We recently celebrated the 100th day of school for students in my school division. For many students, this has been 100 days of online learning that families chose for the 2020/2021 school year, compared to the emergency remote learning that everyone was forced into in Spring 2020. In my experience, the biggest challenge in both the emergency remote learning and the current online school year has been building and maintaining relationships with students. In the spring, I had the benefit of working with students in person first and developing a class community before moving online. But this school year I am working in a completely asynchronous online school, so relationships and community have been the most difficult aspect to develop between students and teachers.
For my post this week, I am going to look at some of the successful ways we foster community in the Edtech courses with Dr. Couros, my own experiences as an online teacher and ideas from educators and researchers around the world.
- Twitter – Throughout my five courses with Dr. Couros, one of the most successful tools we have used for sharing resources and tips has been through the Twitter hashtags, #ECI830, #ECI831, #ECI832, #ECI833 and #ECI834. At the start of a class, we immediately add 20+ Twitter accounts to follow and build our professional learning networks. Throughout the course we are able to share relevant articles, topics of interest and share our course projects and blogs. As I work through my final Edtech course, I am realizing how awesome it is to still be connected to my classmates after the course is complete, like @vendi55 and @NSmith for example!
- Discord – I also enjoy our private course community on Discord and the various channels used by students. I find that the opportunity to engage in informal conversations in the #general channel helps build class community as we start to learn more about classmates beyond our identified professional roles. The ability to access the app on our phones makes it even easier to quickly ask or respond to questions directly related to course content and information like deadlines and assignments.
- Blog Commenting – Commenting on course blogs throughout the semester helps us learn more about classmates and follow their Edtech journeys. It is also a great place to seek support and feedback, as well as learn more about different topics since we often choose different directions for our blog posts. I like the opportunity to reply to comments on blogs as well since we can ask and answers questions. I think this is where a lot of my professional growth occurs in Dr. Couros’ courses.
- Breakout Rooms – During our Zoom meetings, moving into breakout rooms has been a great way to get to know classmates in a much smaller setting. It is less intimidating speaking with classmates in a group of four compared to the entire class. In these breakout rooms, we tend to stray from the original topic or question, but the learning is always taking place. For example, we learn about different career opportunities within the field of education when listening to the perspective from administrators, consultants and higher level educators. I also think the opportunity to share personal experiences and examples helps everyone make deeper connections to the course content.
Overall, the #ECI834 class community has utilized many tools to build and maintain relationships beyond the course dates and materials. I have even received advice about potty training toddlers from my classmates – thanks Erin! I am very grateful that I have been able to learn and grow from many talented, inspiring and positive educators.
My Online Teaching Experience
Receiving a class list in an asynchronous online environment is overwhelming at first. It is simply just names on a page followed by access to previous data like reading levels and grades. My first challenge was getting to know students as a teacher before I could even think about a class community. Here are some of the successful and unsuccessful ideas I have experimented with this year.
- Seesaw “About Me” activity – The first activity I assign to a new student in my class is this activity (or any variation of it) so I can get to know a little bit about the student. Many students add a picture or a short video introduction. I reply to every student with a comment and try to find a connection with the student. (“My favourite subject is Arts Ed.” – I love Arts Ed! Especially music!”)
- Regular Online Meets – Setting a consistent schedule for online meetings (that are optional in our asynchronous model) has been a great way to “meet” students and hear their voices. Cameras can be on or off, but most students love to have the camera on at some point, especially with a fun virtual background. I always send the link out about 15 minutes before the scheduled time and as the year has progressed, many students come early so we can have some informal conversations like what they did on the weekend, what they are looking forward to or playing fun games like “spot the difference”.
3. Small Reading Groups – My division uses Google Meets, and unfortunately breakout rooms are currently not an option with our version. I set up a weekly schedule where I meet with 5-8 students in levelled reading groups to participate in guided reading. Although the meets are fairly formal, I think it has been useful for some students to meet in a small setting and start to see familiar faces, especially when we have our larger whole group meets.
4. Morning Message – I started to incorporate a “Morning Message” on a class Jamboard every day. The message usually followed a theme like, “Movie Monday – what is your favourite movie?” and students would answer on a sticky note and sign their first name. It was lots of fun at the beginning, but as time went on some students started misusing the board by deleting or adding pages, adding scribbles over the board, or adding images that were not relevant. Unfortunately there is currently no edit history in our division version of Jamboard, so I am not able to track who is making the changes. Eventually both students and myself became frustrated with constant problems, so I switched over to a daily check in, using a Google Form like this one. Unfortunately this only gives me information and we are not able to replicate the idea of a group whiteboard message in a classroom.
