There are many definitions of “community”, but most encompass notions of trust, belonging, “feeling at home”, connectedness, interactivity, shared expectations, and shared conversations.
One useful way of thinking about community is to break it into three components:
- Community as physical space
- Community as a “communication process”
- Community as shared values and interests
In common usage we often use the word “community” to refer to physical spaces – even if people in those spaces don’t know one another well, such as in a “bedroom community”. Because of this, it can be easy to feel that creating a classroom community in a virtual space is difficult or even impossible.
The good news is that Gen Z already knows that this isn’t true! For our students, some online communities have become more vibrant and engaging than many communities that exist “IRL”. Research on class communities in online courses backs this up (1).
In fact, all of the aspects of community listed above can be (even more) successfully created in a flex-hybrid course with a little creativity – and doing so only rarely requires more work than for fully in-person classes. (Really!)
Below we’ve outlined some ideas for each of the aspects of community, and there are plenty of links to take you to “deeper dives” into the topics that interest you the most.
Near the end of this overview, you’ll also find some links to posts about some specific techniques for building community before, during, and after synchronous class sessions.
Your flex-hybrid course does take place in a “space” – it’s just a virtual space instead of (or in addition to) a physical one. With a little effort, you can make that virtual space (Canvas, Google Meet, etc.) as comfortable and conducive to learning as your physical classroom.
Here are some basic principles for making your virtual classroom space comfortable and conducive to learning:
- Make it safe and inclusive.
- Make it welcoming – that it’s got good “curb appeal”.
- Design the space to account for your students’ physical responses to working on a computer.
- The less your students have to think, the better (yes, we know this seems paradoxical, but it isn’t!)
Read more about how to make your virtual course “space” welcoming and comfortable.
Shared Communication Processes
When designing a flex-hybrid course, you should make sure that everyone understands what communication channels you will use and how, and how often, you will use them.
However, online communication can easily end up feeling like a “firehose” of information. Thus, it’s important to streamline communication by limiting the channels of communication you use with your students. Also, using the Canvas Template and the Canvas “due date” feature is extremely important to keep things simple.
Keeping things simple will help students feel comfortable – and make them more likely to stay engaged with your course.
In other words, “less is more”! Learn more about how to streamline and simplify communication in your flex-hybrid course.
Shared Values and Interests
Agreeing upon and articulating shared values and interests is essential in all class communities.
The fundamental challenges of negotiating classroom values so are the same in both in-person and virtual learning spaces:
- Balancing freedom and openness with inclusivity and safety.
- Making sure everyone is able to participate in class discussions and projects – and feels comfortable doing so.
Fortunately, flex-hybrid classes offer many options for navigating these challenges – and in some cases, may offer tools that make it easier to do so. Here is a description of some of these tools and how you can use them.
Building Community Before, During, and After Synchronous Class Sessions
These posts offer specific techniques for using your synchronous class meetings to create connections with, and among, your students.
- Building Community on the First Day of a Flex-Hybrid Course (and Before!)
- Thoughtful and Creative Starts to Synchronous Class Meetings Encourage Community
- Fun, Simple Ways to Foster Community During Synchronous Class Sessions
- Supporting the Informal and Impromptu Conversations that Build Community
- Developing Community with Breakout Discussion Groups and Other Group Work
How Do I Choose Which Tools to Use?
As you will see as you read the posts in this series, the real question when it comes to creating community in a flex-hybrid course is not whether it’s possible, but how to choose from all the multiplicity of tools available for doing so: Canvas, Google Meet, Zoom, chat, Docs, Jamboard, and more.
Three questions can help you choose the tools that are right for you:
- What’s your desired outcome? A good discussion? collaboration among students? reflection? sharing? getting help? Then, pick the tool that is most appropriate for your goals. This is known as “backwards design” – you start with the end in mind.
- Is the tool easily accessible to your students, in terms of cost, learning curve, and technical requirements (bandwidth, hardware)?
- Are you personally comfortable using the tool – or learning how to use it?
Remember that the Center for Learning and Teaching is always available to help you find a tool for your needs and to help you get up to speed with it!
(1) https://www.ideaedu.org/idea-notes-on-instruction/formed-teams-or-discussion-groups-to-facilitate-learning/; see also Garrison, D.R., & Vaughan, N.D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.