3 Tips for Building Community Online

Last week, my class of teacher candidates explored the topic of building an online learning community. We talked about the importance of nurturing a learning community over time and providing regular opportunities for students to engage with each other to build relationships. We also discussed the challenges of building community when learning is happening in part, or exclusively, online.

As teachers in a blended or online learning landscape, it’s our responsibility to help students to develop their social presence or the ability to assert their social and emotional selves online. The social presence is composed of three behaviors–a) expressing feelings, beliefs, and values, b) engaging in open and productive conversations, and c) feeling connected to the other members of the learning community. The development of a social presence in a class has been shown to positively impact both engagement and learning outcomes (Richardson, Maeda, Lv & Caskurlu, 2017; Swan, 2019).

This work developing the social presence in our courses and helping students feel valued as members of a learning community must be ongoing. If students are not participating in discussion or group work in breakout rooms, that may indicate that they are not feeling comfortable asserting themselves online. They may not feel that they know their peers well enough to take risks or be vulnerable. So, what can we do?

#1 Set Agreements as a Class

Students often receive rules or expectations instead of being invited to co-create them. If they feel teachers are imposing rules on them, students may be less inclined to abide by them. Dedicating class time to asking a few simple questions can make a big difference in the way students show up in a class.

  • What do you value in your relationships with others?
  • What behaviors or norms would make you feel comfortable engaging in conversation and collaborative work? What would make our work together feel respectful and supportive?
  • What behaviors might make you uncomfortable or unwilling to engage in conversations or collaborative work? What might make you feel disrespected or unsafe in our work together?
  • What can we agree to try to do as a class? What will we try to avoid?
  • What should we do if someone violates the safe space in our classroom? How should we handle those missteps online?

Students know what has felt good and what has hurt them in past interactions with friends, classmates, and teachers. That prior experience can help students successfully articulate class agreements they think will cultivate a safe online space.

Giving students a voice in the process validates their experience and gives them ownership over the process. Once the class has established agreements, it is important to be flexible and revisit those agreements to ensure they are working well.

#2 Start Class with Community Building Conversations

Most of the teachers I know feel spread thin and short on time. As a result, it is easy to neglect community-building activities that help students get to know one another and identify commonalities. Teaching online has made building community even more challenging, so I suggest starting each class with a check-in activity or a fun question. The goal is to get each student to unmute and share their answer to break the ice and get them comfortable speaking during a video conference.

Start Class with Community Building Conversations [Slide Deck]

Depending on the number of students a teacher is working with online, this may work best as a small group check-in or chat in breakout rooms. Any time students are working together in a breakout room to complete an academic task (e.g., discussion of a text or collaborative assignment), I suggest teachers begin with a fun warm-up question to break the ice.

#3 Go Deeper with a Dialogic Interview Format

I love the dialogic interview format! I learned about it when I attended the Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High several years ago. It’s such a versatile strategy. I rely on the dialogic interview format as a blended learning coach. I also use it with my students to help them form meaningful relationships quickly.

Unlike a traditional conversation that bounces back and forth like a tennis ball over a net, the dialogic interview requires that one person ask the questions for a specified amount of time (e.g., 10 minutes). The questioner’s job is to listen (really listen). They must avoid inserting their own stories or opinions. Instead, the goal is to let the responder speak uninterrupted. This is hard to do! But, the result is nothing short of magical.

As the interview continues, the person responding to the questions realizes they will not be interrupted and naturally begin to go deeper with their answers. At the end of the specified time, the students switch roles. The person who started asking the questions now responds.

I did this on the first night of class with my new crop of students. I randomly assigned pairs to breakout rooms, provided a link to the dialogic interview document, and gave them 20 minutes to engage in these conversations.

When we regrouped to debrief and discuss this strategy, my students shared that they were shocked by how much they learned about each other in such a short period of time. One student shared that he had worked with his partner on a project for another class the previous semester and felt like he learned more about his partner in this 20-minute conversation than in the two weeks they worked together on that project. It was an affirmation of how powerful this technique can be.

I know dedicating time to these conversations will feel like a big ask for teachers who feel spread thin, but I believe the benefits are worth the investment. If students feel comfortable with each other, they are more likely to lean into the learning experiences we are designing for them. If we invest time and energy in developing our learning community, students are more likely to feel seen, respected, and supported by their peers. That can have a powerful impact on their willingness to engage online.