Building Community in the Virtual Classroom

October 16, 2019

BY: Kendall Hunt

Online courses and digital classrooms are becoming more and more popular as technology continues to advance and our days get busier. Since the online course appeals mostly to those who are already swamped with other commitments—other classes, work, family, etc.—how are instructors supposed to foster a healthy learning environment with students they may never get to meet? Though it may be a tad more challenging, you can illicit community and warmth through the very same means as a traditional classroom.

Think of Day One in your traditional courses—what do you usually do? Introduce yourself to your students and have them do the same. It’s no different in a digital forum. Build relationships with your students by putting a name to a face and a face to a person. While you probably won’t have to memorize names to faces like you would in a traditional classroom, get to know your students as well as you can and encourage them to do the same. This is where you might have to put in a little extra work due to the platform, but the personal connection it creates is worth it. Use ice breaker games, connect on social media, or simply chat to start building those relationships. It will ultimately lead to a more productive classroom environment in which students will be more likely to participate.

Next, as with any course, be sure to establish your expectations and refer back to them as often as you can. As is the nature of virtual courses, students are often busy and have other obligations, but don’t let your course fall by the wayside. Consider having traditional “office hours:” designate a few hours where you will be available online or via phone to talk with your students, answer questions, or go over the material. As all the resources for your course are likely accessible from one platform, reinforce that these are always available, as are you, for reference. Ensure your students know when they can expect a reply from you or when online chat can be available. It will prompt students to engage with the course and analyze the course material more clearly and actively.

Another way to foster conversation and build the community of your virtual classroom is to utilize the strengths of the platform. Use audio and video whenever you can; today’s students would often prefer to watch and/or listen rather than read, and this helps accommodate a variety of learning styles. Also, consider implementing group projects or partner work in which students will have to converse with others in the class via chats or forums. As student schedules are notoriously busy, students can learn to rely on each other for clarification and guidance and even continue course-related topics outside of class. Incorporate reflective essays or questions as a way to check-in with students and keep them involved. As with a traditional class, keeping your students are thinking, talking, and exercising the course’s topics keeps them learning.

Ultimately, encourage conversation and check in frequently with your students. Provide them with feedback that encourages dialogue and invites debate. Bring other students into this conversation and you have a thriving community of active learners who, while not in the same room, are on the same page.

If you have other tips on building community in the virtual classroom, share them with us on social media! You can find Kendall Hunt’s Higher Education division on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (@KendallHuntHE).