This post was written as an assignment for my graduate program. Specifically my course on Critical Digital Pedagogy (INTE 5360). I am reposting it here.

When reflecting on positive experiences of community and belonging in academia, the following  are two examples that first come to mind.

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate degree, there were several chemistry courses I struggled through. What got me through those tough courses were the relationships I garnered through commiserating together over the workload. When I look back on these times, what I remember are the long nights crunching data, writing reports of our findings, and discussing the field and our futures. I do look fondly on these memories now – not because of the chemistry content but because my peers were so brilliant and helped push me further than I thought I could go. This group of peers was the closest thing I’ve had to an “Inklings” group (although our group wasn’t exclusively male). In courses where I also had a personal and scholarly connection with the instructors–be it faculty or teaching assistants–I always performed better. Not wanting to disappoint my instructors or companions, I was more willing to dig deep and find the strength and motivation to push myself towards success. In reflecting on this time and the pressures that manifested amongst this learning group, I pose the following question: During course design, what strategies and approaches can we employ to intentionally foster learning communities in online environments?

Fast forward about a decade to the first year of COVID; our office hired a handful of new instructional designers, and we were looking for ways to build community within our expanding team. Although we had Slack to communicate asynchronously and had one-on-one virtual coffees, another activity we pursued was a short-form, virtual, tabletop role playing game (TTRPG). This activity was purely for fun, taking the place of in-person events like “happy hours” that we used to have before quarantine. During gameplay, our heroes discovered that their town was facing an undead threat brought on as a byproduct of a necromancer attempting to resurrect a family member. Navigating the mysteries of this situation offered open-ended problem solving opportunities for coworkers to collaborate. A great bonus is that we made so many memories and spawned so many inside jokes from these sessions. Eventually, after the vaccine was available, we started to connect in person and build upon the relationships that started in these fantastical, virtual spaces. Since the start of the original TTRPG, our team expanded again when we hired our first fully remote course designer last year. We were again met with the challenge of integrating a coworker remotely. Wanting to offer opportunities for the team to connect with our new coworker, we hosted another virtual TTRPG experience in hopes of providing a space for individuals to lay the foundation of relationships, be silly, and accomplish tasks together. When considering this experience, I pose further questions: Do you feel there’s a connection between playfulness and belonging in a community? What can we learn from this in regards to strengthening relationships in online spaces, making individuals feel welcome, and creating more fulfilling learning environments?

In spite of the fact that these questions may feel straightforward, I grapple with the correct answers. I know for myself, connecting with people in exclusively online spaces has always been difficult, especially asynchronously. I struggle without the immediate feedback garnered through synchronous interactions. And I recognize my extrovert tendencies may predispose some of my thinking and feelings on the matter. That said, working in higher education, I am constantly reflecting on similar struggles that students may face in their online courses. In fact, I would argue that most educators see fostering a healthy classroom community as the responsibility of the instructor; however, this is especially difficult when instructors are, themselves, new to teaching online. This is where instructional designers and other support staff must assist new online teachers, as virtual spaces can’t fall back on community that (may) develop from sharing the same physical space with others.

As we bring these ideas under the lens of critical digital pedagogy, especially as it “centers its practice on community and collaboration,” there’s a model that overlaps significantly with this topic. The Community of Inquiry (CoI)—specifically the expanded version with four domains, which includes emotional presence—has been a great framework when considering online course design. This model blends the interdependent elements of social presence, teaching presence, cognitive presence, and emotional presence to form the educational environment. It also serves as a reminder to educators what to reconsider when designing courses. What are our priorities and where does empathy for our students intersect with our learning environments?

One final note – I present these examples of connection as a means to jumpstart a conversation. My individual experience is exactly that – individual – and is thus not universally applicable. But these ideas constitute the basis of what’s worked for me. I fully recognize connection and belonging is a complex and highly personal experience that differs based on background, preferences, environmental factors, and much, much more. Thank you for engaging with me as I take the podium!

Featured image photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

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