As so many of us are moving (sometimes against our will) to teaching online, apprehension can cause us to lose sight of why this is all necessary. We’ve left a physical campus to ensure the safety and well being of the most vulnerable among us. We’ve left the ground for the near future in our shared dedication to making the world a better place. As we do so for a noble cause, so too, our online classrooms have to be spaces where the human spirit can thrive.
Sound far fetched? It isn’t. Consider the reflections of Dr. George Station, a teacher at California State University Monterey Bay who noted on Twitter, “At the campus/class level and in professional learning networks, it’s mainly questions about creating or maintaining community from face-to-face to virtual alternatives, engaging faculty and students in the process, easing angst about remote work.”
In these trying times, higher education experts want to know: how can we continue to build community when we are not in our physical offices for students to stop by? What does my instructional style look like when lectures are being recorded instead of delivered? How can I build trust when I can’t banter in the hallways or stick around after class to see how my students are getting along in their daily lives? Until it is safe to return to our classrooms, we all need to become skilled at building community in online classrooms and fostering environments that enhance feelings of belongingness for our students.
What is belongingness? In online settings, belongingness (and its corollary, welcomeness) answers the question that students ask when they begin learning online: “Do I belong here?” Faculty who create welcoming spaces allow their learners to respond with an affirming, “YES!” In research regarding welcomeness, it has been defined as how comfortable an individual would feel while participating in the activity, or how a student in class would answer, “Are you welcomed?” Faculty are responsible for how welcome students feel when they enter the virtual classroom.
As faculty, we can enhance students feelings of belongingness through our social presence and active inclusion techniques in the classroom. Being socially excluded has been found to have numerous negative effects on health, happiness, and even longevity. Faculty have a powerful role to play in making sure that our students feel they are at home online. Belongingness is at its foundation relationship development and maintenance. In a remote setting, it still resembles the characteristics of face-to-face best practices.
To ensure my students feel they are part of a community, since the pandemic started, I have been in active outreach through my classroom announcements, personal emails, and even text messaging to see how my students are doing. Yesterday, I interacted with students of mine who live in British Columbia, Qatar, and rural Georgia. It is insufficient to be “approachable” in online classrooms, you need to be an intrusive positive presence in the life of the students you support. This is how belongingness works, as it meets the need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships. Belongingness is a fundamental human motivation: “People seek frequent, affectively positive interactions within the context of long-term, caring relationships” (Baumeister & Leary, 1993, p. 26). As faculty, our ability to develop and cultivate interpersonal connections enhances student persistence and retention.
From the Class Cafe where your introduction reveals the human side of yourself (include a picture) through the use of ice breakers (asking about favorite foods or recently made recipes is a great way to boost engagement in the Week 1 forum), to the grade book where you apply rubrics to student essays and discussion boards, be kind to your students in your feedback. Do not be afraid to be your full human self in class. Judicious use of humor (grammar jokes are good) can help.
We are humans “being” (in this case, being learners), which is a vulnerable place for all of us. Writing is a form of thinking, and none of us feels serene while our work is being critiqued by a professor. Writing is how online learning functions, and it is the basis of most exchanges. Try to enhance belongingness through student-centered thinking. Remind yourself that all students have been thrown curve balls recently, and then acknowledge the fact that online learning can be more reading and writing intensive, so some students making the shift from the traditional setting might feel utterly overwhelmed as they try to squeeze tons of academic reading and writing into their day.
To mitigate some of the cold and austere perceptions of virtual classrooms, please make sure to build in journals or other private spaces to allow for reflection, direct communication regarding learning differences, and other private conversations between you and the individual students you support. You want to be aware of all elements that could negatively impact student timeliness in responses. In assessment, try to focus on the quality of student submissions as opposed to APA compliance or other style elements, and in your comments, make sure that your students know that you are reading their thoughts and considering their ideas that they’ve shared through their writing.
While online learning spaces need a lot of faculty upkeep and maintenance, and it may feel a bit overwhelming at first, just know that all of your attention to the human elements pays off in the long run. Baumeister and Leary do not mince words: “the desire for interpersonal attachment may well be one of the most far-reaching and integrative constructs currently available to understand human nature” (p. 26). Human nature is ever present online, as we all can testify, so make sure that your classroom is an antidote to the chaos that surrounds it. Our students are counting on us.