Belonging in a Remote World

(Lee Dieck) April 2020

This past Friday night, my son asked his girlfriend to marry him; this was an incredibly joyful moment for everyone in our family. In normal times, the eight of us who are now part of this family (we have three children who each have a life partner) would have made a plan to all be together within the next few days so we could share that happiness with hugs. But these are not normal times. Each of us is in self-isolation because of various potential exposures to the corona virus. Still, we were able to share the moment all together via Facetime. While this was not the same as being together in the same room, it was real, we laughed and screamed, and there was no doubt that we were together, that we “belonged” to this group and were sharing the moment.

Two weeks ago, I began the process of engaging my leadership students in remote learning as did my colleagues in other disciplines. I am a firm believer in the importance of creating a sense of belonging in the classroom; establishing such a climate opens the doors to engagement and achievement. This is a natural process for me when I’m teaching in my classroom. In this new environment we find ourselves in, is it possible to create and perpetuate a sense of a classroom community through digital media, and does it matter?

A small study published in 2014 encourages us to try. Researchers in Australia were studying the rates at which university students dropped on-line courses. Among other findings, they determined that classroom culture mattered:

“Where teachers were able to foster a sense of belonging in their course, students reported greater enjoyment, reduced anxiety and were less inclined to withdraw from the course.” (​The Conversation, August 25, 2014)

The same article includes specific recommendations for teachers to “balance learning and socialization” in an on-line course environment which has both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. The following includes some of their recommendations, and some of my own:

  • Create electronic office hours to enable one-on-one time with student
  • Do on-line icebreakers.
  • Develop a means for checking in with each student to see how they are doing (this can be done in one-on-one meetings or through a short survey): Do they have access to adequate technology? Are they and their family healthy? How are they dealing with the sense of isolation?
  • Create a set of guidelines for all to follow when engaged in a virtual meeting space.
  • Include collaborative projects and assignments as part of the assessment process.
  • Introduce yourself (and perhaps have students do the same) with a short video.
  • Communicate regularly and set up discussion forums in which both teacher and students participate.

Two weeks into this strange new world, I acknowledge that it is not the same “seeing” my students digitally, but I also know that we are grateful to be in the same virtual space. We are checking in on each other—hearing each others’ stories. We are learning how this crisis has impacted each of us, and I know that this must come first-even as we start to dig into our leadership discussions. In order to learn together, we must first BE together. My family experiences have taught me that you can be together even when you are apart.

Categories: self-determination