Previously I noted that, when talking to college students, a few themes emerge regarding the particular challenges of online learning:
- It is much harder to stay organized and keep track of assignments when classes are online
- Community is lacking in these courses and students don't know their classmates
- Courses are more self-paced, which requires more self-discipline to avoid falling behind
- Some professors do not make themselves accessible through zooms
“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.” ― bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking
In other words, there can be no classroom community without engaged students who are willing to take responsibility for their own education. Professors can hold office hours, create discussion boards, and encourage students to get to know one another, but ultimately only the students themselves can take the final step.
Students can help create community in their online classrooms in both large and small ways.
Discussion boards: While discussion boards can be tedious, they provide the opportunity for students to give genuinely thoughtful responses to one another. Often when talking face to face, we may say something we regret or fail to fully or clearly express ourselves. Discussion boards give students the opportunity to think carefully before responding to a classmate, and to take the time craft a thoughtful answer. Students can use this format to respond in more detailed ways than they might be able to do during conversation, including providing links and citations to additional resources, helping their fellow classmates connect their thoughts back to lectures or textbook, or simply engaging fully and asking thoughtful questions to push their classmates further in their own thinking.
Zoom chat: Zoom chat is nearly the opposite of discussion boards. It does not facilitate thoughtful, long, or eloquent response opportunities. But it creates a more informal way to connect to your fellow students, whether through asking questions of the professor or of fellow students, or through sharing jokes or off the cuff reactions. These interactions can lower barriers and allow students to feel more at ease with each other and with the professor. If you notice a comment in chat that you want to follow up on, but cannot during the moment, send an email or a message to that student after class is over.
Breakout rooms and discussions: These are perhaps the optimal way for students to engage with each other and create community. It is important in these formats to be respectful, thoughtful, open, and even vulnerable with your fellow students. Being reluctant, taciturn, unprepared, and unengaged does a disservice to the entire group in these settings. These are perhaps the situations in which students bear the most responsibility for their own learning and dynamics. And those groups that have engaged and open-minded participants will find themselves enjoying and learning from the sessions far more than other groups.
Being engaged takes far more effort than passive learning. But what is the point of college, if not to learn? You're putting in a lot of money and effort to be in this online space. You cannot control the format of the online classroom, but you can maximize the opportunities that you have, and you should!