Robust Communities for Online Schools
Could online connection be better than in-person?
Most educators are thinking about online communities the wrong way.
They base their evaluation on the pandemic’s rushed and traumatic launch into online learning. Teachers are stuck trying to recreate in-person intimacy on 16-inch-screens. But the internet enables us to make communities that are different and better.
Educators need to shift their thinking on online student communities.
Below are three shifts that can unlock the potential in your classroom:
1. In Person Events → Online Social Snacking
What do you do when the cornerstones of student community — dorm gatherings, club meetings, school dances, etc — are obliterated due to COVID? When COVID hit, my college tried to recreate these moments over Zoom. It didn’t work. Few students showed up. Everyone was exhausted and “zoomed out” after 5 hours of video calls. We learned a lesson:
Additional online community programming doesn’t work. Instead, you need to embed connection into existing meetings.
We weaved social interaction throughout the day. Our faculty decided to begin each class with a 5–10 minute activity focused on social connection. These activities ranged from a show and tell of something meaningful in your house, to people sharing a photo of a favorite childhood memory, to students writing what gave them a sense of purpose. Students were satisfied by this constant social snacking throughout the day.
2. Physical Built Environment → Digital Built Environment
The physical layouts of rooms have a tremendous influence on our social interactions. For instance, a week ago I walked into the beautiful Cafe de Luz in Austin, Texas. The restaurant’s dim lighting, earthy coloring, and smooth jazz music instantly made me calm. I walked over to an abnormally large circular table with 8 chairs — an odd layout for a restaurant — where I saw a sign that read “feel free to meet people.” I sat and instantly sparked up a conversation with an older couple across the table. They were very receptive.
Over centuries, people have harnessed the Physical Built Environment to influence peoples’ feelings and interactions. There are “friendly benches” in the UK where the norm is to chit chat with whomever is next to you. Conflict resolution facilitators place people in a circle to ignite a tone of collaboration. The concept of a library provides the social norm and safe assumption of quietness.
College architects, instructors, and students have the power to shape hundreds of spaces on a college campus. They can affect the mood, social norms, and create serendipity between students.
So, what do we do when everything is on a computer?
Some of these dynamics above can be recreated online. Gather.town creates online spaces with different moods where avatars can roam around and have serendipitous interactions. Facebook’s Metaverse concept holds similar promises.
But we shouldn’t get stuck on what we are missing.
The Digital Built Environment unlocks new ways of interacting.
While physical building layouts create mood, social norms, and serendipity, the Digital Built Environment creates creative expression, transparency, and targeted connections.
While in-person interactions are limited to verbal communication and body language, the Digital Built Environment extends to new mediums: text, images, drawing and an infinite number of games and online portals. These mediums can be harnessed to create rich interactions. We can express ourselves more creatively, understand each other more fully:
The more we socialize on our computers, the more common it will become for people to create creative digital ways to connect, such as finding an image on Facebook as they talk about their fun weekend, or transporting their listener into their vacation by showing a family video. We crave this intimacy. And these videos and stories create a different kind of closeness between students. We can become raw, showing the depths of who we are instead of simply telling.
The Digital Built Environment has another advantage so big it deserves its own section.
3. Serendipity in Buildings → Data-Informed Matching
In an online world, we miss the grand serendipity that is part of in-person college. Many of the best connections from my days at school were chit chatting with people between classes, randomly meeting a friend’s friend at the library, or the serendipitous long late night conversations in the dorm after going to a party and picking up some pizza. These kinds of memories define great college experiences.
That serendipity is impossible online, even with tools like Polly, Gather.town and randomized breakout rooms. Nothing can recreate the magic perfectly.
But the internet enables a different and often stronger form of connection than serendipity: data-informed matching. We can more easily find the people who best match our interests for social connection.
Serendipity champions the magic of chance, while data-informed matching values likelihood to have a meaningful connection.
How? We have better data. The online classroom culture makes filling out quick surveys the seamless norm, especially with Zoom’s great user experience of polls. This norm allows us to easily collect vast amounts of data on students relevant to their community desires:
We can use this data to broker perfect fits between people of the same interests and passions. Sure, people have always gravitated towards like minded peers through club fairs and other signals of shared interest. But the internet makes this matching more rapid, frequent, and effective. Student matching will become more sophisticated as administrators apply research-backed principles of strong relationships and fine tuning their matching algorithm.
These three shifts in thinking can unlock new and better forms of student community.