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Creating an Environment of Belongingness Online

Photo by Daniel Frese on“Belongingness is the human state of being an essential part of something”

More universities are adopting online learning platforms for global expansion. Up credentialing, workforce readiness, and increasing demands for personalized anytime/anywhere access are changing the way higher education delivers curriculum, and trends point to continued online growth in the United States. As institutions adopt new technological platforms, traditional faculty preparation must become more nuanced for teachers to support students at a distance. All of us in higher education need to do a better job at combating some of the isolation that adults experience when they select an online offering.

No one returns to college thinking, “I want to be a lone ranger. For my entire time in college, I will never rely on others, and I will be the only source of encouragement that I need to thrive.” Most adults return to school with the clear understanding that other learners, the faculty and staff, and the broader academic community of students will help them persist until they graduate. One of the best ways for online instructors to assist in building community is to ensure inclusion through belongingness. “People seek frequent, affectively positive interactions within the context of long-term, caring relationships” (Baumeister & Leary, 1993, p. 26). Each faculty member must work to create an inclusive environment to ensure that adults are fully invested in their learning.

Schools are places where we meet like minded others in our academic field. Many of us can point to school friends from childhood through university; individuals we met while attending school can end up being a friend for life. In a physical campus, smiling faces greet us as we walk in the hallway and make us feel seen and welcome. How can we ensure that students feel that they belong when our classrooms leave the ground?

First of all, belongingness doesn’t happen on accident. The idea that a professor can set up her classroom, put up a biography and a nice photo, and begin in earnest to connect with students is optimistic and insufficient. In the online classroom, students must feel comfortable, welcome, and included in all elements of the virtual learning space. Creating cognitively nurturing spaces for adult to thrive must be created deliberately  and purposefully. How do we build trust in the absence of eye contact?

Belonging’s opposite is loneliness, and loneliness is a killer. Researchers have tied loneliness to an increase in risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Others claim that it is more dangerous to your health than smoking cigarettes. This problem isn’t new, and it isn’t going anywhere soon, in fact, loneliness is increasing in the United States. In a global health service survey, 47% of Americans reported that they lacked meaningful interpersonal interactions with a friend or family member on a daily basis. For our online adult students, it is safe to assume that nearly half of them have a less than robust social network to depend upon. For many of those with social networks, attending college takes time away from family commitments and can be perceived as a threat to cohesion. Making sure that each learner knows that the institution they have selected is committed to their well being can enhance retention and persistence.

Best Practices for Creating a Sense of Belongingness Online

  1. Be flexible: Make sure that your students know that you care about their success. Consider the global context of the online classroom and the fact that tropical storms, political upheaval, or sudden tragedy may occur in your student’s part of the planet. In a global online setting, your students could be encountering considerable difficulty that you are not aware of, so keeping an open mind and heart will allow you to consider the many complex situations that your adult students may be facing that are entirely outside of their control. Don’t make school part of that stress, help students begin to see your class as part of the long range solution to stress.

  2. Communication is king: Use your course announcements, open spaces on rubrics, discussion boards, synchronous meeting spaces (Skype or Collaborate), and the class cafe to keep students engaged with you and with one another. There is no such thing as over communicating when teaching online. Use visually dynamic material when possible.

  3. Provide actionable feedback on student writing: Online spaces are writing intensive, and this provides an opportunity to be explicit and exact with students about how to write well. Avoid feedback like, “vague” or “unclear” and provide a model for how a sentence could be improved or polished. Professional composition skills are treasured in every discipline. Each time you review a student draft, consider your comments as a conversation with the student (as opposed to spending your whole time error detecting with APA or MLA compliance reminders). Idea development, making your ideas easy to understand and portable, those pointers about cohesion and flow are essential.

  4. Embrace technology: Regardless of how comfortable you are with social media or IT, in the online classroom, you can always find new tools and emerging technologies that enhance student understanding of the subject matter and increase the feeling of belongingness for students. Media rich environments are colorful and playful spaces, and they make learners linger.

  5. Responsiveness and links to resources: Being prompt (within 24-48 hours) in your emails and constantly providing students with hyperlinks to additional content is incredibly useful to students. They do not need you to have all the answers. Instead, they want to know that you’re there to point them in the right direction. Avoiding replying to emails from students will increase their anxiety, so try to respond quickly to help set their mind at ease.

Those of us in online higher education must work to combat the phenomena of loneliness in our classroom spaces to ensure adults feel part of something bigger than themselves. It is up to us to ensure that adult learners know that our class is where they belong. This fundamental need is deeply intertwined with an individual’s ability to persist in her or his studies; “the desire for interpersonal attachment may well be one of the most far-reaching and integrative constructs currently available to understand human nature” (p. 26). All of us must creatively construct environments where the student is the center, and where all students feel equally valuable and essential.

Belongingness builds trust, and for adult learning, trust is a must. Open the doors of your online classroom and let the light in! Your students will thank you, and your relationships with the adults you teach will lead to real and lasting change for them as they advance toward graduation.

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