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Collaborative Learning

How an Online Space for Student Art Builds Community

When students can see and comment on the art created by their peers, they learn empathy and communication skills.

June 15, 2021
Boogich / iStock

The shift to virtual learning last year made me want to create an accessible, safe space where my students could share ideas and their points of view when making art. Using basic edtech tools in combination with visual-thinking frameworks, I built a creative learning community where students had a sense of belonging and were ready to take on challenges despite adversity. When the school went back to in-person learning, it became apparent that these tools also work well in a regular school setting, transforming the way students learn and collaborate.

What really gave rise to my students’ social and emotional growth was a set of online tools and opportunities that amplified their voices. In giving my students agency to collaborate on their art projects online, I followed social networking norms where everyone has the opportunity to express themselves 24/7 and share their ideas. Yet unlike social media, which thrives on popularity, my online community celebrated purpose and self-expression. At school or at home, students could express their ideas or share other people’s content, adding their own thoughts to expand the conversation.

Sustained access to artistic community, instructions, and online tools gave my students the agency to connect their everyday life experiences with the learning process. This significantly boosted students' sense of belonging to the learning community.

Overcoming  Self-Doubt With Online Feedback Sessions

Access to virtual chats, comment threads, and shared slides has become an important part of my teaching practice and students’ favorite class activity. When I asked students to give feedback on each other’s artworks using the comment tool in Google Slides, they immediately embraced the idea, including those who were usually not active in the classroom. Even after class, students continued to log in to the file to add comments and answer questions in the thread.

Using comment threads in Google and rotation design made students build effective communication, maintain a dialogue, and keep meaningful interactions around arts practice. I noticed that my eighth graders were more willing to comment in Zoom chat rather than to speak out during class discussions about their reflections on others’ artworks, and I began to experiment with tech tools that amplified their voices in my online classroom. What I found was that the comment option in Google Slides and rotation design created a wealth of opportunities for students not only to leave and reply to feedback, but also to engage in meaningful conversations centered around art.

Shared Data Cultivates a Sense of Belonging

Transparent art processes proved to be an effective tool in developing students’ empathic communication. The opportunity to see the artworks and artistic processes of each other, while working in shared slides, motivated my students to find successful strategies to overcome artistic block, self-doubt, and implicit biases. Students saw how their peers solved problems or found original solutions when facing challenging situations, and they either followed the lead or used it as a reference to find their own effective strategies to accomplish the task.

Some students later said that they used others’ artworks as a reference when they had trouble expressing their ideas in words. Others noted that their level of self-confidence grew when they saw that someone else was using their ideas to create artworks. When students saw how their peers reacted to a popular image or a trendy meme, or maybe struggled to express ideas, they became more empathetic and less judgmental of themselves and others.

I didn’t need to encourage or persuade students to share access to their artwork in Google Slides with other students. The process of communication in a collaborative online environment had already resonated with their everyday social networking experience. Students seemed confident about online communication because they knew how to search, share, and post comments online.

The more students borrowed inspiration, producing texts and visuals in collaboration with each other, the more they explored each other’s complexity. Shared art practices became an additional opportunity for students to boost their creative resilience and deepen a sense of belonging to the community.

Self-Expression With Design-Thinking Tools

My teaching practice includes many design-thinking tools and frameworks to increase student participation and agency. I design graphic organizers and visual frameworks, such as partially prefilled mood boarding and mind mapping, to create a safe but challenging learning experience. These frameworks allow students to build resilience through taking ownership of their creative process in a collaborative online setting.

Working with design-thinking tools proved to bond students as a group while exposing them to diverse perspectives. In one class, students were asked to create a mind map connecting their interests with the world’s biggest challenges. At first, students were confused by the limitation imposed by preset text boxes in a graphic organizer, as it appeared to restrict their self-expression. However, each of them worked through the challenge in their own way. Some of the mind maps were filled with texts and poems. Others looked more like collages made with a mix of drawings and quotations. No two maps were alike, each having a distinct focus, expression, and personality.

Although students were limited by the design of the activity, their true identities, diverse experiences, and cultural capitals made their artworks unique. Seeing their friends’ artworks, based on the same basic structure yet distinctively different, helped students to embrace diversity.

I believe that learning is enhanced when students interact with one another and collaborate. After I created a safe online space, art classes eventually became a place where my students could express themselves without fear of being judged. Some students were more likely to share their artworks online using nicknames rather than in person because it lowered the risk of being singled out. Others, however, wanted to step into the spotlight by sharing their artworks and showing their authentic identities.

Regardless of how they chose to communicate with each other, collective online art practices gave them the agency to express ideas and learn from each other, which filled their art practice with purpose. 

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • Communication Skills
  • Online Learning
  • Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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