There are many factors that students consider before choosing a university. To some, location and accessibility is important, to others academic excellence or reputation. Whatever it is, many students have in common that they are looking for the social aspect of it. Developing lifelong friendships and professional connections with peers and professors, is not only exciting, but in many cases also necessary, both for networking-purposes and mental wellbeing of students. Student community, facilities and networking is overall often an important part of a students university experience.
No student is looking to go to college to feel isolated, but isolation is what many students around the world have been experiencing for the past two semesters. While they are forced to remain six feet apart while adhering to a long list of new rules and learning formats, there are ways to create community and a sense of belonging by making virtual learning more interactive. Here’s how:
Create a buddy system.
Even before the pandemic forced college and universities to go hybrid or entirely online, group projects were a struggle. Now that students live in different time zones and home environments, mandatory group work is more challenging than ever. Rather than adding stress with large group projects and presentations, one option is to couple students together to form micro-groups.
How to begin:
1. Pair students up based on their geographic region to ensure time zone consistency.
3. Ask them to build on each other's work.Students should take screenshots of progress, or use "revision history" to track progress and safeguard against lost or deleted work.
King’s College London for instance, utilizes the Padlet platform for class collaboration. When students are comfortable with the buddy system project and have the tools required to complete the work, schedule project milestones and deadlines that lead up to a midterm or final presentation. By providing a realistic action plan, your students will feel more engaged with the curriculum and more empowered from their virtual setting.
Develop curriculums that enable peer discussion
There is a learning and teaching curve in the virtual classroom. Online teaching is incredibly tricky for educators representing larger traditional institutions where massive lecture halls are part of the everyday student experience. If your lesson plan hasn’t changed much in the past decade, now is the time to tear up the speech and create more of a Q&A style presentation. One way to do this could be to actually have fewer or shorter lectures to encourage discussions and interaction.
How to begin:
Divide your curriculum into sections with short quizzes, or a discussion board at the end of each section. This will keep studies present and focused. When the students know a graded quiz is coming after each section, they are less likely to drift off or browse the Internet during lectures. By adding a discussion board in the curriculum, students can engage with each other while the professor sits back and takes notes. If some students aren’t participating in class, the professor can send an email reminding them the discussion board is factored into their grades.
Build more in-class, real-time surveys.
While 2020 has presented its fair share of challenges, technology has made our lives significantly easier. With survey apps like Poll Everywhere, Direct Poll, and Slido , you can now poll your students and get responses in real time. Not only can this approach be extremely informative, but it can also add a fun and interactive way to get your questions answered.
How to begin:
1. Keep your polls short and relevant to the lesson plan
2. Spend time creating questions that directly relate to the virtual classroom conversation and give students a chance to analyze the polling results
3. Inspire friendly debate by asking students why they chose a particular answer. You can also keep survey responses anonymous and create homework assignments based on the results.
Utilize breakout rooms.
While these can be difficult to facilitate with just one instructor, it’s an excellent way to empower students to share opinions freely. Breakout rooms are another perfect option when trying to split up an hour-long virtual lecture with some interactivity. It can be challenging to force group assignments with students in different time zones and various responsibilities, but while they are “in-class,” there is no excuse for late or missing group work.
How to begin:
Get to know the software you’re using. One of the most popular platforms worldwide is Zoom. By learning how to enable breakout rooms, you will feel more confident about the lesson, and maybe even impress your tech-savvy students. Do you use Google Meet? Great! Here are the steps to use breakout rooms in Google Meet. Or perhaps you use another popular eLearning tool. No matter how you connect with your students virtually, getting familiar with the softwares and tools is always helpful, both for you and the students, and for saving time during classes.
Ease into every class with personal conversation.
In the professional and academic world alike, small talk is essential. You want to get to know your professional peers personally, and treat them like real humans, not just a zoom-call interaction. “Water cooler talk” is often used to describe casual discussion that is non-work related, and it may help develop bonds between students and professors. This could be small things like opening the virtual classroom earlier, or let students stay after class for a small chat together.
How to begin:
At the end of each week, remind your class there will be time to share their weekend stories on Monday. The more time you spend listening to your students and getting to know them personally, the better they will feel about reentering the learning environment each week.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself.
While the focus has been on creating a better virtual environment for our students, it is only natural for professors to be stressed out by the “new normal” world. You may have friends you haven’t been able to see for a long time, children at home struggling with their own online learning, or difficulty with the virtual teaching format, and that is okay. The phrase “we’re all in this together” has been used since March to remind us all that the pandemic impacts everyone differently, but together, we can get through it. When the time comes to return to a physical classroom full-time safely, we will reunite with our students stronger than ever.