Trends from SITT 2020 | Part 2 of 5: Community & Connection

This entry is Part 2 of the 2020 Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology five-part blog series, which includes write-ups on (1) Equity & Accessibility, (2) Community & Connection, (3) Video, (4) Multimodal/Multitasking, and (5) Breakout Rooms. 

Part 2. Community & Connection
In each square of the Zoom screen’s technicolor grid of avatars is a human being. In our academic world, these human beings are most likely students, instructors, and TAs. As these members of the classroom community engage with each other in a remote learning environment, we risk considering such interactions as automatic, and thus risk losing some of the human connection that is formed through in-person communication and physical presence. Interaction may be taking place, but is it real and authentic? Does the speaking, listening, and providing feedback, work together to establish a sense of community, even if we feel like we are just little heads on a green screen floating in cyberspace?

Many pre-recorded faculty talks, live webinars & daily debriefs, and breakout chats of the 2020 Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology addressed the challenging topic of building community and forging connections when instructors and students are not physically in the same space. Discussions and concerns centered around missed opportunities for “water cooler talk” – the casual, often off-topic chatter that happens before or after class – as well as conversations with classmates walking on campus, meeting up for work on group projects, attending office hours, and other opportunities which allow students and faculty to get to know each other, build rapport, and cultivate a sense of community. 

In an effort to further understand challenges such as this, at the end of the first-ever quarter of remote teaching and learning in Spring 2020, the Center for Educational Effectiveness surveyed over 2,800 students, instructors, and TAs about their experiences. The aim was to gain insight from diverse perspectives on remote teaching topics such as course delivery, instructional activities, challenges, tech tools, software, resources, concerns for fall quarter, and student learning and connectedness. Both instructors and students agreed that engagement remains the greatest challenge of remote instruction. 

In its many forms, engagement can greatly influence connectedness, the latter being what section 2.4 is dedicated to in the full survey report. One striking trend, or key word, from the section on Connectedness is the idea of “live,” as both students and instructors “reported that office hours, live discussions, and live lectures helped the most to strengthen the feeling of connection between student and instructor” (Insights from Spring 2020 Remote Instruction, p. 11). In regards to creating connections between students, group work outside of class, student presentations, breakout groups, online message boards, and live discussions were the top results. However, as we cannot always be “on” and “live” in a synchronous sense, as instructors, we seek out creative ways to continue building community and connectedness even when we are “offline,” engaging in asynchronous learning activities.

In addition to students worrying about being disconnected from their peers and instructors, they may also feel sad about missing out on that vibrant energy which sparks on a bustling university campus. These concerns, combined with uncertainty about technological resources, a strong internet connection, and the general logistics of an online course, only increase the level of anxiety or stress that being a university student already entails.

This year’s SITT participants examined these challenges through discussions, workshops, and even “Zoom waiting room water cooler talk.” Motivated by exploring ways to encourage student collaboration, foster connections, and cultivate a sense of community in this virtual learning space, UC Davis faculty and colleagues discussed the following strategic approaches. 

a. Google Docs and Sheets
Google Apps for Education is an accessible and user-friendly collection of tools well-suited for collaboration for many different types of projects. For example, Google Docs can be used effectively for collaborative writing exercises and peer review assignments, and the tool also easily integrates with Canvas.

Many collaborative discussions during SITT were carried out via Google Docs and Google Sheets, as presenters requested participants to notate discussion points in real time on a pre-made Google Sheet. For example, in talking about the online seminar on Student Strategies for Successful Remote Learning, Drs. Gentry, Bronner, and Chamberlain first asked breakout room participants to share ideas via their Google Sheet, SITT 2020 Student Success Seminar. This allowed participants to easily view the prompts, record ideas from their small group conversation, view contributions from other groups, and later discuss them as a larger group, all while having an accessible place to locate the information in the future. 

*Fun fact – The Google Docs and Sheets tools are free with a UC Davis email account and accessible via mobile devices.

b. Welcome videos
Using video to introduce yourself is a way to humanize the instructor role by allowing your students to see your face and hear your voice, as well as learn a bit about your hobbies and interests outside of the classroom. Note that videos on AggieVideo can be embedded in your Canvas course. Your short intro video might showcase you in your academic environment either at your desk or with a bookcase as the background; or you might also record your video while you are hiking on top of a mountain. Either way, making the video unique and personal to you will allow your students to get to know you more, and perhaps motivate them to reflect personality in their own assignments as well. If you are new to creating video, check out the resources on AggieVideo and connect with a team member who can support you.

