Make online spaces safe for students

THE educator plays the role of a “community builder” within a classroom, especially in virtual space.

In a virtual classroom, students have limited opportunities to socialise freely with their peers and educator. Hence, the educator should make deliberate efforts in “building” the learning community.

Under the current circumstances brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, where students have no choice but to study virtually, an online learning community should be a haven for them.

The community should feel safe when asking questions and voicing personal opinions, instead of feeling uncomfortable when mistakes happen.

They should feel supported instead of lonely, be sensitive to peers’ needs, and offer help to those who need it.

Strategies are necessary for facilitating a virtual learning community where students undertake a module together in the higher education context over a semester (12 to 14 weeks). The first strategy would be to foster a sense of community within the class.

The transition from physical classes to online teaching and learning has been an abrupt process. It is more important now than ever to promote a sense of community within classes.

For example, a simple ice-breaking activity that allows teachers and students to learn each other’s names is of inestimable importance in cultivating a mutually supportive class environment.

More importantly, the educator should set the tone right and clear in the first session, where empathy, respect and security are the top qualities valued in the community.

In addition, students should be encouraged to embrace individual differences while working towards achieving common learning goals.

The second strategy would be to facilitate virtual team learning through a “social contract” that ensures students’ well-being and mental health is the top priority.

Small virtual groups that enable learning while socialising are becoming highly valuable.

To have fruitful peer learning experiences, a social contract activity can be of inestimable value for students in enhancing a sense of responsibility for their learning.

It is also important to set the expectation right among team members from the beginning through the social contract.

Hence, educators should actively facilitate social contract drafting among team members, whether it is an informal peer support group or a formal team for assessment purposes.

The probing questions in drafting a realistic and meaningful social contract include:

> What can I offer the team?

> What do I need from the team?

> What are our team’s objectives?

> How should we deal with difficulties?

> What helps us to flourish?

> What kind of team atmosphere are you expecting?

The third strategy is to close the virtual learning loop with positivity.

Towards the end of the module, it is essential to reiterate positive emotions and experiences to strengthen the community further.

To facilitate continual peer support even after completing the module, the educator should encourage students to stay in touch and support each other.

For example, a little appreciation session could be arranged, where students are encouraged to convey their gratitude for each other with statements such as “I would like to thank you because…” and “I think you will do well in what you are doing because…”.

This activity is helpful to remind students of the positive experiences they have had as a community, and allow them to reflect on and laugh off any challenging and tense moments experienced. It is beneficial to boost the positive emotions and energy of the students while exiting the module formally.

Dr Au Wee Chan is a senior lecturer at the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia. Besides teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the university, Au is actively engaged in training and learning activities that support community leaders, changemakers, as well as educators who would like to incorporate social innovation in their courses. She is a certified trainer of Active Citizens Social Enterprise by the British Council and an active member of the East Asia region’s Facilitators Network.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own.