In an in-person course, the sense of classroom community and instructor support that facilitates collaborative learning typically develops naturally through shared presence in a physical space. While it’s certainly possible to develop this sense of community and support in a remote course, it can require a little more effort and purposeful planning.
Inclusion and Accessibility
Depending on where your students are located, they may be facing technological and environmental obstacles that impact their engagement with the course. The most likely technological obstacles are low internet bandwidth and unreliable wifi. Possible environmental obstacles include lack of space/privacy from family or roommates, frequent interruptions or noise, and limited opportunities to get to know other students or the instructor.
For inclusive synchronous meetings, instructors have often opted to expand norms and expectations for participation to accommodate some of these situations:
- Allowing students to participate via Zoom chat if circumstances make it difficult for them to participate verbally.
- Allowing students to keep their cameras off (this can be a general course policy or, if you consider students’ video presence an important part of your course, you might adopt a flexible policy where students can let you know if they need to have their camera off on a particular day).
- Setting expectations or norms for how students should respond if they experience an interruption in their physical environment.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that in a remote course, with fewer opportunities for casual interaction, your commitment to inclusion, accessibility, and accommodation might not be quite as visible to students as it would be in an in-person course. As a result, students will benefit from more transparency in this area than might be necessary in an in-person course.
For asynchronous elements of the course, you might consider taking a Universal Design approach to add transparency and flexibility to your course communication, assignment deadlines, and the Canvas site. Because it can be more difficult to retain information in a Zoom meeting, students will benefit from having information about course expectations and upcoming assignments available in a written format in an easy-to-find location (for example, on the course Canvas site). Similarly, adding an element of flexibility with assignments (for example, a 24-hour extension that students can use for one assignment, with no questions asked) will help to reduce anxiety for students who might feel overwhelmed by the frequency of asynchronous assignments.
Building Classroom Community
Instructors teaching remotely have found that the classroom community gap can be addressed by building in early and additional opportunities for collaboration and engagement between students. For example, you might:
- Include additional icebreaker activities in the first days and weeks of the course.
- Allocate time for group activities or discussions, putting students in the same groups for several weeks in a row (or for the entire semester).
- Survey students at the start of the semester to learn more about them: where they’re located (if living off-campus), why they’re taking the course, any technological barriers they anticipate.
- Require students to sign up for a short conference or attend office hours once at the beginning of the semester.
- Open the class Zoom meeting 5-10 minutes before class to allow students a chance to socialize with each other.
- Ask students to introduce themselves asynchronously in a discussion post during the first week of the semester.