Building virtual community in a foundational class

September 7, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Tamara KaplanMuch like all our faculty across the University, Dr. Tamara Kaplan, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, shifted the pre-clinical neuroscience course, Mind, Brain, and Behavior, to a remote learning space this past year. In addition to considering curricular materials, Dr. Kaplan and her team agreed that it was especially important to think about the learning environment and students’ social connection with the material, the teaching faculty, and other students. As a result, they developed several systems to foster this social sense of community and “combat the sense of isolation and disconnectedness that can result from online learning” in her class. All course instructors recorded three-minute introductory videos about both their career/research and personal interests. Dr. Kaplan used Canvas to send students daily announcements with learning objectives, key points that came up that day in class, and friendly support. A balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication was used to minimize student burnout and make sure students stayed engaged. Finally, the team built in time for genuine connection with daily half-hour breaks between classes for students to get to know faculty and ask questions. Dr. Kaplan notes, “we realized that creating relationships with faculty is a huge driver of a positive learning environment.”

The benefits: High levels of faculty engagement, Dr. Kaplan reports, had a “big influence on students’ interests in the course and potentially their retention.” Students expressed gratitude for the range of ways to participate and be heard in class and connect with others. Simply allowing students to stay on after class to continue conversation was particularly helpful to facilitate connection. “It was more of an informal chat with students which seemed a lot easier than going to dedicated office hours,” Dr. Kaplan reflects.

“Before remote teaching, we were mostly focused on curriculum and content planning. Now I realize just how incredibly important it is for students to feel that connectedness and social presence in the classroom, no matter what the setting.”

The challenges: “You can’t just translate what you did in the classroom into an online course. There have to be serious modifications.” As a result, the teaching team would adjust as the course went on in order to hone or add new strategies based on what they learned was working. For instance, office hours were held right after class so that students could attend without having to upend their personal schedules. Virtual case discussions were developed during the semester. “When teaching online, everything takes longer than you think,” Dr. Kaplan notes, underscoring that flexibility is key.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Apply students’ feedback transparently. Dr. Kaplan incorporated opportunities for students to shape the course to better suit their needs. To improve discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion, she called for volunteers to collaborate with her on course development and to create new cases used in the course and in the Harvard Medical School curriculum moving forward. Moreover, she opened channels for continuous anonymous feedback throughout the course. Dr. Kaplan directly responded to feedback in the daily announcements with solutions. In cases where she could not accommodate a specific request, she posted explanations to ensure students felt heard.
  • Learn where students are coming from and work from there. Social connection allowed for faculty to better learn about challenges students were facing at home during the pandemic. Dr. Kaplan worked directly with students to develop strategies to grapple with a given circumstance or move forward in class in a way that worked for them. “I think we really need to appreciate and understand our students’ circumstances to help them be as successful as they can,” Dr. Kaplan stresses.
  • The more interactive, the better. When she noticed that students were struggling with material, Dr. Kaplan designed an optional interactive case study with questions linking to the course material. Within one minute, a student started to post their thoughts, then another added additional comments, and the discussion blossomed. After twenty-four hours, Dr. Kaplan posted her own interpretations. She underscores that when it comes to virtual learning, interactivity is a key element to foster engagement and to allow for a range of participation styles.

Bottom line: Whether virtual or in-person, creating a sense of connection between students, faculty, and the material is critical to learning. “The more we can provide assurance of our presence and support,” Dr. Kaplan notes, “the more we can enhance the learning environment, and a supportive learning environment improves students’ well-being, professionalism, empathy, and academic success.”