Virtual environments provide a variety of approaches to fostering meaningful and accessible connections. Below are some general tips for community building:
- Balance formal and informal approaches to community building. A formal approach might be designing a peer-review assignment. An informal approach might be having a virtual coffee hour in which students can drop into a Zoom session to chat with you and peers.
- Begin with social icebreakers and check-ins. Occasionally begin class with informal check in protocols such as “Rose, Bud, Thorn” that allow you to get insight into students' affective states and communicates your concern for their well-being. For a shorter activity, using Zoom chat or an in-class poll, have students type in a word or phrase that captures how they’re feeling.
- Share a bit about yourself. Researchers have found that instructor self-disclosure can make students feel psychologically closer to their instructors (Sidelinger et al., 2012) in ways that can enhance their engagement. While you do not need to divulge any details that make you feel uncomfortable, try to share an anecdote or personal connection to the material when appropriate.
- Use humor. Using humor can reduce classroom anxiety (Kher, Molstad, & Donahue, 1999) and invoke a relaxed environment that is conducive to learning and maintaining students’ attention (Jeder, 2014). For optimal impact, use humor that is related to course content and avoid disparaging humor.
Community building early in the semester pays off later as students who feel connected and comfortable will be more likely to participate and engage in the risk-taking needed for learning. One way to set a tone of inclusion and promote community early on is through creating community classroom norms together. Have students work together to brainstorm classroom norms in response to prompts, such as “What peer and instructor behaviors promote your learning? What behaviors detract from your learning?”. From there, you can collaboratively create a set of classroom norms or a Community Statement that gets added to your syllabus. For more statement examples and ideas about norms see Diversity & Inclusion Syllabus Statements (Sheridan Center) and Safe/Brave Space Policy (Art+Feminism).
Canvas Discussions offer a space where students can share thoughts through text, audio, or video. Including an informal discussion in your course can foster a sense of community. For example, you can kick off the course by having students share an image, meme, or GIF that represents them. This is a fun way for students to learn about each other and see overlap in their interests. Alternatively, you can have them create and upload a short video introduction.
Create teams or small groups (3-5 students) to complete meaningful academic assignments. First, be sure that working collaboratively promotes the learning outcomes. For example, learning outcomes that involve identifying strengths and weaknesses of arguments could be strengthened by exposure to peers’ thinking. Students will want to know why they are being asked to work in groups, so have your rationale ready to go! Depending upon the intended outcomes, provide students with the resources and tools they need to be successful, including, if necessary, what roles each group member should play. Explain protocols for what to do if group conflict arises. At the end of the task, utilize a feedback exercise of some sort that will provide meaningful and actionable feedback to everyone on the team.
Alternatively, you can employ a less formal approach and pair students up at the start of term to be a “study buddy” that they check in with at a few points throughout the term to debrief on the course.
Gamification is a design methodology that can foster community and engagement in unique ways because the principles of the approach focus on motivation. Gamification is the process of using game mechanics and game thinking in non-game contexts. So in this case, a course would be the non-game context and game mechanics are the game elements the learner engages with to “play” within your course. Some examples of game mechanics are avatars, progress bars, points, signposts, story narrative, and items.
Gamification design can be applied to the entire course or just a component (ex: a single assignment or maybe a multi-week project). With this approach, your course becomes game-like in nature, but is not fully a game. In order to figure out what mechanics are the right ones to use, you would consider the following:
- The learning goals
- The students in your course (what motivates them as individuals)
- The overall experience you are creating
One of the easiest ways to start is to use a game-like framework that already exists (ex: escape room or fantasy sports) and design the experience within that. The Digital Learning & Design Team can also provide resources on how to design with this approach. Professor Jim Egan has extensive experience in using gamification for course design and welcomes questions as well.