Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Bridging the Social Distance - Creating Community in Virtual Classrooms

Published on May 25, 2021

In a normal year, leading seminars is one of my favorite responsibilities. I have the opportunity to connect with students, facilitate their connections with other students, and shape their university journey in a way that my research and writing activities simply do not allow. I take energy from discussing topics that are well-worn to me but brand-new to some of my students. I enjoy seeing friendships flourish and the chatter of conversation expand from existing friendships to larger circles of the classroom community. This was not a normal year. Yet, leading seminars continued to be a bright spot in my week.

This blog post, the final installment in our four-part series “Teaching in a Time of Crisis,” details my experience trying to translate the joys and challenges of in-person seminars to the limitations of online learning. Breakout rooms and providing social spaces within the seminar played a significant part of my strategy to facilitate connection. Despite the online environment, creating community was still a priority, and could indeed be successful.

During the Winter 2021 semester, I was a teaching assistant for the introductory course, Health & Society: From the Black Death to Breaking Bad, at the University of Saskatchewan. I confess, I came into this experience with an advantage over my co-authors. In Fall 2020, I facilitated online seminars for an intro to history of medicine course. As a result, I had experiences to build upon when thinking about the online space which I hoped to create.

Breakout rooms proved to be useful tools for creating community. My seminar consisted of 18 students, a few too many for everyone to be unmuted, so in creating groups of 4-5, more meaningful discussion and connections could occur. They allow for students to unmute and turn their cameras on to have a more natural discussion. Like my colleagues, I found that some students responded better than others to breakout rooms.  However, in discussion with my students, we came up with protocols to make breakout rooms work better for everyone.

The mix of students could make or break a seminar discussion.  I found when making breakout rooms on platform Webex there were two options,  one would “randomly assign”, the other,  “manually assign” students to rooms. I found that students responded best when they were paired with a consistent group, allowing them to develop rapport with familiar faces, week after week. This makes sense. During in-person classes people tend to sit in the same place and small group discussion naturally occurs between the same student, and these preferences could be seen in the online environment.

The key to finding the right mix was flexibility. In the first week, I randomly assigned breakout rooms then assessed the quality of discussion that occurred in the main room. In one room, the discussion was lively. I asked students if they would like to keep the same rooms, they said yes. Then, I wrote down and manually assigned students to the same rooms in future seminars. The other seminar got off to a rocky start and I experimented with another random assignment the following week, which went much better. Once I found a good combination for the second set of students, I made note of the groups and stuck with them.

The second thing I found helpful was having a loose structure for the time before class started. I opened my classroom thirty minutes before the scheduled time to allow students to trickle in. My students knew that during this time they could have their cameras on and talk to each other. If it started to get too hectic, I would ask if they wanted to join breakout rooms to socialize in smaller groups. As the semester went on, I found students were more willing to engage in conversation with each other and respond with comments to each other. Before class, some people would show off their pets and others would ask about how people’s semesters were going. Having provided a space to get to know each other, I also let my students know more about me.

Outside of seminars, I held regular office hours. Increasingly, these became check-ins between me and a few of the students. My first seminar I asked that all of my students try and drop-in to the first or second set of office hours to address any questions, and also, more importantly, to introduce themselves to me. Most students made the effort, and a few consistently came to office hours simply to chat. As the course progressed, I shared bits and pieces about my life. One day, I showed students a 3D printed ship that I was painting. A few students seemed genuinely interested, and they asked about my painting progress several times after that week.

image du 25 mai 

In all, these actions in the seminars helped to create a space for socialization. On top of this, I felt the need to make interventions beyond the immediate seminar. Like my colleagues, I noticed (and felt) the toll that virtual learning took on students. I remember my first year being a time that I made friendships that extended beyond the classroom and wondered what I might do to help turn classroom acquaintances into friends. Unfortunately, on this front, I have to admit to failure.

During the first week of seminars, I created a Discord channel for each of my seminars. The idea was to allow students to voluntarily connect outside of class. Discord allows people to connect over text and chat similar to Slack or Teams. The difference between Discord and similar tools is that Discord is primarily used by the gaming community and presents itself as a social rather than work-based tool. In the end, however, I found that few students ended up joining the Discord I had created and there was little engagement. In future seminars, I will leave it up to students to decide if, and how, they want to connect outside of class.

I believe I did a good job of creating a community for my students. Having a consistent small group in the breakout rooms provided both learning and social benefits for students. Furthermore, giving time before class to learn more about each other expanded their social circle further. It was not the same as in-person classes, and not everybody joined in the social aspects of the class, but on the whole, students made the most of the semester.

In our seminars, Karissa Patton, Letitia Johnson, and I made changes to make online learning easier. As our experiences show, there were moments of success and failure. What worked for some students did not work for others. Nonetheless, I hope that our experiences are useful for everyone else teaching history online.

Derek Cameron studies the history of vaccine hesitancy and public health in Canada. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Alongside his research, he is currently adapting resources to be used for counselling vaccine hesitant individuals. You can find him on Twitter at @DerekHilCameron.

Derek - 4 May

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