*Bonus – Flipgrid is a (free for educators) app that allows the user to take short and personalized videos, and add stickers, sound, and more. Post your intro video via Flipgrid, ask students to reciprocate, and see what kind of creative responses you get.

c. Weekly surveys
Sending (anonymous) bi- or weekly surveys to check in on students regarding their understanding of the course content, as well as their general well being, is a thoughtful way to support students. For example, Dr. Korana Burke uses surveys as a way for her and her students to get to know each other better, and to see what challenges and strengths the students are experiencing with the class. In one of her large Spring 2020 classes, she sent out Friday surveys on topics such as class material and logistics, general strategies for self care, biggest obstacle in the week, and fun getting-to-know-me questions. Dr. Burke revealed positive outcomes from the surveys, specifically highlighting what she learned from her students, such as their care for the professor’s well being, their great ideas for the class, and the quality feedback they share with each other. 

In addition to her survey strategy, collaborating closely with her lead TA, Dr. Burke leveraged her Campuswire site (a platform similar to Piazza) to answer student questions. She noticed students were not only asking content-related questions, but also sharing useful resources with each other, school and non-school related. Witnessing this type of interaction and effort towards community building provided more evidence that the students care about each other and want each other to succeed. 

*Bonus – with students’ awareness and permission, reviewing the student submissions over the weekend and then revealing fun get-to-know me answers on Monday can be an entertaining way to encourage motivation and student engagement.

d. Groups and collaborations
Utilize the Groups feature in Canvas to generate student groups for participation in projects, small group work or daily assignments, reading reflections, quarter-long projects, or discussion threads. For an example on the effective use of the Canvas Groups feature (including collecting and reviewing student feedback), check out the recording of Dr. Mark Verbitsky’s workshop Getting Students to Think Together from Afar.

*Bonus – To learn more about pedagogical approaches and technology for supporting in- and out-of-class group activities, see the Encourage active learning online section of the online resource, Keep Teaching.

e. Water cooler chat in the Zoom room
While perhaps it might be a little awkward at first, opening up the Zoom room 20 or 30 minutes before or after your class can simulate a bit of that casual chat which organically happens when we are on campus. Offer it up to students, and for the first few sessions, bring a few low-stakes questions, topics, or fun activities to guide the conversation as it gets started.

You don’t have to spill all the beans, but “getting to know your class also involves sharing a little bit about yourself with students.” – Dr. Korana Burke

All of the above strategies discussed at SITT this year are actions UC Davis faculty and instructors can employ while building your online presence. For instructors, a strong online presence is an essential element in fostering community and connection in a remote learning environment. Developing an effective online presence involves establishing your presence at multiple points in your course and creating opportunities for students to get to know each other. For a more detailed resource, check out the expanded guide to building your online presence

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Communication is an essential element in forming communities and building relationships. Right now a large portion of our communication is mediated by technology. At our fingertips, and opposable thumbs, we have just the tools we need to connect with and include our students in all the relevant conversations which are fundamental to a true university experience, both academically and personally.

Communication occurs not just through speaking or writing, but also through gestures, gifs, emoji, faces we make, memes, music, video, and, most importantly, listening. Communication is happening all around us, transcending messages and meaning across many different modes and among many different people. We can leverage this meaning-making in a meaningful way to let our students know we are here for them and that we also rely on them to help keep us all united. How are you utilizing technology-mediated communication in your class to forge connections and build rapport?

In the comments below, we invite you to share your thoughts on building Community & Connection in the remote learning space. 

Stay tuned next week for Part 3 of this blog series, Video

Post Event Resources:

  1. Keep Teaching Student Resources
  2. Keep Teaching Faculty Webinars
  3. Center for Educational Effectiveness
  4. Email for consulting and advice on how to implement instructional technologies in your specific UC Davis course. 
  5. Find SITT snippets from Twitter by following @ucdaviswheel and @Lily_Jones20, using the hashtag #UCDavisSITT.

*Remember SITT is an annual event, so make sure you put it on your calendar for next year! Subscribe to The Wheel e-newsletter, or follow @ucdaviswheel to stay up to date on all Academic Technology Service happenings and more.


UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness, Molinario, M., Motika, M., Hodgens, T., & Son, Y.A.. Insights from Spring 2020 Remote Instruction: Results from surveys on remote learning and teaching. UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness. University of California, Davis.

Post Author: lcsaco

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