Online Learning

Fostering a Strong Community in a Virtual Classroom

The shift to working online requires teachers to think a little differently about how to build the culture they want with their students.

May 1, 2020
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One of my friends, a classroom physics teacher, was asked to teach an online physics course. Many of the students dropped the course midterm, and it was not offered again. When I asked what happened, my friend said the class failed because he began without establishing a strong class culture, diving right into physics. He assumed that the culture he had worked so hard to build in his classroom was already present.

In a traditional classroom, there are some pretty standard practices that most teachers use to build the desired culture. In shifting to online learning, these strategies rarely transfer perfectly. In my years of teaching virtually, I found that culture can be built in the online setting, but it requires different strategies based on trust, respect, and responsibility.

These are the steps I use to build a strong classroom culture online.

Complete a Culture Inventory

If you have already begun your online course—as most teachers have at the moment—identify the current culture you have in the digital space, which consists of taking inventory of what is or is not happening. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Do students show up for live sessions?
  • Are they interacting with the material I provide?
  • Does their work reflect the objectives of the course?
  • Are they communicating with me regularly?

If everything seems to be working, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you find that your online classroom isn’t focused on learning, plan the culture that will lead to it.

If you’re in the process of creating a course that hasn’t begun, you’ll need to identify the type of culture you want, and keep this vision in mind as you develop the course plan. Use it as your North Star for planning.

Establish Digital Community Agreements

After you have completed your inventory, use a live class session to develop community agreements to guide virtual class interaction. You can use the Setting Agreements Activity from the National School Reform Faculty to create a set of agreements with your students.

The key to building a culture is revisiting these agreements during every class session. Begin and end class with the agreements. Have students determine how well they lived the agreements as a reflection exit ticket or opener for the week.

If you need to provide students with a set of agreements because of time constraints, be consistent in reflecting on them. Shared agreements are important because they help students trust each other.

Establish Trusting Relationships

Cultivating a culture of trust in the shared virtual space involves building relationships and helping students build empathy and understanding for each other and you. Building trust involves daily contact, via a phone call, email, LMS announcement, Remind message, or even a letter to keep students connected, especially early in the course. And everyone must have equal access to the learning experience: For example, every member of the class has their camera on, or no one has their camera on.

The virtual classroom must be a safe place. Video response tools like Flipgrid are a good way for students to answer questions about non-content-related topics to build trust. For example, “What are you most proud of?” or “What motivates you?”

You can also create a class slide deck in Google Slides with “get to know you” questions and a space for each student to upload photos or images that represent themselves or what they value. These images are a good way to build connections in your virtual classroom community as students identify with visuals from their peers.

Since you moderate this exercise and model it with your own video answers or slide, the threat of bullying on these platforms is decreased. Above all, convey to your students that they are important to you and vital to each other’s learning.

Build Respect

Some strategies used in a regular classroom work in a virtual one. Again, assigning a “get to know you” survey and sharing your own response works in both environments. A culture of respect is fed by relevant, interesting tasks, and the information from the survey can help you design those.

I’ve had success in using the breakout room feature in video apps to allow small groups to follow discussion or text analysis protocols together. Assign roles like protocol monitor, time keeper, and notetaker for the group’s shared doc. Each student is responsible for contributing to the work—they build respect for each other as they listen and respond with the community agreements guiding them. This simple strategy also builds responsibility through both the roles that students take and the expectation that everyone contributes.

Scaffold Responsibility

Responsibility can be the toughest and most important aspect of a virtual classroom to build. Students have to juggle a lot when they’re working from home, and you can help them develop some basic time management and coping skills. The community agreements play a part, as students often set up an agreement or two related to timeliness and being fully present.

Help students by having clear expectations and a routine for the class each week to eliminate confusion. For students who have six or seven classes, demonstrate how to use the calendar feature on your LMS or help them build their calendar on their most used device. If they have collaborative work, have them schedule time for that work in the calendar and invite the other students to work with them.

Remind students to create a space in their home where they can learn without distraction, and be flexible about allowing students who can’t meet live to access the materials from the live sessions, watch a recording of their class—I record all of my classes for students to refer back to if they need—or catch a later session of the class.

It is really tempting to push out a curriculum strategy without attending to culture in any school setting, but including your cultural strategy in your virtual curriculum plan is the key to creating a true learning community.

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