How do you build relationships in an online world?

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Back in the Before Times, I was planning to blog about some inspiring examples of faculty and staff who excelled at creating communities, where students had a sense of belonging and trust. 

Our G3 planning grant discussions reinforced that relationships are the “secret sauce” to student success, and I saw specific examples across Virginia Western.

My focus was going to be on the PHYSICAL spaces where students just like hanging out together. Examples include our Military Student Center in Webber; the new cybersecurity labs in Business/Science; and the numerous events and trips hosted by our TRIO Pathways coaching team.

Of course, all of this changed in March.

Many (but certainly not all) of Virginia Western’s classes will be conducted remotely this fall. One of the persistent criticisms of online learning has been the absence of face-to-face interactions that help build a sense of community.

In fact, only 12% of community college students reported they preferred online-only instruction in a recent national survey conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE). Much more popular was in-class only instruction (42%) and hybrid classes (46%).

In the same CCCSE survey that asked how they were managing the pandemic, one of the top two concerns expressed by students was “feeling isolated” (75%), slightly behind “finding a job after completing their educational goals” (76%).

So, how do we increase engagement and build community in our virtual worlds, to help students feel less isolated? 

Cover Image: Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby with James M. Lang

Flower Darby, an instructional designer/community college educator and co-author of “Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes,” dedicated an entire chapter to building community. 

Here are some of the book’s best tips for classes, which could also apply to student services:

  1. “Require peer-to-peer interactions in your class.”
    • This was simple strategy No. 1: Create online discussion boards, where students can ask questions about assignments … and everyone can see the answers. You could design the course so these online discussions are at the heart of your objectives.
    • If a general discussion board is too overwhelming, consider breaking into smaller group discussions or projects. Bonus idea to help create autonomy: Let students choose the topics/small discussion groups they are most interested in exploring. 
    • Require students to post an introduction in the first week of class; perhaps they could choose text or video. 
  2. “Show up to class as often as you are able.”
    • The authors emphasize “one of the defining characteristics of an effective online class is the frequent presence and ongoing support of the instructor.”
    • One of the simplest ways to consistently engage is by posting frequent text or video announcements throughout the course.
    • Also: Be sure to talk to students in the online discussion boards.
    • Rebrand office hours as “happy hours” or “coffee breaks” or something less formal, so they are more supportive and less intimidating. The authors mention one instructor who schedules these virtual “happy hours” less frequently (only four times per semester) and strategically (as a review session before an exam; or as a live feedback session after a major project or paper). 
  3. “Prior to the first day of class, post some information about who you are as a person.” 
    • Create a “Meet Your Instructor” section of the online class, with a photo and brief bio to show your personality; or create a short video introduction. The authors point out this is time well spent, as you can reuse this section or video for multiple classes or semesters. 
  4. “Cultivate and demonstrate genuine caring for your students”
    • One of the author’s favorite small teaching strategies is what she calls an “Oops Token,” which is basically a Get Out of Jail Free card. This builds wiggle room into the course by allowing students a limited number of deadline extensions, an opportunity to revise or resubmit work, or flexibility around some other challenge. Any unused tokens could convert to extra credit. 
    • Schedule 5-minute phone calls or Zoom sessions with students near the beginning of the course; and/or send individual emails asking how the class is going. 

And these tips are only from one chapter! I found the entire book helpful, even though I don’t formally teach classes. I especially loved the “backward design” approach to coursework, which applies to grants and any training effort in general. If you would like to read more from author Flower Darby, check out the advice guide she created for the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “How to Be a Better Online Teacher.”

You may also enjoy this free webinar on YouTube, “Welcoming Students to Your Online Environment.” Darby shared tips along with Kevin Gannon, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University and author of “Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto” (another inspiring book!); and Michael Wesch, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and author of “Teaching Without Walls: 10 Tips for Online Teaching.”

Tina Seelig, a creativity expert and Stanford University professor I’ve followed for years, just published a wonderful list of “lessons learned” from her sudden online teaching. I especially like her ideas for creating a more inspiring class culture, and helping to develop more connections between students.

How are you building community in the virtual world? I would love to hear your thoughts or examples at

— Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, July 2020

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About Stephanie

Stephanie SeagleStephanie Ogilvie Seagle has served as Grant Specialist at Virginia Western since 2016, but she prefers her honorary title: “Chief Joy Officer.” Stephanie spent most of her career at The Roanoke Times, a daily newspaper, where she served in various news and features roles including “Shoptimist” shopping columnist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies at George Mason University and a master’s of arts in liberal studies at Hollins University. Stephanie is a mom to one human daughter and multiple chihuahuas … and is obsessed with reading nonfiction, Halloween, and crafting glow necklaces inspired by the Mill Mountain Star. Glow Roanoke!