Like any other, online classes require a degree of pre-supposed trust between instructors and students as well as between students themselves. If stakeholders are to work together, share ideas, to some extent expose themselves personally, to accept others’ judgement and advice, they need to at least know the other, and feel safe in their (social) setting. Such sense of security needs to be initially built and subsequently continuously maintained.
Unfortunately, common classroom strategies to establish community don’t necessarily transfer well to online mode. More importantly, also all informal, casual instances to interact – hanging out during breaks, getting coffee in groups, walking to the lift together after class, etc. – usually don’t happen, as participants will generally log onto the online class upon it’s beginning and log off immediately after it ends.
While there is no fail-proof way of (temporary) building online community, instructors should consider allocating classtime – either structured or unstructured – and/or possibly introducing particular tools or practices specifically for the purpose of fostering the social aspects of class.
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As part of an international collaboration in one of my courses I once asked students to “walk home” together a partner from a foreign sister institution. At the end of the class, one student each from both institutions were randomly paired up, and then were to go home while connected by video chat. While the students didn’t initially know each other and physically were in very different situations (e.g. they were at a six hours time difference), they did apparently develop rather quickly casual exchanges not unsimilar to interactions they might’ve had if they had been in the same place. They shared their experiences of the day, talked about school, assignments, ideas; some even went for meals “together”.