|Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash|
Developing social connections and a sense of community in education has never been more important as most of us head into yet another term of online teaching. I've written before about the importance of the spaces in between the lectures, workshops and discussions; the spaces for developing relationships and a sense of common purpose that is normally achieved in the corridors, cafes and parks of the physical campus. This can be done online but it requires effort and attention.
I was inspired this week by a blog post by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Self-affirming Icebreakers, where she examines the value of simple ice-breaking activities to help students connect with each other and build that community feeling. It is not enough just to ask students to introduce themselves with the usual CV details, we need to reveal something personal and meaningful. The teacher's role here is crucial and she recommends sharing something personal to create a sense of shared vulnerability and inviting students to do likewise. This could take the form of sharing a photo of an object that has meaning for you and explaining why. Or recording a short introduction video taken at a location that you love (favourite cafe/park/view). She views this as a kind of collective effervescence, where a common thought or emotion forms a common bond. But it is essential that the teacher takes the first step in this to show that revealing a certain degree of vulnerability is acceptable.
I see a correlation with collective effervescence and successful ice breakers in online courses. Designing an ice breaker that elicits shared vulnerability amongst a class is a powerful way to highlight the interconnectedness between all humans.
By sharing something personal we can begin to relate to each other as people rather than as students and teachers in an educational setting. This helps build a group solidarity that is essential for collaborative learning and shifts the focus towards helping each other to achieve the learning objectives rather than competing to get the best grades. But such ice-breaking activities are not only useful at the start of the course, they need to be a regular feature. to compensate for the isolation of lockdown learning we need to offer more opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to interact and build the community outside the confines of the curriculum.
Human connection is essential for community to develop – in a seated course or in an online course. But connection does not come through enabling a webcam, assigning a discussion, or rolling out a group project. Connection is established through relational trust and empathy. And when you take the first step to share and be vulnerable with your students, they are more likely to be willing to lean in and do the same. And, for the record, yes, community can be fostered asynchronously.