Community and a sense of belonging are important factors in students’ academic success. We assume that community-building largely only happens when we are together in our classrooms, but it does not have to end there. Technology and other digital tools allow us to continue to build a sense of community and belonging with our students even when not physically sharing the same space.
Whether it is through discussion and dialogue, brainstorming, problem-solving, roleplays, or group presentations, interactions with peers create learning spaces where students can practice, refine, and deepen their ideas, their skills, and their growing understanding of new concepts and materials. When students have structured opportunities to collaborate, it often means they are sharing their own learning process and teaching each other.
Discussion boards are probably the most commonly used but also most maligned forms of engagement and peer learning. It’s important to note that the empirical research indicates that not all discussion boards are created equal and that there are strategies that instructors can employ to improve engagement, interaction, and learning:
Also keep in mind that the discussion boards in Canvas support multimedia responses. So students aren’t limited to responding with just text; they can incorporate images, videos, sounds, animated gifs—if it can exist on the web, then it can exist in a response on a discussion board. Consider allowing and encouraging students to change up their types of responses.
VoiceThread is also a tool that can be integrated into Canvas, which allows even richer multimedia responses to a discussion prompt. Faculty can record themselves and annotate a document or other artifact, and students then respond with voice or video annotations in turn. The same guidelines apply as in a “regular” discussion thread, but VoiceThread allows for a bit more flexibility and space for creativity. The learning curve is more significant for both the instructor and the students, but not insurmountable.
Google Docs is an excellent collaboration space for students to take collective notes, work on projects or assignments, share resources, and other peer learning and engagement activities. Students can also collaboratively use Google Slides, Google Sheets, etc, for projects, resource sharing, and other collaborative activities.
There are also a number of tools that integrate with Google Apps. One such tool is Timeline.js, where students can create a collaborative, multimedia timeline using Google Sheets. Google Maps can be used to create simple, collaborative, interactive maps. And Jamboard on Google can be used for collaborative mindmapping, brainstorming, and drawing. Students can work synchronously or asynchronously with these tools.
Students can also use Zoom on their own to organize study groups, synchronous collaboration time, and even record presentations. While time zones are challenging, consider polling your students to facilitate the creation of groups with similar schedules and time zone limitations. You can also poll students to find out which platforms they are most comfortable using to keep in touch with one another, and create space for them to share contact information for working together synchronously.
Another platform that GU supports for peer-learning is CNDLS Course Sites. Instructors can create a single course blog in WordPress that everyone can contribute to, or one central class blog with each student getting their own blog. This is great for longer-term projects, weekly reflections or research journals, or a collaborative space to be able to share research, resources, and have discussions. Students can also create ePortfolios or exhibits on their CNDLS Course Sites. You can limit access to just students in your class or make them public.
Georgetown Domains is a more robust way to create websites for a course or for students to create their own web presence. With more options than just WordPress, Georgetown Domains allows for different ways to share scholarship and work on the web. Installing a platform like Omeka can allow for the creation of robust online exhibits, certain WordPress themes not available on the CNDLS Course Sites facilitate multimedia portfolios, and students can even create their own website via coding.
Another key factor for student success is engagement with faculty. There are many ways faculty can engage with students and, while there is no “one size fits all” approach, there are two key interrelated components: establishing and maintaining a positive faculty presence and building a learning community. Rather than waiting until the first day of class to begin establishing presence and building community, you can begin to develop your presence during the planning phase using digital tools and strategies by doing the following:
Once the course begins, you can continue to establish presence and build community.
How can you craft a learning environment that empowers students and helps to bring attention to or disrupt traditional power dynamics between teacher and student and among students? For starters, when feasible, involve students directly in shaping your syllabus and pedagogical choices, an approach that could be especially exciting and interesting in thinking through the course adaptations that will be necessary in a remote environment.
It’s also helpful to allow students leadership roles during class sessions, giving them opportunities to share their expertise, and to share responsibility with students for taking on other perspectives and for sustaining a productive learning community.
Guide to using Google Jamboard: a collaborative whiteboard space, this tool can be used for a variety of community-building activities.
Discussion-Based Assessments Webinar: Don’t let the title fool you, this webinar is designed to help you create better discussion board prompts that will engage students and help build community.
A Guide to Inclusive Icebreakers: From our colleagues at the Center for Social Justice, helpful advice on how to create more inclusive icebreakers for community building.