Creating Community in an Online Classroom

Focus on Teaching Edthena tips for teachers and coaches about professional development and professional learning

  • As teaching has moved to virtual classrooms, building community will rely on similar practices that teachers and students have used in the past.

  • Grading could evolve into verbal feedback, conversations, and self-assessments in an online classroom environment.

  • The relationships and connections between students and teachers support the effectiveness of the learning process.

woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime

The sudden shift to teaching exclusively online has presented many new challenges. One of these widespread problems is the lack of direct interaction between teachers and students. In her article, How to Forge a Strong Community in an Online Classroom, Caitlin Krause describes how she has created a sense of classroom community through only virtual interaction.

Caitlin shares how she has become much more flexible and creative in her teaching. Her classroom has flourished because of the classroom community connection. Below, she outlines five methods for supporting a strong classroom community while in a virtual environment.

Secure your safety belt first

Self-care is listed first here because it is that essential. Caitlin discusses how your self-care can help provide you with a greater capacity for responding to the uncertainty that is systemic right now. Self-care could include mindfulness meditation, stretching, a reflective practice, or a few deep breaths during the day.

Yoga stretches can be done on a daily basis and breathing exercises are also great ways to reconnect your mind. Think of self-care as a pyramid. If you are at the top of that pyramid, happy, healthy, and connected, the things in your life that follow will reflect those same emotional states, including your virtual community.

Infuse exercises that involve connectedness

Another primary focus in Caitlin’s virtual classroom is continuing to connect with her students. She explains, “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.”

Her goal is to begin each synchronous learning session with a connection exercise such as doing a physical stretch together, playing music, or taking collective breaths. Then she uses an icebreaker that facilitates storytelling which supports the group for sharing. Virtual group sharing supports healthy relationships, much like in a physical classroom, and encourages connections and a sense of community among you and your students.

Let everyone play a role

In Caitlin’s classroom, her students have access to content asynchronously. She set up access to online “journal spaces” where they could reflect, share, and collaborate. Caitlin suggests setting up the groups so that all of your students have an essential job in the learning process.

Some examples include: “reference archivists” – collecting useful websites and “lexicon builders” – collecting and defining new terms. Facilitating these roles for students virtually promotes connections and a sense of responsibility, mirroring responsibilities that are often assigned in physical classrooms.

Embrace questions

Caitlin shares the importance of students being engaged in activities that encourage open wondering through questioning. For her students, she included an online space that allows learning through the process of inquiry, research, and discovery. Teachers can play a role in sharing considerations and resources with their students. Encouraging discovery learning in your virtual classroom lays the foundation for trust, as well as social and emotional learning.

Practice the art of listening

The final concept that Caitlin describes as important to building a strong community is to create active listeners. Active listening is vital in any relationship, especially virtually. The awareness will be on the speaker and their purpose, and not what to say next. To incorporate this into interactions with remote learners, teachers can ask them to minimize distractions and put away other devices. When there’s an exercise that involves sharing, Caitlin emphasizes starting with smaller breakout groups or partner sharing.

The focus of these methods is to build and maintain connections while growing together as a class in a virtual learning environment. Similar to building a positive learning environment in a face to face classroom, a positive learning environment in a virtual classroom must be intentionally taught and cultivated.

Like what you’re reading? Check out a recent article in this series about the problems successful k-12 districts are solving right now!

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