How do you create a sense of digital classroom community? In a brick and mortar environment, you might not have given too much thought to this topic. According to The Chronicle, “When you teach in person, you do a lot of things to help students feel welcome. You greet students. Smile. Make eye contact.” We embark on the task naturally of setting up our physical classrooms. Decorating our doors. Preparing in all aspects of the word. Unconsciously, we are molding our classroom community. But how does one do this virtually? It may seem a daunting task, however, as a former online & current brick and mortar teacher, I’m here to tell you that in three basic steps, you can position your digital classroom for success in community engagement.
1. Prepare Yourself and Your Digital Classroom
Much like in a brick and mortar school, your online classroom should be ready to go before your first student logs on. You should know the basic functions of the software/LMS (learning management system–examples, include Blackboard and Google Classroom). Think of your first class like the grand opening of a store: students will enter, want to explore and click around. From the start, be organized and make things visually appealing. And most importantly, learn your software.
- Learn your LMS: how do you host synchronous/live classes? Do you have chat features such as breakout rooms? Can students “raise their hands”? You have to learn the answers to these questions because 1) they will affect the type of engagement you can have in your class (thus influencing the level digital community you can form) and 2) you may have to demonstrate how to use these features to your students.
- Always arrive early & test your audio/video to live lessons. Consider staying 5 minutes after for a Q&A. This may be your students’ only contact with you for the week, so make it count!
- Load welcoming banners, if possible. You can Google how to do so according to your platform. Many banners can be created in Powerpoint. For example, here is how you can create a banner in Powerpoint for Blackboard. More info in point #3 on why this is important.
- Pre-load content in your LMS, such as old Powerpoints and videos to review content. Of course make sure everything is organized. This helps to create an “environment” when students log in.
- Before the ‘quarter” starts/first day, consider posting regularly to students. “When you are regularly present and engaged in the online classroom, your students are more likely to be, too” (Chronicle.com).
- And finally, but most importantly, be sure to present a list of classroom expectations. Not sure where to get started? Check out my Google Drive on my blog post: https://theculturalclassroom.blog/2020/03/19/my-favorite-resources-for-distance-learning/. Here, I have resources of already made templates for online classroom expectations.
2. Humanize Yourself and the Course
Humanizing oneself might sound odd, but put yourself in your students’ shoes. Whether your course is synchronous (live) or asynchronous (recorded), students are essentially dealing with a computer program most of the time, and not a human. This can become cold. “It’s important for instructors to present themselves as a real person, and also design a course that involves opportunities for students to do the same thing,” said Pacansky-Brock, author of Best Practices for Teaching With Emerging Technologies.” (InsideHigherEd.com). Here are some ways that I try to humanize myself (and to allow the students to do the same):
- Record a video message for your students. According to Dean Shareski, community manager for Discovery Education Canada “video often trumps texts” (TheJournal.com). He continues to say, “When we’re talking about connecting with people we haven’t seen…it’s kind of a big deal.” I recorded a video message to my students during the Quarantine to let them know that I was thinking about them and that we will make it together in these tough times. I got great feedback. Actions like this go a long way in maintaining and strengthening bonds with students, which in turn contribute to creating a digital classroom community. It shows one powerful thing that all students want to feel: that someone cares about them.
- Creating FlipGrid boards: FlipGrid is an engaging tool that allows your students to respond to a question via video/audio in a centralized area. It creates a “board” of their answers that you can make public or private. I absolutely loved FlipGrid during the academic year, but I see its value during a time period of community building in distance learning. I sent out a question to my students on Remind101 (an educational texting app I use with my kids) telling them to check Google Classroom, where I had posted the FlipGrid link. From there, the kids went to the board, where I asked them in Spanish, “What were they eating during the Quarantine?” and “How were they feeling?”. Since work is optional during this time period in my district, I did not get a ton of responses. However, I did get a lot of engagement with the videos that I posted of myself answering the questions! So “half” win! They are still listening to Spanish. 🙂
- Make a YouTube Playlist: I find this especially important in the World Language classroom, where music plays a huge role in our day to day teaching & in language acquisition. I personally play music every day and run two brackets yearly based off of the following projects: the Hispanic Heritage Month Song of the Day and the Afro-Latino Month Song of the Day. I own both TPT projects! And based off of a survey given to my students, with almost 100% participation, 91.9% of my kids said that listening to music was their favorite aspect of class (followed by “learning about culture”). Therefore, if I know that the kids love music, as most kids do, why not make them an age appropriate playlist for them and post it online. It humanizes me, the course, and shows that I care.
3. Create Engaging Content
In real life, would you want to learn in a classroom that is dull, with few decorations or posters, with Powerpoints on white backgrounds and black text and no graphics? We are visual creatures! Of course we would gravitate towards the classroom with the vibrant & colorful decorations, relevant posters, enticing Powerpoints on bright slides with videos and graphics. The same is true for online classrooms. Your LMS set up, course design, and presentations can mean the world of difference between an engaged, community citizen and a disengaged, absentee student. “Humans are more likely to want to be in a space if it is pleasant to look at…the appearance of our surroundings affects our enjoyment and therefore our engagement” (Chronicle.com).
- Purposeful course design: you want to make sure that your course is very intuitive and easy to navigate. The way you organize your folders, your headings–everything should be “easy.” “When students use a lot of cognitive resources just trying to figure out where to go to access readings, videos, discussion, or quizzes, they have little mental energy left for the content itself” (Chronicle.com). If you are unsure about your course design, ask someone else to take a look at it–they don’t have to be a teacher or student (even better!)–just someone who can tell you yay or nay as to the navigability of the site.
- Eye catchy visuals for your presentations: When crafting presentations, be sure that you are not just thinking about the information that you are putting on the slides, but also how you are presenting the information. Pictures, music, videos, bright colors all go a long way to wake a bored or sleepy student up! I love using Google Slides’ add on Pear Deck. Pear Deck is an interface that allows for increased engagement with your students. And if you are teaching synchronous courses, then you can take full advantage of the interactivity of Pear Deck. New to Pear Deck? Check out my how-to posts:
- I am always thinking of ways to engage students. The other night, I went to a PD session on how to mash the two apps EdPuzzle & Pear Deck. Now I’m excited to do so in class when the opportunity presents itself. Other teachers swear by Gimkit. I saw online that you can still play Quizlet Live & Kahoot via distance learning. So do the research on your favorite engagement tools. Just because we are in an online environment doesn’t mean that you have to give up your toolkit!
In summary, prepare your class, be as human as possible, and create engaging content. The subpoints will follow as long as you carry the main ideas with you. But above all, be yourself. Students love authenticity. Just be you and the rest will follow.
If you have any questions, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be safe & be well,