Feeling connected with classmates and an instructor while learning online can feel like an oxymoron. Yet we know that thoughtful effort to nurture connection in online spaces pays off. Students who participated in pilot Quantway and Statway online courses this past year reported noticing and appreciating when their instructor facilitated community-building.

To help educators establish and maintain a sense of community among and with students in online courses, we’ve compiled a list of tips from educators in the Carnegie Math Pathways Network that can help you build community in your online courses. Students have reported forming friendships through these strategies, feeling connected with classmates, and being more engaged in the subject matter.

Tips to Establish and Maintain Connection in Your Online Courses

  • Hold an orientation session at the beginning of the term that allows you to introduce yourself and the course, and gives students a chance to meet each other
  • Keep in touch with your students on a regular basis via email to check in on their progress and well-being.
  • Hold virtual office hours at which students can “drop by” to connect with you one-on-one.
  • Create an instructor website or section in your online course with details about how and when to best contact you with questions and concerns.
  • Whenever possible, create opportunities for your students to meet virtually and work through problems together.
  • Post a “Question of the Day” to start conversations in your course. (Need some ideas? Here are some ideas compiled by a Quantway educator.)
  • Facilitating group work? Have student groups share a Google doc with you to easily track progress and view their work.

Strategies to Make Online Collaboration Equitable

Students arrive to their online courses with a wide range of resources, technology-savvy, and life experiences. Comfort with speaking up and collaborating can be challenging at an individual level for shy personality types, but it can also be shaped by other external factors such as mainstream perceptions of gender, race, income, sexual orientation, or physical ability. It’s up to us as educators to cultivate a culture of inclusion that makes every student feel welcome, heard, and empowered. Here are some tips that can help with that:

  • Explicitly state at the beginning of and throughout the course that it is ok to admit to being confused. Emphasize that asking questions is an important part of learning.
  • Find out at the beginning of the term whether students have access to a reliable device to successfully complete their online course and help them create a study plan if they don’t.
  • Learn about your students’ lives outside of your classrooms for a better understanding of what support they may need in your course and to build stronger relationships with them.
  • Ask students whether they have access to reliable Wi-Fi and help them create a plan if they don’t.
  • Provide training or a written guide on how to use the technology of your online course rather than assuming students know how to use the technology.
  • Learn whether any of your students require hearing or visual aid in your course and work to provide them if they do.

We recommend consulting colleagues in your departments and student support staff on your campus for institutional protocols and guidance on how to gather the information needed to support students’ success while also maintaining their trust and privacy.

For more suggestions on building a culture of community and inclusion in your online course, we recommend the following resources:

Recordings, presentation slides, and QA documents from our 2-part mini-series on remote learning:

No One Size Fits All: Participation in the Mathematics Classroom by By Megumi Asada and Pamela E. Harris, Mathematical Association of America Blog