The idea of space — virtual space — is very important for encouraging community and engagement in hybrid and online learning spaces. Whether they’re together in a classroom or attending class remotely, everyone in a class is sharing “space” of one kind or another. Thus, you need to make all the spaces in your course as safe and welcoming as possible. 

Here, we’ll focus on the virtual spaces in hybrid, virtual synchronous, and Canvas course environments — though these concepts also apply to in-person classroom learning spaces.

There are four principles for making the virtual spaces in your course pleasant and conducive to learning:

  • Keep them psychologically safe
  • Make them simple and familiar
  • Add visual appeal 
  • Pay attention to physical comfort

Psychological Safety

Although virtual classrooms are generally physically safe, they are subject to forms of disruption that are unusual in physical spaces. It is vital to keep video classes psychologically safe by preventing unwanted intrusions by outsiders. 

If you are using Zoom, you should take advantage of recent security upgrades to prevent “Zoombombing”. Zoom’s blog offers an excellent explanation of these features and explains how to use them. Google Meet has many of those security features (access by invitation only, etc.) built right in.

Be sensitive to the fact that being on camera is stressful, for you and for your students. Students who are learning remotely may be uncomfortable with their whole class seeing into their living or family situation. They may find the feeling of being watched distracting. You may wish to use non-video synchronous strategies sometimes to reduce fatigue and the feelings of being alienated from the class that can result from teaching to a grid of faces (or turned-off cameras). These could include entirely text-based chat via Google Chat or a similar platform, or a live Meet session that’s focused on working together on an activity in a Google Doc (for example) so that having cameras off is not an issue. Sometimes students feel more comfortable and engaged in small groups, so consider virtual breakout rooms as well.

Simplicity and Familiarity

One important way to help your students feel comfortable and welcome in your virtual learning spaces is to make those spaces simple and familiar.

For live videoconference sessions, try to use the same platform consistently to avoid technology stress. It may be reassuring to set up your own space (or virtual background) so it looks neat, calm, and consistent on screen. Learn more about using backgrounds to enhance both the appearance of your videos and the learning space.

Canvas is also a learning space. The shell you receive with your courses each semester is intended to provide a very basic level of consistency and navigability to students. We encourage working with one of the CLT’s coaches to make your courses even easier to navigate and understand. The templates are designed to ensure that all instructors’ Canvas courses use the same basic navigation and organization system. This significantly decreases students’ cognitive load (and decreases questions about assignments, due dates, and other course mechanics).

Visual Appeal

We encourage livening up your Canvas course so it feels personable and welcoming, as well as considering your videoconference “decor” as mentioned above.

If you’re not sure how to make your Canvas shell or the back wall of your office visually appealing, ask yourself what makes a physical space comfortable and welcoming. You can also examine the layouts of websites, books, and magazines that you enjoy and find attractive. Then consider how those visual cues and the feelings they evoke can be translated to digital environments.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Tidy it up. Before others come into our homes, we usually tidy and declutter the space. Likewise, our Canvas shells should be free of clutter. That is, links, navigation, content, and decorative elements should be clear, orderly, and consistent, and there shouldn’t be too many of them. A simple, tidy-looking videoconference background can help.
  • Treat the homepage of your Canvas shell like a front door. Like the entrance to our home, the homepage of our courses is an opportunity to send the message to students that the course is safe and well-maintained. The homepage can also show your personality as an instructor. 
  • Welcome students and show them around. Guiding students around your Canvas shell on the first day of class, and giving quick updates at the beginning of each class session (you might think of it as the equivalent of a note on the fridge) – will help your students settle in and feel comfortable. You can also make a quick welcome video or a virtual office and embed it on the home page.
  • Make your images count. Think about what the visual elements you use evoke. Aim for calm, good humor, welcome, and inquisitiveness. Many successful Canvas shells feature a comic or meme related in some way to the course topic on the home page. Think similarly about your office space. Plants and cool, light colors can evoke calm; a bookshelf evokes expertise and competence; an interesting poster or artwork lends personality.

Physical Comfort

As we all know, working on a computer for long periods of time can be uncomfortable. Simple functionality and ease of navigation, especially in Canvas, saves students time sitting in front of a screen and the aches and eyestrain that go with it. There are also some simple but extremely effective ways to help mitigate the effects of eyestrain and promote concentration during screen reading. These methods are based on extensive “eye-tracking” studies by web usability experts. 

“Zoom fatigue”, the physical and mental tiredness that comes from additional cognitive load imposed by trying to parse interpersonal interactions in a space where you cannot see facial or body cues clearly, is also a significant consideration. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to mitigate Zoom fatigue.

Promoting everyone’s physical comfort helps build community. The more physically comfortable your students are, the more attentive and engaged they will be.

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