Sustaining Community

In many courses, in-person class time provides students and instructors with a "home base." While Canvas sites are, in many cases, beginning to fulfill this role, for many courses—particularly those which are smaller—class times are where students get their "map" of the term: what has happened, what will happen, what they have to do. It's also where they get a sense of belonging, a sense that the class is a community of which they are a welcome part. As we note on our page about assignments, in-person course meetings are filled with dozens of small conversations and micro-interactions that give students this "map" and this sense of belonging, many (most?) of which don’t even involve the instructor: a student might quickly look over a peer's shoulder to see which PDF he or she has open, ask a student sitting nearby to confirm the deadline for a paper assignment, or venture a guess to their neighbor before daring to answer an instructor's question in front of the whole class.

In-person meetings also provide instructors and students the opportunity to give and receive immediate feedback, whether through a quizzical look, a sea of raised hands, or staying a few minutes after class to ask a question. This type of feedback is much more difficult to capture online, so providing additional time for questions within an online lecture or discussion boards on Canvas will help everyone stay connected and on the same page.

Instructors looking to recreate these aspects of face-to-face course meetings online might try some of the following:

  1. Create a document that serves as a "one-stop-shop" for students in need of orientation. In an ideal, perfectly planned world, perhaps the syllabus could provide this, but if you are like most of us, your syllabus evolves over time, and whats needed is a living document that continues to represent a "map" of the course for your students. For some, Canvas may be the most natural tool, but others might find a simple Google Doc can serve this purpose.
  2. If the everyday interactions that ground students are no longer going to happen as a matter of course, think about scheduling them intentionally. If there are three key things students need to know to orient themselves in your class, help them out by putting them into pairs or small groups in Zoom to ask the simple questions that will get them talking about these key orienting points ("what’s the reading for next week?" or "what are you going to write your midterm paper on and are we clear on when it's due?"). You could build this time into the beginning of each online session.
  3. While we typically focus first on making sure the students can see and hear the instructor, it's equally crucial that students are seen and heard (and that they feel they are seen and heard). This, too, takes additional structure and intentionality online. Even if you are reluctant to structure student contributions in a traditional classroom (i.e. by going around the room and asking each student to make a comment, or by having structured student presentations), you might think of doing so in the online environment to help ensure that each student feels connected with the course.
  4. In the spirit of maintaining this connection, consider scheduling more individual check-ins with your students, as possible. Depending on the size of your class and your teaching team, you could offer mandatory online office hours for individuals, pairs, or small groups, to make sure students stay connected with each other and with the TFs/other members of the teaching team. These could be structured around upcoming assignments, outstanding student questions, or focused on peer review or other ways to make sure students are connecting with each other and the teaching staff about the course materials.

Academic Technology for the FAS / HUIT

Your starting place for learning about and accessing many of the technological tools you may need, such as Zoom, Canvas, and related plug-ins.

The Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL)

VPAL convenes university-wide conversations about teaching and pedagogical research, particularly in the online space.

The Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE)

OUE oversees, and stewards resources devoted to, the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard College..

The Division of Continuing Education (DCE)

DCE offers a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online courses, and their staff are experienced in thinking about multiple ways to achieve your goals through different mediums.

SEAS and the Division of Science

Advice on teaching in the sciences.

The Harvard Libraries

Request help modifying/troubleshooting your research-based assignments.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Schedule a consultation with the Bok Center's Senior Staff. (Please note that consultations are available only for Faculty and Teaching Fellows in the FAS.)

Faculty can attend our online faculty meet-ups, register for ride-along Zoom help, and share your feedback on remote teaching.

View the schedule and register  |  Request a ride along  |  Share feedback

Teaching Fellows can attend a Zoom workshop designed to help you explore and become more comfortable using Zoom and other remote teaching resources, and request that a Pedagogy Fellow or other teaching consultant attend their section and debrief afterwards.

View the schedule and register  |  Request an observation

The media production staff of the Bok Center's Learning Lab can provide consultations for faculty teaching Harvard College courses using Zoom and other modes of media capture. We can provide suggestions for setting up remote video capture environments in your home or office, and on ways to integrate media into your courses.  Please contact us if you would like to discuss your needs with our staff.

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