How to Forge a Strong Community in an Online Classroom
With teachers and students separated, maintaining a sense of community relies on some of the same practices they used in the classroom.
When I moved a large part of my curriculum online a decade ago, I had to become more flexible and creative in my teaching. I used every tool at my disposal to increase my connection with my students: We live-shared in an online text editor called TitanPad, a predecessor of Padlet. We also used blogs and responded to each other one-to-one, and I encouraged rigorous journaling, debates, and questioning.
I changed grading to verbal feedback, conversations, and self-assessments through reflections, and I flipped the majority of readings and longer writing exercises into asynchronous modes. The learning space bloomed—and not because of the tech. It bloomed because of our mutual care and enthusiasm for the community connection.
I share five methods here that I have found useful for building or maintaining a strong sense of community.
1. Secure Your Safety Belt First
I’ve seen many articles that put self-care at the end of a long list of tips and considerations for educators. I’m putting it first because it’s that essential. Learning is, after all, an experience where quality matters. Your personal practices in self-care have a lasting effect, whether they take the form of a mindfulness meditation, a few moments to stretch, a reflective practice, or a few deep breaths in the middle of a challenging day.
Don’t wait for the time to do this to emerge. Defend it as the first priority for your health and well-being, and your virtual learning space will also notice your greater capacity for responding to the uncertainty that’s systemic right now.
2. Infuse Exercises That Involve Connectedness
Your emphasis at this stage should be about connection over content. It’s all about relational trust and establishing a virtual community that is like a tree: deeply rooted, with a sense of groundedness, and also flexible in its branches, so that you’re adapting to changing conditions. I use this tree metaphor all the time, and also refer to it as gravity (grounded and going deeper, like roots) and levity (lifting, stretching, playful, curious, moving, like branches).
Intentionally begin each synchronous session online with a connection exercise: doing a physical stretch together, playing music, taking a collective three breaths. There are many grounding connection exercises you can do. Then, use an icebreaker that is a storytelling exercise you build in as a connection check-in. This primes the group for quality sharing.
3. Let Everyone Play a Role
In my virtual teaching, each student had access to content asynchronously. They each had online “journal spaces” to collect their thoughts and reflect, and to share and build maps of ideas, collaborating in a way that reduced the need for live meetings.
You can keep a flow without everyone working at the same time by setting up groups in which everyone has a role of authority. My students changed jobs at times so they could explore the different roles. Some preferred to play the “lexicon builder,” collecting new terms we encountered and finding out the etymology, definition, and connotations. Others were “reference archivists,” collecting useful related websites, readings, and sources. Others chose to be “curators” who researched the sites and evaluated their validity and sources, further placing them in context of the learning focus. Some preferred to create mind maps of related terms and links to increase their relevance, or artistic models and creations inspired by responses to the learning.
You send a message when you set up learning this way: Everyone matters, and everyone can contribute to creating and developing the learning space.
4. Embrace Questions
The questions are often more important and revealing than the answers. Have an online space design that encourages open wondering, questioning, and going through processes of inquiry, research, and documentation of discovery.
Meaningful learning isn’t structured around static knowns and regurgitation of expected answers. Students will get excited about being on an investigation journey with you, and while you, the mentor, certainly play a role in illuminating considerations and resources, students will be much more enthusiastic if they are creating combined knowledge that is richer for its complexity.
This type of interaction builds social and emotional learning skills and trust, which are complementary to this type of interactive, insightful learning. Document the journey and encourage risk-taking and daring along the way—show that you value each member’s curiosity-driven contribution.
5. Practice the Art of Listening
As a teacher, I knew that I could speak to the room, but could I listen to what the room was communicating? And how could I do this in an online space?
I found the answer in active listening, which is being intentionally open and receptive to what is emerging in the present moment. It is a mindfulness activity, increasing our awareness and focus on the speaker and their purpose, instead of thinking about what we are about to say next.
You can incorporate this into interactions with remote learners by encouraging everyone to start each session by minimizing distractions and putting away other devices. When there’s an exercise involving group sharing, you can start with smaller breakout groups—where it’s easier to make sure everyone contributes—or try partner sharing that involves a “mirroring” activity, where students take turns listening to the other’s story or reflection. The listener is silent while the speaker shares, and at the end of a minute or two, reflects back the key words that stood out, and some of what they heard, without judgment. Then, the two students switch roles.
In larger groups, you can plan the order of sharing in advance and post this order in the chat window of your remote learning conference space, to make the transitions smooth. Along the way, keep encouraging listening without judgment.
These approaches to build connection are all about trying to offer what is needed in each evolving moment. I share these considerations with the intention of increasing the well-being of virtual learning worlds, which are wonderfully rich, diverse, creative spaces.