Building Community Online

Danielle Hanley, Lecturer, Rutgers University

As I look back on Spring 2020, and forward towards the fall, I worry about building and sustaining community in our online classroom. In the scramble to retool my courses to fit the emergency online format this spring, my mantra, for myself and for my students, was to manage. I wanted to manage the transition, to manage to impact of the change on the students, and simply to manage their own survival in the face of the worldwide pandemic. Management was my way to help the course survive, recognizing that through Covid-19, it was not going to be the same. Luckily, all of the energy my students had poured into building a generative classroom dynamic in February buoyed us, leading to decent engagement on discussion boards and Web-Ex rooms through March and April. But, I don’t want Fall 2020 to be about management; I want to get back to flourishing.

In the in-person classes I teach at Rutgers University, we spend a lot of time building a sense of community in the classroom. This happens in different ways in different courses. In Western Tradition II, we played Reacting to the Past’s French Revolution role-playing game—embodying historical roles each week in a college course does wonders for fostering camaraderie, respect, and community. In Contemporary Feminist Theory, we read Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, and students put their own experiences in conversation with theory. This requires trust, which lays a foundation for a communal flourishing.

But, online, we don’t get those whispers about strategy in this week’s mock French National Assembly, or the collective intake of breath at Audre Lorde’s poetry. I can’t choreograph the energy emanating from my students into productive discussion in the same way. In my most frustrated moments, the online classroom barely imitates the regular variant. Is management all we can hope for this fall?

In a word, no. There is flourishing to be found in our online spaces. How? I have three pieces of advice that have helped me reframe my approach and expectations for the fall about building community in the online classroom. First, instead of expecting the online classroom to be an exact replica of the in-person experience, I am approaching it as a different space, that might require different activities to allow for student flourishing. Second, and related, the online space might afford some benefits that we can overlook when in-person. And finally, let the new medium be a catalyst for student engagement—after all, it is their classroom too, and building community is, well, a group effort. You can see the framework for a peer review workshop in online courses I designed here.

The online classroom is a different space. So many of my classes are founded on discussion. If I want my students to discuss something, in my face-to-face class, I introduce a question, and often put students into groups. For online teaching, starting from the question is helpful, but the activity will likely look different. I assign my students to be in groups for the full semester, so they know who will be in their zoom break-out room (if synchronous) or their Google-doc (if asynchronous). There is less spontaneity, but more trust and familiarity in this constellation. I can’t circulate among the groups, but I can schedule check-ins with each, which dedicates specific time for questions and concerns with each group, instead of eavesdropping on specific answers (with synchronous Zoom rooms, you can still do this!). Discussions unfold over class forums, debate software, and Google docs in an asynchronous classroom. These discussions look different than those that fill our in-person meetings, but they can still be thoughtful, generative, and challenging. Student flourishing happens when they are able to explore, engage, and express themselves, and the online classroom has many potential spaces that encourage exactly that.

There are benefits to the online space. Two big benefits became clear while teaching online in the spring, that were instructive for rethinking the online space. First, students who were typically silent in classroom discussions participated in class forums. This was a requirement for the class, but the students also relayed that knowing the question in advance helped them construct responses. Second, the asynchronous approach allowed students to process the material at their own pace. Since students were bombarded with mass change and upheaval, the asynchronous forms of participation were not time-bound, allowing for more flexibility while still encouraging a robust discussion. So the online format can help students find their voice, and infuse flexibility into these uncertain times. It can give students time to process ideas and materials, and even more autonomy over their learning processes. Of course, there are drawbacks too, but examining the benefits can help us design courses that encourage flourishing.

The online space is the students’ space as well. In my classes, much of the experience is student-driven, but not the design. In the move online, because we are not all there, feeding off of each other’s energy, I’ve decided that one way to engender community is to make it clear that the classroom and the community are for the students. I am explicit about it being their classroom, and about the activities designed to foster community, and that they are responsible for the shape of that community. Instead of class participation, one part of the grade is ‘class citizenship.’ Students are not graded on attendance but various forms of engagement, and are responsible for checking in with their groups each week about their progress. Groups set their engagement expectations, and we discuss them in a group check-in. Students set class norms and norms around peer review together. Groups generate questions that they would like the class to discuss over the course of the semester, and at the end of the semester, writes a reflection accounting for their questions and discussions. Part of building community is helping the students realize that this is their class, and empowering them to approach it as such.

Students can flourish, not just manage, in the online classroom, and we can help them do so, by recognizing that it is a different kind of space, by thinking about the benefits it affords, and by consciously bringing students in as architects of their own community. And moving forward, we might even consider how teaching online might make us think differently about our in-person experience and adjust accordingly.


Danielle Hanley has a PhD in Political Science, with a focus on Political Theory, from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently a Lecturer at Rutgers University. Her work concentrates on the political theory of emotions, exploring the contemporary resonances of ancient Greek texts, particularly tragedy. She also writes on pedagogy in the political theory classroom.

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