Creating Community During Remote Learning

Creating Community During Remote Learning

9 “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10).

No one was fully prepared for the switch to remote teaching for all courses in the middle of March last spring semester. And, though we had more time to prepare, this fall still feels a little breathless. Learning remotely, through Zoom and Moodle, VidGrid and YouTube, as well as many other resources, takes much more time for both professors and students, and if we are to be a truly prophetic community of learners, we need to find out how best to function in our new reality. Sharing approaches and innovation from the larger academic community, such as Facebook groups like Pandemic Pedagogy, has been useful, and perhaps even more so are connections within our local community, such as the weekly online newsletter that Greg Camp, Ph.D., and Kelly LaSalle put out, with the help of great ideas from many, especially our colleague Melly Howard, Ph.D.

Because we professors tend to be honest to a fault (and as we write this we have just learned that we will continue remote through the spring), we will say that the reality of remote education is that it cannot compare to the classroom education to which many of us were used. As one colleague has said, it is largely a continuum of one-on-one encounters. The social fabric of students supporting each other, reminding each other and joking with each other (not to mention a group of students dropping by a prof’s office) is much harder to replicate. Indeed, one student told us it is surprisingly important for professors to allow private messaging within the Zoom classroom context – he said that such options had created connections and gatherings that might not have happened otherwise.

We have found that there are ways of bringing into being some of the informality of the interactions that so often characterized our school before the COVID changes. One is the simple step of trying to be present with the students a few minutes before and after class on Zoom. Finding out how we are all doing and what’s on our minds can be a real creator of community. Students seem to have frequently developed Zoom study groups that have a fairly common pattern of getting together in a Zoom room for a few hours, studying for 25 minutes or so, and then chatting for five or 10. Professors are no different: when we have drop-ins for various groups, they tend to be well attended, and meetings of everything from the Faculty Senate to committee sessions extend often as long as participants are able to stay.

We are meant to live in community, and FPU’s community is special! Several of us formed a panel to talk to some of our most promising students about grad school options; almost everyone came early, and the informal chats afterward extended over a half hour. Many subsequently asked for the recording, an option that was not as readily available before COVID moved us all to Zoom. These kinds of experiences seem common, as does the desire to walk a fine line between too much processing of the moment in which we find ourselves, while making space for icebreakers and the release of anxiety.

Students have talked about how much they appreciate flipping the classroom to do more active inquiry and less information transmittal in the remote gatherings. They have said they are grateful for using the synchronous sessions to clarify matters for the class…and the need to have many materials and links available through Moodle has never been greater. Not everyone is able to have good internet connections, and the chat function has become a key aspect of most classes for making sure everyone is included.

We have learned that, in these new remote gatherings, being very deliberate and intentional about our shared work has become more important. It has increased the seriousness of students in many cases to be well prepared for a Zoom meeting with a professor, while face-to-face office visits more often seemed like drop-in sessions. Students have said, and there is good evidence for this trend, that they really appreciate outside opportunities related to the class, or events in the larger university, or even virtual conferences sponsored by other organizations in the academy. We will all be changed by this time, and we hope that we have learned to be better mentors, advisors and professors, and that we will be able to look back on our COVID semesters without too much pain.

In the words of the Roman poet Vergil, “Perhaps someday it will help to remember these things.”


Pamela D. Johnston, Ph.D. & W. Marshall Johnston, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of History; Associate Professor and Director of the History Program