Creating Class Community

Keeping our human interactions central in our online engagements is critical to building effective online teaching experiences.  The way you construct community contributes to the "social presence" elements in your course namely the ways in which your students find space to connect on an interpersonal, emotional level with one another.

Here's some advice on how you and your students can build and maintain community when learning online.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask students in the first homework assignment to introduce themselves and say where they were working from, with a photo or video (live or pre-recorded) of their workspaces. This can help build community and get students interested in one another.  If you have concerns that some students might be in circumstance where they don't feel comfortable sharing their workspace, give them the option to draw their space instead.  In addition, you might layer onto the assignment a request that they highlight one intentional part of their workspace and one part they anticipate will be more of a challenge.  (Credit to Meg Formato and Tessa Brown for these ideas).  No matter how you customize this activity, be sure to model it yourself for the students with your own workspace.
  • Create a welcome video. It can be nice for students to see what you, as the instructor, look and sound like before the first class. You can create a welcome video where you describe who you are, what interests you, and why students might enjoy being in the class. You can record this video in Zoom or create a video in Adobe Spark.
  • Use icebreakers.  You can use icebreakers the same way you would in a face to face class. For instance, in PWR 2, you might adapt Jenne Stonaker's interview activity, where students are asked to interview a partner (either during class, in a break out room, or ahead of time) and then "introduce" their partner to the rest of the class during the real-time class meeting. This "introduction" activity could also happen asynchronously; you could ask students to write introductions in a discussion forum and respond to each other's posts there.
  • Create a "places of connection map." Use a collaborative mind-mapping software tool and have students build out a map that shows the connections between their shared interests.
  • Encourage students to build a "student-only" group.  Suggest that students connect to each other through a group chat or snapchat group so that they can bond and create a sense of community among themselves.
  • Have students work in breakout groups during synchronous class sessions.  Create an activity that helps students discover shared interests or experience and create bonds in accomplishing a task.  By making a bigger class small, you create space for closer connections that they then can draw on in their encounters with the full group.

Check out ACUE's advice on creating a welcome video

  • Create Question and Answer and/or Social Forums. Create a discussion forum space (you could call this a "class lounge" or "class cafe") where students can ask general questions and/or a purely "social" forum where students can connect with each other and share images, memes, or whatever they feel like.  Be careful, however, of adding too many additional assignments -- even if social in intent -- onto the requirements for the class.

Check out ACUE's advice on creating social forums

See also our discussion of cultivating class community for in-person classes

Further reading

Raygoza, Mary, Raina Leon, Aaminah Norris, "Humanizing Online Teaching" (2020).