Relationships are the foundation of learning. When students feel connected to their teacher and their peers, they’re more likely to thrive. How can teachers forge these connections within a remote learning environment?
For education consultant Lainie Rowell, that’s the central question facing educators as they’ve moved instruction entirely online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Cultivating a community of learners is critical,” says Rowell, an author and international speaker who facilitates professional learning for the Orange County, Calif., Department of Education’s Institute for Leadership Development.
Building community has always been important for educators. In an online learning environment, where teachers and students aren’t face to face every day, it’s even more critical for success. If students don’t feel like a valued and important member of a community of learners, then they aren’t as likely to engage in lessons remotely.
Rowell hosts a podcast called “Lemonade Learning” with fellow educator and consultant Brianna Hodges. Based on ideas they discussed in their podcast and that Rowell shared in an interview, here are five effective strategies for building a community of learners online.
Engage students in norm-setting.
Just like they would in a face-to-face setting, teachers have to establish ground rules for acceptable behavior in learning online. Involving students in this process helps build a sense of community.
“When students help us develop those norms, they’re going to feel so much ownership [of the rules] that they’re going to be more likely not only to follow those norms but actually help you enforce them,” Rowell says.
Use get-to-know activities.
“I actually believe there’s a potential to get to know your learners better through a blended and online model than through a traditional face-to-face model of instruction,” Rowell says. “Just being in the room with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting to know them.”
The key to building community in an online setting is to be “super-intentional about it,” she observes. For instance, teachers can use an app like Flipgrid to have students create short videos introducing themselves to the class. Doing this in an asynchronous format gives students the space to be creative, without putting them on the spot.
Provide frequent opportunities for discussion, sharing, and collaboration.
Use discussion boards, chats, breakout rooms, and other online forums to facilitate class discussions online. Teachers might find that students who are hesitant to contribute to a class discussion in a traditional classroom are more inclined to participate online. Have students use Google Docs, blogs, or video to share their work with the class, and ask them to comment on each others’ work. Have them use digital collaboration tools (Google Apps, Microsoft Teams, or any number of applications) to work together on projects.
“Whenever kids get to work together to create new things, that’s really where the magic happens,” Hodges says.
Be generous with your teacher presence.
Students need to feel supported, Rowell says. They need to feel like a teacher is present with them throughout their learning journey. “We don’t want them in this asynchronous abyss, where they feel the teacher’s presence on Zoom and then the rest of the time they feel completely alone,” she explains.
Aside from sending frequent emails and calling students who might need intervention, teachers can establish this presence asynchronously by creating short, daily videos to welcome students or introduce a topic. “Videos can be endearing, allowing kids to feel like you’re there with them,” Rowell says. “They can watch the videos over and over again; maybe they’re having a rough day and they need to feel like you’re there.”
Videos don’t have to be a big production. “If I was waiting in line at the coffee shop, I would take out my phone and record a quick little video, saying: ‘Here are the things due this week, let me know if you have any questions,’” Hodges says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” The point is to help students feel your presence when you can’t see them in person every day.
Encourage peer-to-peer support.
Another way to build online community is to have students answer each others’ questions. For instance, teachers might create a discussion thread or a Google Doc where students can post their class questions and help each other. “When we build and maintain community, students will often answer each other’s questions before the teacher even has a chance,” Rowell says.
Encouraging peer-to-peer support has a number of benefits that go beyond establishing a sense of community, she notes: It helps students feel empowered, which is an effective motivator. And it frees teachers from having to answer students’ process-related questions, so they can focus on delivering more effective instruction.
“Try not to rescue all the time,” she advises. “Put a post-it note near your screen that says something to the effect of: ‘Could someone else do this?’ In other words, could a peer explain it as well or better? Could someone create a video tutorial to explain to those who are struggling?”
Rowell concludes: “Across the board, teachers find that when they foster a collaborative online environment, students are learning from each other and they — the teacher — are responding to fewer questions and emails. In my experience, I find that teachers who enjoy online teaching the most focus their time on building community, guiding learning, and providing high-quality feedback.”