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

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:

  • Provide clear and engaging prompts
  • Be an active participant
  • Model the responses you want to see
  • Provide feedback and guidance, especially in ways that help students see the range of expertise of other students
  • Be creative and design a variety of activities

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.

Collaborative and/or common work spaces

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 Georgetown Commons Blog. 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 Commons Blog. 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 Commons Blog facilitate multimedia portfolios, and students can even create their own website via coding.

Engaging Students through Presence and Community

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:

  • Craft a welcoming, engaging, and inclusive syllabus. Consider using second person rather than third person. For more information on syllabus design visit the Teaching Commons website. To learn more about designing an inclusive syllabus visit the LGBTQ Resource Center and download the CNDLS Inclusive Pedagogy pamphlet.
  • Send out a welcome email or announcement in advance of the course.
  • Develop a communication plan in advance so that students know how to best reach you, what your turnaround time will be, etc.
  • Build an Orientation in your Canvas course, make it available to students before the course begins, and require students to post a video introduction. This will give them a chance to read the syllabus, get required books and materials, and become more acquainted with you and their classmates.
  • FollowUniversal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines when designing your course. Design your course with variability and some flexibility in mind so you can reach all types of learners.
  • Make yourself visible. Pre-record a Canvas-posted welcome video where students get to see you and learn more about who you are, and build in opportunities during the first week of class for students to see and get to know you and each other.
  • Learn your students’ names. In Canvas you can see who your students are by selecting “People” on the navigation bar.
  • Require video introductions on the discussion board during the first week of class. While this is a low-stakes, ungraded assignment in most online learning environments, it can also be a high impact one in that it allows you to establish your presence, begin to foster a community of learning, model the appropriate tone and content, and set the norms and expectations for the discussion board that you want students to follow for the duration of the course.

Once the course begins, you can continue to establish presence and build community.

Tools and Techniques for Classroom Community-Building

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.

  • Invite students into pedagogical choices to invest in their ownership and participation in the class, especially with small bite-size options:
    • give students choice of questions to respond to in discussion boards;
    • Negotiate criteria for assignments in small breakout rooms during the first week to both have students get to know each other through a guided discussion on criteria and establish guidelines for discussions
    • Develop choice menus
  • Use Poll Everywhere for in-class, live, anonymous collection (and presentation) of students’ thoughts and ideas
  • Solicit feedback from students about the course throughout the course and make adjustments where possible

Things to Remember

  • One of the important aspects of facilitating community is student agency. There should be a balance of highly structured peer learning activities and activities and opportunities for students to take more ownership of their learning.
  • Strive to create a culture of shared responsibility for learning by integrating collaborative learning. Create ways for students to get to know each other, connect with, and draw on each other’s academic interests and strengths. To do this, design ways to bring small group structures and low-stakes engagements into online learning spaces—perhaps through study groups, collaborative assignments, or individual assignments that connect students to each other, such as peer-editing.
  • Structure group work for a balance of accountability and flexibility. Scaffolding assignments for deliverables in stages and assigning roles for each member of a group can be a helpful tactic to bring in multiple voices and create different ways for students to see a range of expertise in each other. In remote settings, we may need to allow for greater flexibility in teams, allow students to choose their own teams, or create smaller teams to aid in scheduling and getting the work done.

Further Resources:

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.