By Terry Novak, Johnson & Wales University
We began our Spring Term at Johnson & Wales University on March 9, 2020. Although we had been advised the week before to consider creating plans to deliver our courses remotely, in light of COVID-19 warnings, most did so half-heartedly, and there we were on campus on March 9, eager to greet our new students, most of whom had moved back into the residence halls after the term break. My class assignments for this term are two Communication Skills classes, each made up exclusively of first-year students. One class is scheduled for Monday/Wednesday meetings; the other is scheduled for Tuesday/Thursday meetings. I taught two M/W classes and one T/R class before the announcement came from administration late in the evening of Wednesday, March 11: all classes were moving to remote delivery until April 13. A few of us continued to work from our campus offices, maintaining proximity to the students still living in the dorms. The students were sent home the weekend of March 21-22, and faculty and non-essential staff were directed to work from home. Then came the announcement that on-ground classes would not resume for the duration of the term. There has been a steep learning curve for most students and faculty. The driving question for me has been simple and critical: How do we maintain community while working from our individual homes?
As I write this, we are in our fourth week of the 11-week term and our third week of teaching remotely. By now, initial kinks in online learning have been worked out by students and faculty, with the occasional need to still walk someone off the proverbial ledge. Building community with a remote class can be a daunting task, but the very fact of the remoteness and isolation has underscored the critical need for doing just that. We tend to think of our students as incredibly technologically savvy. Many of us are discovering that such is not always—nay, not even usually—the case. Likewise, while many faculty and staff members have made a concerted effort to keep up with technological advances, we too are discovering how much we have to learn. And there, very simply, is our first community builder. “We’re all in this together” has been a mantra across many groups during this global health crisis. This is true on many levels in the remote classroom. Experimenting with the online tools available on the university’s learning management system (LMS)—Blackboard for Johnson & Wales—and having the courage to share that experimentation openly with students in our now remote classes can be a great equalizer as well as a means of permission for the student to try these tools, even if the first attempts are a little messy. Community members who share failures as well as successes and who make the commitment to each other to keep trying new things bond at a distinctly unique level. You’re a student afraid that something will go wrong when you record a presentation from your home? Well, look—the professor just posted a video mini-lecture that was subverted by a complaining cat. Hmm. Unexpected things happen to all of us. We roll with it.
In my on-ground classes, I always form support teams. I did not want to give this up as we moved to remote delivery. As it turns out, Blackboard allows me to form teams, and it allows those teams to interact in a wide variety of ways. Peer support teams were created via Blackboard last week. Students are just beginning to interact with their team members—a little tentatively at the moment, but soon they will feel more comfortable, I’m sure. Beyond virtually meeting with one another to brainstorm speech topics and help gain feedback on public speaking concerns, each member of a given peer support team is tasked with formally responding to each team member’s posted speech. Now they will have their smaller community to lean on and to get to know more intimately. Being part of a class that involves posting presentations helps build this community. The students can actually see and hear each other, which avoids the anonymous aspects of some online community building efforts.
As we move through the term, I will use either Skype or Blackboard Collaborate to have students make presentations with classmates virtually—and visibly—present. Not only will this help meet the course objectives of gaining feedback from audience members, but it will also serve as deeper community building. This is your class, I want students to understand; these are your community members; let’s all strive to support them and appreciate the work they have put into their presentations.
Using Skype for Business, which is available to all students through their university Outlook account, and/or using Blackboard Collaborate for individual student meetings or small team meetings helps solidify the now-remote community. Allowing students to actually see the professor—and vice versa—is critical in maintaining the relationships that build community.
While I dearly miss seeing my students face-to-face on a regular basis, as I tell them often via Blackboard, I am learning that creating community amid this unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is not only possible but necessary. It takes more time and effort, without a doubt, but community is always worth the extra effort.
Terry Novak is Professor of English and longtime learning communities practitioner at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. She also serves as co-director of the Atlantic Center for Learning Communities.