By Tiva Rait, Second-Year Undergraduate Student in Cognitive Science

“Carleton University has always been student-centered,” according to the Teaching and Learning Framework for Carleton University 2013-2018 (p. 2). Setting students up for success should be every instructor’s priority, but instructors may have less experience with how to do this online. Online learning lacks the support that students would normally get through their community of peers. In addition to all the tasks that typically go into course planning, instructors must now consider how to recreate that sense of classroom community when not on campus.

This summer, I embarked on a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) project, funded by the Students as Partners Program, to investigate how to cultivate an engaging, inclusive, online learning environment. In this post, I will share different strategies that instructors can employ to recreate that sense of community and support all students online.

Previously, Carleton instructors were one of the primary ways that students interacted with the Carleton community. Now that all classes are held online, lectures might be the only way some students interact with Carleton. This puts even more pressure on the instructors to be ambassadors for Carleton and to build the sense of community students may lose from taking classes completely online.

Community is vital to the success and well-being of students. When students feel supported by their peers, they are more likely to be prepared and participate in class (Sidelinger & Booth-Butterfield, 2010). Much of the support I gained in my first year of university came from friends I made through showing up to class early. For this reason, I encourage instructors to open their online lectures, especially for smaller classes, 10 minutes early. This time would be meant to give students an opportunity to interact with peers and possibly their instructors. I benefited from interacting with my instructors before and after classes and they helped support my understanding and confidence in the material.

When Carleton transitioned to online learning, I was most impressed by the instructors who quickly adjusted to the new challenges and continued to have amazing classes. One of the challenges many instructors may have experienced was the lack of visual cues to know when students were getting confused. I hope that instructors will consider checking in on students, instead of relying on students to speak up. Periodically inviting feedback in the chat is much less intimidating, especially for first-year students.

Setting up an engaging course design is another way for instructors to set a welcoming tone early in the year. Establishing and maintaining a good environment in a course can encourage more student interaction and students will appreciate the effort put into the creation of the course (Fassinger, 1996; Kaufmann & Vallade, 2020). Instructors should add a place for students to have discussions and casual conversations. This will allow students to help foster a positive tone for the course through their interactions with classmates. Some classes can benefit from having instructors lead by example and participate in these discussions themselves (Parks-Stamm, Zafonte, & Palenque, 2017).

The easiest way for students to communicate with each other online is through the chat function during video lectures. However, discussion outside of lecture hours can be even more beneficial. Forums can be a great way to do this, but they do present some challenges. Some students might see the formality and perceived permanence of forums as intimidating and might participate less as a result (Beaudoin, 2002), while others might feel pressure seeing posts from students who are excelling in the course. Many students found that they enjoyed their class more when they could express worries or have casual conversations with classmates (Vargas-Madriz, 2018). These are some things that forums are lacking in, and that other technology could make up for.

Slack and Discord are two popular team chat apps that feature many of the benefits of forums without some of the drawbacks or associated formality. Like forums, but unlike emails, questions asked can be visible to the whole class, and it allows them to answer questions asked by their peers. Some online learning students have reported feeling alone and having no one to assist them in their learning (Erichsen & Bolliger, 2011). Having an informal space to chat and see questions being asked and answered could help many of those students. Team chat apps also allow for a seamless transition between synchronous and asynchronous communication (Tuhkala & Kärkkäinen, 2018).

Finally, the most important part of integrating online learning tools is by helping students get comfortable with the technology. This can be done through online tutorials or providing students with opportunities to practice using technology. If students are not confident with the technology, then they won’t be confident in their work (MacLeod, Yang, Zhu, & Shi, 2018; Beaudoin, 2002).

Adjusting to university is not easy and everyone adjusts at their own pace. I am thankful that I had a schedule that forced me to spend a lot of time on campus. The time was spent studying, but also gave me many opportunities to meet with friends, run into instructors and explore Carleton. The connections I made helped me adjust to being a university student. I feel a great sense of community at Carleton and I am so thankful that I decided to enroll here. Students will be experiencing a wide variety of emotions because of their online classes (Cleveland-Innes, & Campbell, 2012). It is important to acknowledge them and understand that instructors can influence the online learning experience to be a positive one. We should use online learning as a chance to show that Carleton isn’t just a place but an actively supportive community that cares about its students.

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