A classroom is a community in miniature, one with its own rhythms, rules, and connective threads. Educators are not only teachers, they are relationship-builders: in the classroom, they respond to physical cues from students, use body language to convey and encourage empathy and engagement, and energize through dialogue and instant feedback.

Online learning has challenged this dynamic, but it also presents opportunities to think outside the box. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2017 study found that one-third of all higher education students were enrolled in online classes, with 13% exclusively attending online. The number of students enrolled in online education has increased over the past 14 consecutive years, even as overall enrollment has declined.

The potential upsides of this mode of learning are numerous and important, including increased flexibility and greater accessibility for students. But the losses are real, too. A poll of students during COVID-19 shows that an overwhelming 86% say they miss interacting with other students, while 85% wish they had access to face-to-face time with their professors.

From study groups to note sharing, the dynamic group learning that occurs alongside casual social interaction is a vital piece of the higher education experience. There’s an academic benefit to community building, as well: In one study of a large-enrollment university biology class, researchers found that when students felt comfortable in their group, content mastery increased by 27.5%. Community building in the classroom also encourages active involvement in the learning process, promotes critical thinking skills, and contributes to an environment more conducive to retention and comprehension. And beyond all that, it gives students a sense of safety and connection—something that is hugely important in a time of extraordinary upheaval.

For educators, online classes offer an opportunity to reexamine how community functions, and how it can be created despite obstacles. The suggestions we’ve gathered acknowledge the unique challenges of the form, and offer ways to support students navigating a strange, demanding environment. They also recognize that educators and students alike are experiencing their own individual struggles, and may not be able to show up for their communities in the way they might in a “normal” classroom setting.

(Note: We acknowledge that not all of these ideas will work for every class size, subject, or format. Adapt as you see fit—you know your students best!)

  • The shift to online learning runs the risk of “dehumanizing” both professors and students. Rather than jumping immediately into coursework or announcements, you could dedicate the first few minutes of class to a quick mental and emotional health check, or even a simple round robin. Invite students to share a one-word description of their current state in the Zoom group chat; for workshops, synchronized breathwork or even a short collective meditation could be a powerful unifier. (We also have a collection of icebreakers over here!)
  • In larger lecture-based classes, try breakout rooms to give students space to discuss a topic collectively, before coming back to the main lecture to share their findings. Or assign a group project that offers students the opportunity to connect and collaborate outside of class time.  
  • When the class size allows, invite students to book a 10-minute one-on-one video chat with you (using a booking app like YouCanBook.me or Calendly makes this simple) to talk about academic goals, background, or particular hopes for the class. It’s a relatively low-lift way to make individual connections and help students feel more comfortable.
  • Having a large number of students on video at the same time can be distracting and diminish video bandwidth. For larger classes, experiment with smaller sections or panels and assign one group to turn their video on each class. (For students who can’t use video or feel uncomfortable with that option, consider offering the alternative of using an avatar.) These smaller cohorts can help students familiarize themselves and feel more comfortable with their peers.
  • According to one Boston University professor who pivoted to Zoom lectures during the pandemic, using group chat opened a new avenue for students to connect. “The group chat allows students to communicate quickly with each other, and removes some of the formality you might get in discussion. I watched students make connections with each other, riff on each other's ideas, and build to a greater understanding of the course material. I’m trying to figure out how to integrate that level of interaction once we’re back in the classroom.” Students can share questions, flag points for follow up, and upvote particular points they’d like their professor to address.
  • Online learning doesn’t have to mean sacrificing rich, “person-to-person” discussion, either. Writing in the New York Times, writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen says of his classes: “Surprisingly, the discussions in my video classes have been better than those in the live era. I don’t need to look out at a sea of a hundred stone faces or a hundred blank boxes. Instead, I ask a half-dozen students to participate in a student panel for each lecture; I call on them and ask them questions throughout the lecture, which means the class doesn’t have to listen to just me all the time. It turns out that the students are much less shy speaking on video than they might be before a live audience. Less human warmth, but less stage fright.” 
  • One of the greatest losses for students in the pandemic shift has been easy, consistent access to non-academic social spaces. As an educator, you can help facilitate social interaction outside of the classroom by offering students an optional space (such as a shared Google doc) to exchange social media handles or contact information. Or, consider a class Slack or Discord group to help students connect outside of class hours, to create study groups, or simply to commiserate and find solace.

Above all, remember that communities are adaptable: they can change and grow depending on the needs of the individuals who comprise them. Simply acknowledging the challenges of online learning can do a lot to assure students they are not alone, and that you, as an educator, recognize and empathize with the challenges they face.