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Career Advice

Building an effective classroom community online

Early career instructors should feel encouraged to extend and innovate in the virtual classroom.

BY ARLINDA RUCO & EMMANUELLE ARPIN | AUG 27 2021

Many doctoral students interested in academia pursue various teaching assignments during their degree: from teaching assistantships to lecturer and course instructor postings. While many prepare for their first teaching assignment by leveraging professional development opportunities, few of these trainings focused on virtual-only environments before the pandemic. Developing and designing your first course from scratch can be stressful under regular circumstances, but doing so in the middle of a global pandemic where you do not have the opportunity to meet your colleagues and students in person can be extremely challenging.

Building a class community in a virtual setting represents a significant feat. How can we develop an engaging and safe learning environment online? Even more challenging, how can we sustain it over the course of a semester? Teaching both undergraduate and graduate level courses in health sciences, public health and health services research during the pandemic has allowed us to reflect on our experiences in building a class community online. In our view, these reflections are also illustrative of newfound teaching skills in the virtual-only space.

Bridging the professional/personal gap

Teaching from home means that students have an opportunity to watch you in your environment and you have an opportunity to observe students in theirs. Bridging this gap between our professional and personal lives can be extremely powerful in building community. Learners observe that their instructors are human too, and their kids and pets can be just as cute (or disruptive) as their own. In our experience, this bridge between the professional/personal also makes instructors and students more empathetic towards one another and allows for the opportunity to engage in small talk about the plants or painting in the background, mimicking the interactions that may occur in the classroom before or after a lecture.

Checking in

Checking in with students in the virtual-only space is critical, especially during a global pandemic, and is something that instructors should continue to focus on and foster even in the return to in-class instruction. This is especially important for students who may have their cameras off during lectures, which may be an indication of how they are coping or that the class material may be a sensitive or delicate topic. Checking in personally with students to see how they are doing, offering an ear to listen and starting the class with a checking-in activity can be powerful. For example, asking students to post an emoji that describes how they are currently feeling can be a very telling exercise and allow you to identify students who you may want to reach out to afterwards. Other strategies include indirect check ins by starting each class session with small breakout groups for informal discussion among students. To do this, randomly place three or four students break out groups for five minutes and encourage them to chat and check in with each other about academic and non-academic work. We found that this was a great way to mimic informal class chatter!

Inviting guest lecturers

Guest lecturers can make a class environment exciting with the presence of a field expert, and can also make the class environment more dynamic by shifting students’ attention to a new instructor. Teaching online significantly lengthens the list of possible guest speakers. Using technology, it is possible to have a speaker based in Vancouver, B.C., leading a seminar in London, Ont. Not only does this contribute to building a dynamic class community but also allows students to broaden their professional networks by connecting with experts from other institutions. The accessibility that has been afforded by virtual learning for guest lectures is something that should be maintained even after the return to on-campus classes.

While many training workshops quickly pivoted to incorporate online teaching into their offerings, these are likely to be continued even after the pandemic. Early career instructors should continue to seek out these opportunities for professional development and should feel encouraged to extend and innovate in the virtual classroom.

Arlinda Ruco is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto and the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto. She is also a course instructor for the department of health and society at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Emmanuelle Arpin is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto. She is also a sessional lecturer in the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational Health (EBOH) at McGill University.

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