5. Hour of Code – Once a month, I host an “Hour of Code” with my students through a Google Meet. We have tried a few different tutorials that were originally suggested by Curtis B. and his group last semester, and they are so much fun! Here is a very basic layout of how I run the hour:
- Set the date/time and provide students with a link for the Google Meet. This is an optional activity and just for fun.
- In the Google Meet, send the link for the tutorial (like this Minecraft Hour of Code) in the chat.
- Remind students to watch the video at the beginning and let students begin working at their own pace through the tutorial. (Some students are experienced, but many are beginners just like me!)
- I share my screen to act as the “beginner” example, so students who need help can follow along. I often get stuck on certain puzzles, so we pause and ask if any students who have completed the level can help out.
- We work on the tutorial for one hour with no pressure to complete all the puzzles. The goal is simple to code for an hour!
My experience running the Hour of Code has been overwhelmingly positive. It combines a Google Meet (the social interaction students are looking for) and teaches some relevant coding concepts. The best part is it get students interested in coding and to explore it on their own time. If you want to learn more about how to run an Hour of Code in your classroom, I suggest you start by reading all about it on the Hour of Code website.
While it is not perfect, I think that hosting regular online meetings has been the most successful aspect in creating a whole group class community. Reviewing course content has been valuable for students, but I think engaging in fun activities like a Quizizz or directed drawings during the meet are when students relax and start to show their personalities. In a recent daily check in, I asked students what is something they would change about their online school experience. Two common answers were seeing their friends and daily Google Meets. It is clear students are missing the social interaction with their peers, so I will continue to create opportunities for students to meet in both formal and informal meetings.
Advice from the Twittersphere and beyond
I have come across many ideas on social media about building relationships and community online over the last year. It seems to be a common concern of many educators who are missing the in-person connections with students.
I enjoy reading articles from Dr. Catlin Tucker and appreciate that she explains why it is important to build community – so that students feel more motivated to learn. The suggestions in her post include:
- Set Agreements as a Class
- Start Class with Community Building Conversations
- Go Deeper with a Dialogic Interview Format
One of the first activities I did with students in our initial Google Meet was go over ideas that would make the meetings successful for everyone. We made some basic guidelines, like using the chat respectfully (ex. not talking about playing Roblox later), staying muted unless it is their turn to talk and using the raise hand feature if they have a question. I also try and start each Google Meet with a Jamboard activity or question for the chat which helps with Dr. Tucker’s suggestion that “The goal is to get each student to unmute and share their answer to break the ice and get them comfortable speaking during a video conference.” I have not tried the Dialogic interview format, but it looks like it would be a fun breakout room activity for students!
One of my favourite resources for online teaching is Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy (Thanks for the recommendation, Amanda!) In the post, “9 Ways Online Teaching Should Be Different From Face-to-Face”, Jennifer reflects on a podcast interview with Melanie Kitchen about adjusting our practice for teaching online. Community Building and Communication are one of the most important areas highlighted and she discusses the importance of building social emotional skills in the early weeks before diving into curriculum. Another detail explored is that community needs to be a priority for teachers as well. This suggested article looks at the importance of teacher well-being when teaching online. In my personal experience, this is something I did not realize I was missing as an online teacher. I am at least lucky that I can interact with colleagues as we all teaching online in the same building, but I wonder what it is like for teachers that are working from home?
The final resource I am going to share is from Dr. John Spencer, who we had the privilege of interacting with in one of our EC&I 834 class meetings last month. Dr. Spencer touched on the ideas of relationships and community in his presentation, and his website is full of ideas and posts if you search “relationships online”.
Dr. Spencer lists seven excellent ideas in his post, “Building an Empowered Community in Distance Learning Courses” including:
- Spend more time letting students share their interests.
- Launch a democratic leadership team.
- Have students negotiate norms and procedures.
- Create student jobs.
- Make synchronous meetings more interactive.
- Design collaborative projects.
- Use frequent check-ins to connect with students individually.
While some of these ideas may not work in your online setting, I think the goal is clear that by building relationships with students, we are empowering students which will ultimately help with engagement. Do you use any of these practices when you have moved to online learning at some point this year?
Relationships, Community and Engagement
Through my personal experiences in our Edtech courses with Dr. Couros, as an online teacher and through research online, I have come across some common themes when building relationships online. First, it starts with building student-teacher relationships while working on building class community. If you can start making progress with relationships and class community, you will ultimately have more engaged and motivated students. For anyone that has experienced online learning as either a student or teacher, being engaged and feeling empowered in your online course leads to more meaningful and deeper connections with classmates and course content!
What strategies have worked for you for building relationships in an online environment?
Until next time,