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Building Community in the Online Classroom During Covid

masters of leadership

Reflections From Sandra Paetkau, Program Coordinator for Prairie’s New Masters Degree

We all have a story of the havoc Covid-19 has wreaked in our lives these past six months. We have all been impacted grossly in some way from this global pandemic: shut up in our homes, job losses, working remotely, learning remotely, vacations cancelled, border closures, friends and family gatherings prohibited, sporting events and clubs cancelled, fine arts events and clubs cancelled, curbside shopping, church online, mandatory quarantines, mandatory masks, and, for some, the loss of a loved one. 

For myself, the border closure between Canada and the United States has meant being separated from my aging and fragile father and from my husband, who has spent the last six months in Canada looking after my dad and his wife, while I have remained, for the most part, in the United States studying, working, and taking care of our home. And I know we have been fortunate compared to many. Still. The separation has been tough. 

Over the past six months, and for who knows how many months to come, we have entered into a society seemingly void of community-building systems and events. The “powers that be” have even coined a term we utter involuntarily: Social Distance. The very designation Social Distance denotes the acceptable action is to remain apart. Socially apart. As a society, we are expected to enter into a social contract where we agree and promise to not come within six feet of someone outside our ‘bubble.’ Not exactly the conditions needed to build, nurture, and sustain a community. 

Now, I am not against the measures put in place to keep us safe. Far from it. I wear the mask, I avoid crowded spaces, I sanitize and wash hands multiple times when going out. I am part of the population who has entered into the contract to be vigilant in maintaining distance. But I also am acutely aware of how much I long for community and grieve the loss of my social circle and Social Closeness

And then, of course, my thoughts wander to the realm of education through all of this. How has and how will social distancing affect community within school, among students, among faculty? Greatly, I predict.

Liv NcNeil, a 15 year-old student created a moving film entitled, Numb: A Short Film, to show the sobering effects of social distancing and virtual learning. In an interview, McNeil identified the significant role in-person learning has on students and the toll remote learning and isolation plays in students’ mental health (Endlich Heffernan, 2020).

God, From the Beginning, Intended us to be in Community.

In Genesis 2:18 He said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (New King James Version).

As the coordinator for the online Master of Leadership in Global Christian Education, I have always valued the need for building a robust online community for students to feel valued, respected, and part of something greater than themselves. 

In an online classroom, students need to know they are not alone and that someone else is experiencing the same frustrations or victories in the course or in life.

Education is a personal experience and for an online student, their at home support group, no matter how well intentioned, may not completely understand the stresses or demands. When students are in school, where do they form their connections? The library, the cafeteria, walking between classes, or the seats next to them. The online classroom, obviously, doesn’t have those informal learning spaces. So how do we as educators create opportunities to build a community? 

And since Covid-19, I have leaned even further into investigating not just opportunities to build community but the role community plays in the learner’s experience and success. 

I have been looking to answer the questions:

  • What value does each learner’s voice bring to the community and students’ learning? 
  • What responsibilities do learners have to strengthen their community? 
  • How does a collective mindset of collaboration work to strengthen the community? 
  • What role does community play in a learner’s success? 

 

Upon reflection of my life and the community I’ve built, the past six months and the community now on hold, reading stories of people’s struggles and deep desires for community, much research, and scripture regarding God’s purposes for community, I found four emerging themes of the roles of community: Encouragement, Collaboration, Correction, and Support (Resource Sharing).

I’m sure there are other varying roles, but these common themes and observations lead me to support these roles in the community and, in particular, the online educational community.  

Encouragement

One role community plays in the lives of its members is encouragement. In Hebrews 10:19-25, the author encouraged believers to be steadfast in their resolve and commitment to Christ. One of the suggestions offered is found in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day approaching,” (New King James Version). The role of believers is to seek out community, be involved, and look to encourage each other. 

Collaboration

The role of the educational community is also to foster collaboration. One of the benefits of being a member of a community and investing in others, is being able to work together, draw on others’ strengths, and accomplish great tasks. In Ecclesiastes 4:8-10, Solomon provided a comparison between the individual who works alone and those who work collaboratively. Solomon’s contention is the individual who works in isolation never ceases in toil and is never satisfied with riches. Conversely, Solomon recognized when two work together, they will build each other up and there is reward for their labor. Instructors, then, need to provide opportunities for their student community to build their collaborative skills.  

Challenge

Another role for the community to fulfil is to provide a safe space for correction and challenge. In I Thessalonians, Paul is writing to the new church in Thessalonica to provide encouragement and direction for these new converts. In a series of various exhortations, he challenges them to embrace and support those placed in church leadership. Paul then goes on to say, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all,” (New King James Version). Only by providing opportunities for community building will students be able to develop a sense of togetherness where suggestions and corrections can be made.  

Support (Resource Sharing)

One final aspect of community is the community members’ role in providing support and resources for others. In I Corinthians 14:26-40, Paul described how church meetings should be conducted. Verse 26, “Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification,” (New King James Version). Here, Paul recognized all members of a community have something of value to offer. One caveat Paul provided, though, was that all resources need to work to the edification of the church and the church body. In an educational setting, students have an opportunity to provide resources or instruction for others as they look to build up their classmates or course.  

So what might Encouragement, Collaboration, Challenge, and Support look like in the online classroom?

Well, I’m thrilled with the advances in digital technology and technology educational platforms to provide the spaces for informal gathering and relationship building. I am reliant on the online collaboration platforms which allow minds to gather, share, ideate, create, and publish original works. I am challenged to create and relieved to find frameworks on which to build authentic discussions, design meaningful collaborative opportunities, and build a structure to foster encouragement, collaboration, challenge, and support within the classroom. And I am committed to fostering these four pillars of online community engagement and responsibility throughout the Master of Leadership in Global Christian Education program to provide a rich experience for our instructors and students. 

And if we’re successful in building the type of community I know is possible, what will that mean for our students? My hope and prayer is that we will build a community where everyone feels included and encouraged. A community where all students feel comfortable sharing ideas and being heard. A community where we can come alongside each other to create meaningful products for global consideration. A community to recognize each others’ strengths and call upon those strengths to contribute to the group’s success. A community that comes together to further God’s Kingdom in students’ immediate context and in the global realm. My hope and prayer is that this online community will work to build community during a time when community may have been lost or put on hold.

I’m looking forward to being a part of such a community. I hope to see you there. 

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