Instructors have likely used the first month of the semester to kick off their course delivery while getting used to teaching in an unfamiliar modality. But how much time was spent strengthening community with students? Learners can no longer stay back at the end of class to ask questions or head to their favorite on-campus spot for lunch with friends. If a COVID-struck world has taught professors one thing, it’s that the social experience—athletics, student affairs, community services and in-class camaraderie—is just as vital to higher education as academics.

Taking on the role of a community manager can help you inject belonging and connectivity into your virtual classroom. A community manager seeks out ways to engage students while advocating for inclusion and belonging in and out of the (virtual) classroom. These figures source platforms and tools for students to interact meaningfully with you, the course content and with one another.

Our Ultimate Guide to Creating Community in the Virtual Classroom offers tips and tools to make learning more human. Download it for free, here.

Where does the term ‘community manager’ come from?

The term ‘community manager’ is drawn from the world of social media marketing.1 A community manager engages virtual communities by listening and participating in discussions under their own account—not that of their brand’s. Adapted for academia, a community manager will be the face of the classroom—and will help position you as a more approachable figure for students to interact with.

The following nine techniques will help you strengthen student life and enhance professional development by helping you invest in students beyond their academics. More importantly, these tips will drive purposeful engagement whether you’re teaching online, in person or some combination of the two.

1. Set goals

At the start of a learning activity, set objectives for real-time or self-paced interaction. For example, you could clearly outline how many times students should share responses in an online discussion board. Doing so will help you gauge learner progress and understand what recurring activities are working and which aren’t.

Ask yourself: what does success look like in terms of engagement?

2. Know your audience

Use a student interest inventory—a survey where students are asked to share information about themselves—to gauge academic and non-academic preferences as well their personal interests and circumstances. For instance, international students may raise concerns with time zones when it comes to completing timed exercises. Facilitating this activity early in the semester will help you understand how to tie course content to students’ hobbies, passions and academic goals, which will ultimately get them more interested in their learning.

Ask yourself: what are the backgrounds and areas of interest of your students?
Try it in your class: facilitate the group resumé icebreaker activity—where students share their hobbies, interests, work experience and additional information in groups of 4–6

3. Establish your tone and voice

While educational technology is a must for online courses, instructors new to teaching online may find it comes at the expense of having their personality shine through. Reflect on what makes you tick and look for opportunities to bring this to life in your course. This could mean sharing photos or areas of interest outside of class, or offering course announcements or case studies that match your background and unique experiences. These simple practices will help humanize the online learning process and better replicate the feel of a traditional classroom.

Ask yourself: how does your passion, humor and empathy fit into your course delivery?

4. Set engagement criteria

In the same way that you have distinct preferences for how you communicate, so do your students. Be flexible. For those less inclined to speak up in front of classmates, a discussion thread is a great alternative. Also, consider relaxing the rules around grammar and punctuation for online discussions. For many, using video, memes and GIFs are valid forms of communication in their personal lives. If the goal is active participation, broadening what is permitted will help get more students engaged in learning activities.

Ask yourself: how does accessibility fit into student engagement?

5. Understand student comfort levels

Not everyone has access to a stable Internet connection nor may they want to show their home environment on camera. Ensure real-time course components are balanced with opportunities for self-paced reflection through discussion forums or reading assignments.

Ask yourself: do all students need to have their cameras on in a live class?

6. Have a plan

Deliberate efforts to facilitate collaboration will allow you to build community among and with students. Mixing active learning opportunities with lectures, labs and discussions outside of class can help students explore course material in a deeper, more inviting way.

Ask yourself: how can you make strategic use of activities to engage learners?

7. Advocacy for peer-to-peer networks

Ensure students have ways to support one another through ed tech or your LMS when it comes to group work, or just for staying in touch. Implement mediums for students to discuss academic matters such as discussion boards. Just as important is informal communication among students—consider how social media makes its way into your classroom.

Ask yourself: what channels do students have access to for peer-to-peer engagement and collaboration?
Try it in your class: Frank Spors, Associate Professor in the College of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, makes peer-to-peer collaboration a touchstone of his online classes. “During online lectures, I created opportunities for teamwork by enabling small group discussions in virtual breakout sessions. During the sessions, the students discussed practice problems and concepts, and I made myself available on-demand to provide support.”

8. Provide frequent feedback

Participation in class is reciprocal, meaning students’ contribution depends on your own responses via live video, in discussion threads or through your LMS. Ensure you have daily blocks in your calendar to reply to student messages and share feedback and guidance. Alternatively, adopt a ‘radically available’ mindset like Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. Miller ditched office hours to meet students’ needs in a more immediate way. She instead chose an online scheduling system that allowed students to book time slots at their convenience.

Ask yourself: what channels can you use to engage with students?

9. Revisit your objectives

The early activities you facilitated served as benchmarks for student engagement—now use insights from those exercises to refine what you have planned for the remainder of the semester. Ensure the approaches you carry forward build upon community-centric values and leave behind the techniques that don’t.

Ask yourself: how can you measure your class’ progress?

Student community is an invaluable part of the higher education experience. Regardless of where you teach, Top Hat Community—the messaging app purpose-built for higher education—will help strengthen collaboration, community and camaraderie among you and your students. Learn more here.


  1. Chen, J. (2020, January 26). Social media manager vs. community manager: What’s the difference? Sprout Social.

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