Creating a Sense of Belonging in Virtual Classrooms

Imagine a typical morning scene as students enter their school; students greeting their teachers, sharing high-fives and special handshakes with peers, discussing their favorite TV shows and movie stars in groups. Interaction and connectivity are integral part of student’s life and learning. Pandemic brought an abrupt end to this as transition took place from physical classrooms to online learning and, from the hustle and bustle of classrooms to prolonged isolation at home. Students had to cope with this new reality. Suddenly there was no social interaction, no activity, no events to look forward to. In such a scenario, meeting the social emotional needs of the students became more important than ever before. And sense of belonging is one of the most important social emotional support they need to remain engaged and motivated in class.

According to social scientist Brene Brown “…belonging is the irreducible need of all peopleIt is the degree to which students feel respected, accepted and supported by teachers and peers. Feeling of belonging at school is linked to higher levels of student emotional and physical well being and better academic performance and achievement. LevVygotsky,a Russian psychologist,in his theory on social development stated that social interaction is key to effective learning experiences.Allen and Bowles found a direct correlation between belonging and student motivation, emotional , mental , and physical health in the present and future. When that sense of belonging is not there, students feel alienated and marginalized. Attrition rate in the online courses is very high and research by Thomas, Herbert and Teras suggests that lack of “sense of belonging” is one of the key reasons for that.

Challenges in virtual world

Online learning certainly provides flexible learning opportunities but comes with many issues and challenges. It is difficult and awkward to have one to one conversation with students. Teachers may not be able to see everyone on screen at once, especially when sharing a screen or giving a lecture. Not to mention technological issues that they may encounter, whether that be a broken microphone or loss of video. A study by Cognizant and Microsoft on effectiveness of various modes of communication in building relationships with members was done on 10,799 respondents across 17 countries. It found that face to face communication had the highest rating of 93% whereas online communication was rated much lower as shown in the figure below.However,65% of the respondents felt that technology can help facilitate a feeling of connection with other members by creating more points of contact between them.

Source :Cognizant&Microsoft

Promoting a Sense of Belonging

I talked to 18 students studying in government schools in Delhi who shared their experience of belonging in online classes. 100 % of them preferred physical classes to the online class .One of the common reason mentioned was the ease of interaction with teachers and peers in physical classrooms. Also they missed the daily routine of the school.

 Create opportunities for Interaction with teachers

A student of class10 Divya mentioned “in physical class we can ask any question to the teacher repeatedly and understand the answer clearly”

According to Shubham,a student of class 6 “in physical class it is easier to understand the concepts.” Further he missed, “Not able to see teacher when she is sharing the screen”

Gurneet class 9 student mentioned that “I miss the face to face interaction with the teacher”

In physical classrooms students are used to seeing and talking to their teachers daily. In a virtual setting,teachers can no longer physically stand outside the door and greet their students or immediately respond to a student who is not able to understand a concept. Therefore, to foster a sense of belonging in their course teachers need to communicate frequently with students through various modes like emails, messaging apps, phone ,text ,videos etc. Making contact before the class begins, through personal video message or introductory tasks, creates the feeling among students that the teacher is “there” for them. Sending regular updates,birthday shootouts,resource information or school news via email or text facilitates in maintaining contact with the students. Personalized attention by the teacher helps. As  Nandini (class 9) mentioned that “the best online class I like is the English class because I can contact the teacher personally through whatsapp whenever I did not understand any concept and needed help .She listens to me and helps me.” Such personal communication makes student feel welcome and “heard”.

Interaction with peers

Peers are important for the social emotional development of students of all age groups. As educators one needs to create conditions for interaction among peers in virtual class also. It could be in the form of virtual discussion rooms where students interact on academic learning. Or setting up breakout time where students can interact apart from academics. This would lead to feeling of support and trust they feel in physical school,as mentioned by pooja (class 11) “We had a group chat room where we talked apart from academics. It was really nice, we all bonded together.”

According to Dheeraj (class 8) “I miss the activities like art,music,competitions in online class which happened in school.It is only study in online class”It is important that teachers create opportunities for socialization by hosting fun activities and competitions with peers online. As educators we need to be as innovative as possible. A teacher can ask students to find something in their home which they can share and tell about to others in class. Could be pet, favourite book, toy etc. This gave students chance to share their home and socialize with each other.   One could take students on virtual field trips to museums, zoo, parks followed by discussion where students come together and share findings in the chat room. Shubham(class 6) likes Sanskrit class best because” the teacher gives  virtual tour of the school.”

Teachers can design collaborative learning activities using platforms and tools like zoom,google hangouts, google docs, or canvas . Assignments could be designed to encourage discussion and “positive interdependence” where each group members contribution is unique.

Build Routines

“I miss the routine of wearing a dress, going to school in the morning and meeting friends”(Anu,class 7).

One way to create sense of  belonging and continuity is by transferring the familiar routines and relations of the physical class to the virtual classroom. Educators should try and create common routines .For example.g.they can use first 10 minutes of the online class on chat box where students can share their feelings, ask questions and have answers. As educators one needs to be a facilitator to help students talk to students.”My teacher allows us to come out of mute and say hello to each other.” (Shivam,class 9).Teachers can host virtual morning or afternoon meetings to give a sense of continuity of the physical world.Taking regular student feedback provides a sense of belonging as students feel they have a say in their learning experiences. Apart from communicating to the students that their input is valued ,it also helps one to ‘adjust’classes.

To conclude,Belonging matters. Educators role becomes extremely important in creating the culture of belonging in online classes. They can foster belonging in the virtual class by creating opportunities for teachers and students to interact,by supporting students and by creating rotined of physical classes.These simple steps will encourage students to come into an online learning environment where they are heard and valued and will also enhance their learning experience.

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