Coming Together When Learning at a Distance

Following a lineage of scholarship often traced back to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory, educational researchers and practitioners have long emphasized the importance of “belonging” to the student learning experience. An increased feeling of “belonging” and “community” have been demonstrated to improve student satisfaction, motivation, and achievement (cf Pilcher, 2016). Especially as learning has increasingly (and abruptly) migrated to online and distance learning contexts, a learning environment designed with accessibility, inclusivity, and community in mind can help students of diverse backgrounds feel a sense of belonging.   

So what kinds of course design strategies and tools can instructors use to generate a sense of belonging and foster inclusion in remote learning environments? 

We’re sharing insights from instructors and course designers around the world about techniques, tools, and tips they’ve used to foster a sense of belonging and community in their courses. I wanted to share an inclusive learning strategy I employed in the design of an undergraduate online education course I taught at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Making Relevant Connections 

In her seminal work on “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” Gloria Ladson-Billings observes “Culturally relevant teachers utilize students’ culture as a vehicle for learning” (p 161). Whether through their interests, cultural backgrounds, or lived experiences, providing opportunities for students to make meaningful connections between their life and your course content can positively impact several aspects of a student’s learning experience. Relevant connections can help you develop a rapport with your students, facilitate peer-to-peer dialogue, motivate engagement, and even strengthen students’ understanding of the material.   

Making relevant connections to course content helps students feel that their voice, perspective, and experience are an acknowledged and important part of their learning, helping foster a sense of belonging and inclusion.  

To help students make relevant connections, I introduced “Inspire” activities into my weekly modules. At the start of each week, before diving into the instructional content, students were prompted to share a digital artifact or an experience with the class that represented or connected to the key theme or topic for the week. As an example, for a module that focused on “literacy tools,” students were first asked to share an image or video from the web of an impactful literacy tool from their childhood. After adding the artifact to a class discussion thread and explaining why they chose that particular artifact, they were also prompted to comment on one similar and one different artifact shared by their peers. Later in the weekly module, after they engaged course readings and videos about different literacy tools and definitions of literacy, students were prompted to revisit their “Inspire” activity post. Based on new understandings gleaned from the instructional materials, students expanded on their initial post to include direct references to the readings and videos to demonstrate that they grasped the content.   

As an instructor in an online course, “Inspire” activities allow me to learn about my students through the prior-knowledge and perspectives they bring with them into my course, as well as help students engage and learn from each other when viewing their peers’ posts. From a cognitive perspective, the connections students made between their concrete experiences and the abstract concepts engaged in the course readings helped reinforce learning by establishing stronger associations in the brain. 

I’ve also used Inspire activities to help students develop a higher-order understanding of concepts by asking them to make a personal connection to a topic or terminology they encountered in a previous module. By applying what they’ve learned to real-world experiences in their life or community, students begin to demonstrate mastery of that particular topic. This is especially useful when concepts across course modules build on each other, as I can use their Inspire artifacts as a mode of formative assessment, and address areas of confusion or uncertainty as I introduce them to a new, more complex topic. 

Inspire activities or other kinds of “micro-assignments” don’t need to be overly complex or time-consuming to be impactful. More importantly, when designing these kinds of activities, instructors should be specific in asking students to explain the meaning of the artifacts or experiences they share. Avoid just the general “explain why you chose that image” prompt and instead be pointed in the kinds of explanations or connections you ask students to make. When done effectively, Inspire activities offer a lightweight and creative way to introduce students to new concepts, reinforce understandings about previous concepts, and provide ongoing feedback to instructors while also fostering a sense of belonging and community. 

Over time, the artifacts and reflections created by students during the weekly Inspire activities form a tapestry that weaves together their personal identities and the course content. Collectively, the shared artifacts of the class become the digital embodiment of the cultural worlds and dialogue of the learning community. 

Regardless of the subject area that you teach, designing activities that prompt students to make relevant connections between their lives and course concepts can have both socio-emotional and cognitive benefits on the learning experience. As you begin to integrate such activities into your course, keep in mind that effective design is an iterative process, and you will want to continue to modify and refine your activities over time based on student work and feedback. Most importantly, empower your students to take ownership of the assignments and expand on them in ways that fit their own needs and interests so that they can also contribute to one another’s sense of belonging. 

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