How Online Communities Help Instructors Thrive

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Tuesday, July 20, 2021
By Pooja Sankar
Photo by iStock/ersinkisacik
Online communities can motivate overburdened educators to connect, innovate, and inspire in their teaching.

Without a doubt, academia has been turned upside down by the pandemic. Business schools in particular have gone without many of the in-person learning opportunities that make their programs unique. As such, professors have struggled. They want to create the best possible, most engaging learning experiences for their students, yet we are in a strange new world where content delivery, coursework, assessment, and application all look different than before.

Business school professors have risen to the challenge admirably, shifting coursework online and developing new teaching practices, all while dealing with their own personal stressors brought on by pandemic life. And now, they’ll likely adapt again.

While some countries are lifting social distancing measures put in place during the pandemic, many schools remain uncertain about next steps—especially schools with large numbers of international students who could be impacted by visa issues or other COVID restrictions. In an attempt to accommodate the needs of all learners, including those who have grown to love the flexibility of online coursework, a lot of business schools will operate hybrid learning models into the fall semester and beyond.

So what can professors do to develop cohesive virtual courses without taking on greater teaching burdens or feeling the stress of being “always on,” whether at the front of the class or responding to an online discussion group? It all centers on community.

Classroom Community: Building for Engagement

Let’s start with what happens in the classroom. Learning happens when students are engaged—with their professors, with their peers, and with course content itself. In a traditional in-person classroom, an instructor can look for visual cues as to whether students are grasping material. Are they nodding their heads or nodding off? Do they look confused? Do they look excited? Are their hands going up to ask questions?

While one can certainly read visual cues on video, it’s nearly impossible to scan all the little boxes in a gallery view on Zoom without skipping a beat in delivering a lecture. A professor might be able to glean a little feedback from a few faces but probably cannot do a full read on the class, especially if students have turned their cameras off. This is definitely a challenge!

To informally assess the climate of an in-person course, an instructor would likely pose a question to the class. In person, hands would shoot up or students would try to duck. You won’t get this same type of view if you ask a question online, but if instructors leverage some of the exciting tools now available—like polling, up-voting, and text entries—students can submit their answers, which are instantly tallied, and the instructor knows in a matter of seconds how many people got the question right so that instruction can be adjusted accordingly.

Suppose the course is divided into groups. In an in-person environment, an instructor might walk from group to group, monitoring discussions and answers. If one group is clearly understanding the material, the instructor doesn’t need to spend as much time and can move on to help the next group.

Online, monitoring is much harder because the instructor has to toggle between breakout groups. In this case, polls can be indispensable. An instructor poses a question to the various breakout groups. The answers guide where the instructor needs to spend the most time and highlight what material might need to be explained further or in a different way. Polls provide a roadmap for further facilitating instruction.

As for learners who don’t turn on their cameras or who may not “show up” for class, instructors can make participation mandatory. Even if begrudgingly in the beginning, learners do engage as community builds and instruction meets them where they are, and the outcomes for both instructors and students often are outstanding.

Professional Community: Supporting Colleagues to Prevent Burnout

The crafting of successful, beneficial classroom communities in today’s world also relies on a lot of trial and error. Instructors want their teaching to matter; they want to do their very best to deliver a great learning experience. As such, institutions need to provide enhanced support for professors and administrators, equipping them for ever-changing circumstances without increasing workload.

Partnering with technologists and other academics is one potential route. Webinars and forums can help get instructors quickly up to speed on new teaching strategies and best practices for handling a hybrid world. Strong professional development series and ample budgets for conferences or symposiums may be more important than they have been in the past.

Simply finding out that you are not the only one who didn’t know how to set up a breakout room or that you could export chat questions from Zoom can remove some of the weight and frustration of online teaching.

Another avenue is empowering professors to establish their own peer communication channels that extend beyond email. They might use dedicated space within learning software, establish online community forums, or even start new discussion groups, as we’ve seen many do with the social learning platform, Piazza. Such communication groups serve as spaces where instructional teams can tackle things as ambitious as redesigning courses or as mundane as learning from one another’s day-to-day experiences. What worked well? What was an epic fail?

Communications forums can become spaces ripe with new ideas. They also offer the means to bond with others who are dealing with similar issues and challenges. Simply finding out that you are not the only one who didn’t know how to set up a breakout room or that you could export chat questions from Zoom can remove some of the weight and frustration of online teaching. The mental health aspect of connection is vital, and sometimes these online engagements and exchanges between colleagues can be the thing that motivates an instructor or inspires a new idea.

Social Community: Beyond the Classroom

As much as instructors need to engage with their peers, they can also thrive through mutually beneficial, positive interactions with their students. One foundational component to establishing such interactions is visibility. If a class is 100 percent in-person, learners see the professor standing in front of them; they know the professor is “with” them. When a course is online, even as part of a hybrid curriculum, this presence can very easily diminish.

David Joyner, executive director of the Online Master of Science in Computer Science program at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, has some great ideas that business school instructors can draw on to create more of a live (or near-live), community-building presence, noting that, if you “don’t do something visible, [learners] don’t know you are there.”

This doesn’t have to mean professors spend all of their time online. They can set parameters around when they engage, but little things like responding on a student thread (even with a thumbs-up), posting a check-in message, or even sharing a cat GIF go a long way. “The point is to let them know you are there,” he says.

Little things like responding on a student thread (even with a thumbs-up), posting a check-in message, or even sharing a cat GIF go a long way.

Another way to establish social community is by creating communication groups strictly devoted to sharing uplifting and inspiring content. David Gries, professor emeritus of computer science at Cornell University, for example, had his students share music with a positive vibe to keep everyone’s spirits up. The online posting format has the added benefit of creating a class playlist.

Another professor, Viji Sathy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sets a reminder to post one positive thing in her shared online environments each day—even if it’s a picture of her dogs or a cake she baked. It is all about creating an authentic feeling of connection. Everyone has experienced the pandemic differently, and it is essential that we don’t stop viewing ourselves as real people, as humans.

By creating online communities that involve both learners and professors, yet have nothing to do with course materials, new connections can be forged. While connecting online might not feel the same as when everyone is together for the traditional business school experience, in some ways it can become even deeper and more meaningful for all.

Pooja Sankar
CEO, Piazza
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