Put it in the chat: Forming a community in online classes

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I’m taking a couple of online classes this summer, and I am enjoying one a lot more than the other. This could be because one (Class A) is related to my major and the other (Class B) is one I have to take for a breadth requirement, but I believe the differences in the structure of these two classes made one of them allow me to have a much more positive experience.

Encouraging open discussion in the chat

One of my favorite aspects of Class A is the constant, open discussion in the chat. At the start of the course, the professor encouraged us to use the chat as another way to communicate with each other during the lesson. After a student speaks up during the lecture, people flood the chat with their own opinions and comments going off of what that person said. Students also use the chat to link funny videos and helpful articles. This creates an environment of lively classroom chatter that, rather than being distracting, is the closest any of my online classes have gotten to approximating the dynamic of in-person discussion and camaraderie.

The professor of Class B, on the other hand, has the chat set up so that students can only message the professor. I have no way to communicate with the other students, which doesn’t allow me to form any connections with my peers.

Having students turn on their video

What I hate most about having classes on Zoom is how impersonal it can feel when people don’t turn their video on. It’s hard to feel like I’m in a class with my peers when I’m stuck staring at little black squares. That’s why I appreciated that the professor of Class A asked us all to keep our videos turned on for the duration of the class (with exceptions, of course, for students who may have faulty Wi-Fi). Seeing my fellow students’ faces is so heartwarming. Putting a face to a name and getting to see someone’s facial expressions and physicality when they speak helps me feel closer to the other students in the class. Plus, sometimes a pet will make a surprise cameo.

In Class B, on the other hand, only the professor turns her video on to give the lecture as she shares her slides. It’s true that the structure of the class is different — it is a lecture rather than a discussion-based class, so there is no explicit need for us to see each other. But I argue that having students turn on their video adds a level of much-needed humanity to a starkly cold technological environment.

Utilizing breakout rooms

In Class A, the professor will usually take 15 minutes of class time to send us into breakout rooms to discuss a given reading. Not only do we go into these breakout rooms every class period, but each time we discuss with the same group of people, which leads to stronger connections being formed over the course of the summer. The professor of Class B has never utilized breakout rooms, and that is part of the reason why now, at the end of the course, I literally do not know the name of any other student in the class.

These aspects may be easier to accomplish in smaller, discussion-based classes, but larger classes should consider incorporating similar practices as well. If professors want to form an engaging community among their students, they would do well to structure their online classes like Class A. I feel a much stronger connection to the students in this class than I thought was possible in an online format, and anything that makes online classes feel a little bit friendlier is definitely a positive.

Contact Fleurette Modica at [email protected].