How to Build Community in Your Courses, Online or In-Person

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

In August 2020, I worked with colleagues all over the world to create resources for professors and teachers on how to build community with students online. We did this via Equity Unbound and OneHE, and you can find all the resources here: https://OneHE.org/equity-unbound.

Although these resources were made especially for online teaching during the coronavirus pandemic, I feel that the need for building community going forward, whether we are learning fully online, in hybrid formats, in person, or any other way, will remain important at all levels of education.

If you hope to create a caring climate for your course, here are some broad areas to consider:

Create a course with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality. This includes creating spaces for listening and learner choice, for example, following principles such as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines, but beyond that. It includes remaining aware of potential inequities—economic, cultural, political—and being proactive to avoid them in design, but also creating space for noting ones you had not predicted and making room for iterative improvement. Survey students early on to understand their circumstances. Here are some samples to help get you started.

Create a warm tone in your syllabus and share a welcome letter or video with your students before you meet them. (See a how-to guide and resources here.)

Let students know you are listening to them. Invite them to annotate your syllabus at the beginning of the semester, but you can also repeat this process midway and toward the end of the semester for feedback. (Watch Remi Kalir, of the University of Colorado at Denver, speak about this here.)

Check in with students (see four ideas for checking in) about how they are feeling and consider talking to them about trauma-informed pedagogy. (My Egyptian students often connect really well with this video with Mays Imad, an Iraqi-American neuroscientist and educational innovator at Pima Community College, in Arizona.)

You don’t need to know which traumas your students have been through, and you are not your students’ therapist. Just being aware that some may have been through trauma is enough, and seeing how to teach with a trauma-informed lens can help all your students. (Here is a checklist to help you get started.) This semester, I tried gratitude journaling with my students, as suggested by my colleagues at the American University in Cairo, and many have found it helpful to their well-being.

Start your semester with community-building introductory activities. This can consist of synchronous or asynchronous introductions, or creative ways of having students introduce themselves with things like the “story of your name” or “surrealist free drawings,” but remain cognizant of how these spaces may feel less safe for some students than others. Take note of these safety considerations outlined by Kate Bowles, of the University of Wollongong, in Australia.

Find creative ways of having students introduce themselves, but remain cognizant of how online spaces may feel less safe for some students than others.

Consider co-creating “participation guidelines” or a similar structure with your students. One approach to doing so is shared in this video.

Cameras on or off? For online synchronous courses, consider the importance of not forcing students to turn cameras on (here is why) and having alternative work for students who miss sessions due to connectivity problems. (See two related articles, “Showing Their Faces Online Is Difficult for Some Arab Women: Educators Must Respond” and “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)

Create space for students to support each other and have small-group conversations to get to know each other rather than just be part of a large class talking only with you. Examples of ways to do this include several Liberating Structures, such as Troika Consulting, which you can do in breakout rooms or fishbowl style, and Conversation Cafe, which helps ensure equitable opportunity for all voices to contribute. See also the Structured Dialogues activity by Sherri Spelic, an educator in Austria, and the Collaborative Literature Review Matrix by Jasmina Najjar, of the American University of Beirut.

Use community-building warm-up activities.  For a quick speed-networking style, use  Mad/Wild Tea, and for a reflective, slower warm-up or cool-down, try Spiral Journal, both of which are Liberating Structures in development. You may also try kinesthetic activities to energize students, such as the Theater of the Oppressed technique Opposites.

Create “third places” for semi-synchronous interaction among students and between you and students, such as a WhatsApp group or a team on Slack or Discord, or even use your learning-management system’s discussion board with an informal section for questions and answers (see a video and description here). This allows for informal interaction, which is difficult to achieve online, and it can save you time as a teacher if students pose questions in this one space and others see your response immediately, or even respond to each other before you do.

Ensure there is space for students to give you feedback, anonymously or directly. Make space for students’ attitudes and feelings in your formative assessments, and not just cognitive learning outcomes. One simple way is to invite students to offer what they would like you to Start, Stop and Continue doing.

Make space for students’ attitudes and feelings in your formative assessments, and not just cognitive learning outcomes.

Offer hospitable office hours (private and public ones). For easy scheduling of office hours via Google Calendar, check out this approach by Fikry Boutros of the American University in Cairo

Assessment with care. Consider that authentic assessments are more likely to engage and motivate learners and make the learning more transferable to real-life situations after they graduate. Consider the ways in which open-book and take-home exams better mimic real life, where people can look things up on the Internet, or even call up a friend, in order to solve a complex problem or conduct research, rather than be timed and surveilled while solving it.

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Take care of your own well-being as a teacher. I know the coronavirus pandemic has been hard on all of us, including teachers. Mays Imad has written on how faculty development can be done in trauma-informed ways, and I have written about how care for teachers can be done on three levels: teachers caring for teachers, students reciprocating care for teachers, and institutional policies that would show care for teachers and reduce trauma and burnout.

Wherever you are in the organization, see how much influence you have to create an overall caring environment.

Maha Bali is an associate professor of practice in the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She is a co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.


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