor stop doing, start doing, continue doing?

Based on student feedback, you can clarify things like your grading policies. If you are not going to make your tests easier, you can at least justify to your students why they are difficult. If you can give them a little more time to complete them, you look like a hero for responding to their concerns.

These tactics can boost relationships between the instructor and student, but two other pieces are still missing: connections with peers and connections with the institution. In many ways, these are more challenging to foster, and it falls to faculty to shoulder new responsibilities in promoting these additional connections.

Discussion boards and group projects force students to interact, but this is still “school,” and they do not enable or encourage the type of informal chat that enhances community. In addition to formal discussions, I use Slate, a dedicated community environment within Top Hat, to foster collaboration and connectedness with the virtual classroom. I incentivize participation to ensure students use it to share and discuss class news and course content. The hope is that they’ll stay just to talk with one another about topics that are important to them and help facilitate a sense of community and human connection.

You can prompt some discussions with such questions as “Am I the only one who thinks the term ‘color deficiency’ is demeaning?” or “Who is moving back to San Luis Obispo for the fall?” My students have responded positively to the experience, agreeing in a survey by the platform developers that Slate made it easier to connect with me (89 percent), feel more connected to their class (92 percent), feel more connected with peers (85 percent), and finally, feel more connected to Cal Poly (80 percent).

These last two connections—to peers and the institution—are especially important as students adapt and look for new ways to remain connected. In a separate survey for my summer course, I asked the students how they were coping with feelings of loneliness during COVID-19. Responses indicated a creative array of virtual strategies, from playing online video games to group chats to watch parties.

If faculty and their institutions can provide a branded way for students to interact with each other virtually, in both formal and informal ways, we might not only weather this storm, but actually improve on our abilities to build real learning communities in whatever form higher education takes down the road.


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