HFT Summer Academy, community

HFT Week Five: Community in the Digital Classroom (part 1)

Over the last decade, as I’ve worked with faculty at institutions in the States and abroad, one concern rises to the top amongst teachers first going online: how do I establish and maintain community in an online classroom? For those of us looking ahead at the Fall and imagining scenarios which might involve all or some students in a class tuning in remotely, or asynchronously and fully online, this question can be a complicated one.

  • If some students are in class (and always at least six feet apart) and some students are on a screen, how can we create a sense of community, synergy, collaboration among those students?
  • If we are meeting students for the first time in Zoom, and we’re faced with issues of bandwidth--video or audio cutting out, people getting disconnected--how can we establish rapport among them, and between them and us?
  • If we teach fully online, and we will never meet or necessarily even see students, what can community look like? How do we create a sense of belonging inside an LMS classroom?

All of this is further complicated by the circumstances which have driven education online this year, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant fallout: unemployment, food and housing insecurity, economic recession, illness and death in families otherwise healthy. When we consider building community in digital spaces, then, we are not only doing so in the context of learning and education, but also in a context of deep trauma.

We should ask ourselves: why do we feel community in a classroom is important? The answers to this question can vary widely, from participation and attendance (and their associated grades) to the importance of group work in class (as in lab and studio classes), from an eagerness to keep students engaged to a desire to support students through a time of crisis. Our reasons for community will make a difference in our attempts to establish it, as well as the nature of the community we create.

It’s also worth noting that, when we take on the job of creating community in a digital classroom, we are also taking a certain ownership of that community, and we need to be careful not to assume that a community in our classroom is the only community students may have. “How can I help students stay connected to each other,” is a question that I’ve fielded a lot in the past two months; but it’s important to recognize that students are themselves forming communities outside of class. They’re doing it on Instagram, on TikTok, and other social media. The community we create in our classroom is only part of the community students participate in; and, because most of us assign grades to participation in that community--through discussion forums, group work, attendance policies, etc.--students are likely to consider a community in the classroom mandatory rather than social, obligatory rather than a place they feel they belong.

This week marks the half-way point in the HFT Summer Academy. We will be hearing from our colleagues this week and next with a short series of “How I Teach” blog posts. These are folks who have taught in digital spaces, and are volunteering their practical experiences to help all of us better imagine and prepare for the Fall. These folks are also part of our community.

This week’s work takes us back out of Canvas (though, the Hybrid-Flexible Teaching course will remain open as a resource to you). I recommend you:

Hypothesis and collaborative activities are sites of community-building. These places are where you may find other colleagues whose ideas will inspire and sustain you this Fall.

Activity: Introductions

How we introduce ourselves? What do we say to students when they first enter our online or digital classroom? Where do we say it? What is too important to leave out? How we decide to speak to students--from day one--contributes to the quality of community, the sense of belonging, and the level of engagement and participation we can expect from them.

In this collaborative Google Doc, please write an introduction of yourself to your students. This can be the beginning of your syllabus, or it can be an introduction to post in Canvas or on a website. If you are unsure what to write, feel free to use this space to reflect on what you think an introduction should consist of, or the role it plays in your classroom and students’ engagement.

If you choose to comment on others’ contributions to this document, be kind. Writing here is not meant to be critiqued, but to be appreciated.

Photo by Cameron Vaughan on Unsplash

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About Sean Michael Morris

Sean Michael Morris is the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Senior Instructor in Learning, Design, and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver.
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