In a typical academic year, the first few weeks of the term are dedicated to community building. Welcome week lures students into their campus’ exhilarating student life and extracurricular activities that run the length of the semester give many a much-needed break from assignments and presentations. But this year is unlike any other.

This fall, many students logged into class online without getting to meet their peers or professors in person. We asked four students about the sense of belonging they felt learning at a distance—and how their institutions and instructors were making the grade. Here are the scores they returned.

Click here to read PART 1 of our new student series, where students describe the challenges of shifting to online learning.

Lack of access to extracurriculars is starting to take its toll

Intramurals, clubs and student- and college-run events were integral to the academic journey for many. Freshman student Sarah Hnatkivskyy was looking forward to meeting new people through her extracurriculars. Unfortunately, the online alternative hasn’t been working in her favor. “School events where I would have made friends have been taken away and although there are Zoom calls replacing them, it is definitely not the same,” she says. “When there are no outlets and no feelings of community, it has been easy to feel lost.”

Hnatkivskyy isn’t the only student struggling with the lack of community. Jordan George, a junior student at Kent State University, reflects on not being able to escape from coursework. “My clubs have really dropped. Online learning doesn’t feel leisurely anymore since there is no way to decompress or get a change of scenery at home,” George says.

Students sit up when professors actively foster engagement in class

With in-person learning, students were able to use group projects as a way to get to know new people. That is, obviously, much harder now. “My TAs put us into Zoom breakout groups which are extremely helpful yet still intimidating,” Sarah Hnatkivskyy says. “It’s made a difference as I’ve been able to share my ideas and understand concepts better. I do appreciate that these calls allow students to talk to each other as we would in class.”

When instructors go out of their way to make students feel connected online, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Emily Andrews, a freshman student at the University of Virginia, hasn’t been a fan of online learning since it first took flight. But she does appreciate her professors’ efforts at strengthening feedback loops with students. “In my classes that my professors would check in with us, I found that I did better—because I want to do better and I want to show the professor that I care about the class too,” she says.

The good news? Many students see the benefits of online learning—and want it to continue

The adjustment to virtual learning was by no means simple. But after living with the pandemic for nine months, many see the potential of online learning in building community with professors and peers.

On the whole, Sarah Hnatkivskyy gives online learning a passing grade. However, she calls out the drawbacks that can come with it. “I definitely do see the role of online learning in a post-pandemic world. It has made my life more flexible but there are issues that must be fixed before this can be integrated in the future,” she says.

Others like Jordan George say that online learning isn’t quite for them—but acknowledge the benefits that it affords many students. “Online learning isn’t something that works really well for my learning style, but I know that it has provided flexibility and new evaluation methods that really help some students,” George says.

Areli Mejorado, a senior student at Blinn College, highlights the ease of communicating and collaborating with her friends and instructors online. “There are more accommodations for online learning that wouldn’t have been implemented otherwise,” says Mejorado. “Zoom recordings are so helpful for review. And things like Top Hat are super helpful to study from.”

Checklist: how to build your online learning community

As you wrap up this term, consider bringing the following practices for creating community and belonging with you to the new semester.

Professor-student community building

Arrive to class ten minutes before or stay ten minutes after to facilitate informal conversations
Offer multiple ways to connect with your students: some may prefer discussion boards on your LMS, while others may prefer a class Twitter hashtag for sharing content
Consider being ‘radically available’ versus holding office hours at one set time

Student-student community building

Encourage students to comment on one another’s discussion threads or posts
Create diverse breakout rooms that represent a variety of races, programs and interests
In Top Hat Community, set up custom channels per course or project and let students video chat or discuss with one another in these spaces

In the final installment of our series, we’ll take a look at how active learning, collaboration and engagement were brought to life online.

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