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During this pandemic, many students have described feeling lonely and isolated as they shifted into online environments. This disconnect is amplified when distance learning courses are designed with only individual work in mind. This occurs when students access an asynchronous class and watch videos, read articles, and complete assignments in a personalized way. It also happens when students attend a synchronous meeting and turn their cameras and microphones without interacting with their peers.

Without a physical classroom, a student can far too easily feel as if they are alone in their work and alone in their educational journey. Without peer accountability and a larger sense of belonging, it becomes way too easy for a student to disengage from the learning. However, teachers have done an amazing job building community and empowering students. I see this every day. Teachers who feel like they aren’t making a difference or who feel that they are struggling with distance learning are still building community in powerful ways — even when they can’t see it.

So, today, I want to explore some ways that we, as educators, can build an empowered community in distance learning classes.

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The Challenge of Engagement

Over two decades ago, researchers Anderson and Garrison demonstrated that success in an online course depended on the relationship between the student and the content, the student and the instructor, and the student and classmates. When students fail to connect with their instructor or with their classmates, they disengage.

This disengagement results in lower attendance, lower assignment completion, and lower achievement. In other words, by every metric imaginable, students learn less and perform worse when they aren’t connecting with a larger community. On a more human level, students need to connect relationally to their classmates and their teacher. They need to feel a sense of belonging. They need to be known and respected. During this time of quarantine, it’s especially vital that students feel that they are part of a larger community.

The lack of student engagement is often a lack of self-direction. When schools shift to remote-learning courses, certain students who would normally do well in person end up struggling to manage their time and get started on their learning. They get distracted and fail to develop deep work habits that can lead to success. Here, students might even fail to show up to class video conferences or respond to emails. They turn in work significantly late and at a lower quality than they would if they were in a physical classroom. Without the teacher present and the reminder of accountability, these students disengage.

But this issue is less about engagement and more about empowerment. In some of these courses, instructors design highly engaging activities and curate relevant materials and still experience lower student engagement. Ultimately, students have to take the initiative to own their learning when the teacher isn’t physically present. As educators, we cannot beat ourselves up over lower engagement. However, we can choose to grow and improve in our distance-learning journey. We can create systems and structures that empower students to own the learning process.

We can conceptualize student agency on a spectrum from compliance to empowerment.

While it’s easy to think of this as an individual phenomenon, we can design our classroom systems and structures to build student ownership at the collective level as well.

Seven Strategies for Building an Empowered Communities

As a professor, I have witnessed the power of the cohort model. Despite the physical distance, I am struck by the tight community that has developed with the virtual cohorts that I lead. While I realize that I am a part of the process, I am keenly aware that the greatest factor in their success is the frequent peer interactions that we have built into the learning experience. Similarly, as a dad, I am struck by the way that my own kids’ teachers have designed experiences that build community in their distance learning classes. It’s not perfect and it’s not easy. But their teachers have been intentional about community-building in a way that has been a lifeline during this period of pandemic pedagogy.

For the last few years, I’ve interviewed countless teachers who have empowered their students in virtual, hybrid, and blended environments. I’ve experimented with different strategies as well. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for an empowered community. However, there are some guiding principles that work.

1. Spend more time letting students share their interests.

On a fundamental level, being part of a community includes being known. This includes sharing one’s story and identity. But sometimes students are scared to share who they really are. It can feel unsafe for members of the LGBT+ population. It can be a challenge for introverts and for students who are members of marginalized communities. Sometimes, sharing one’s story can mean facing PTSD and re-experiencing trauma.

This is why I love creating opportunities for students to share their world by sharing their geeky interests. By starting with geeky interests, students get to choose how much they want to to share. One way is through a show-and-tell activity.

Another way is through doing a scavenger hunt. I recently wrote about ways you can do scavenger hunts at different grade levels and in different subjects. However, you can also have students pursue their own questions by launching a Wonder Day Project.

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Another option is a Geek Out Project. These projects are a variation on the idea of a Genius Hour.

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I start with the following questions:

  1. What do you really care about? Why?
  2. What is something that you’re passionate about?
  3. What is something you know inside and out?
  4. What are some things you believe deeply in? What are some convictions you have about life?
  5. What do you love to do?
  6. What do you know a lot about?
  7. If you could invent your own course, what would it be?

I explain that geekiness is a passion, interest, enjoyment, and often conviction about a particular topic. I then give them stems they could use:

  • Seven Reasons Why __________
  • Seven Ways to __________
  • Seven Things to Know about __________
  • Seven Best __________
  • The Seven (Adjective) __________ in __________

Over the years, student answers have been all over the place. A girl chose Korean pop music while the girl next to her delved into issues of immigration. In the same class, another student chose Minecraft while the kid next to him gave seven amazing reasons why zombies would make great pets. A few kids wrote about their lives, their families, or their cultures.

It’s also a way to model digital citizenship and digital ethics in a way that builds community and affirms each student’s identity.

2. Launch a democratic leadership team.

Collectively, we can honor student agency by bringing students into the planning and decision-making process. One way to do this is with optional virtual student leadership teams. Think of it as a planning session with your students rather than your colleagues. The process is entirely democratic. I first began democratic leadership teams in my third year of teaching middle school. I invited any student who wanted to give feedback and share ideas to join me every Wednesday at lunchtime. To my surprise, I had a mix of students. Some qualified as gifted, some as special education students, some as ELL students. Certain students were shy, others loud. Some were stellar students and others struggled. But each one had a voice in our meetings.

With a democratic leadership team, students are not selected for the student leadership team by a vote or an application. It is not a popularity contest or even a meritocracy. It’s a space of grace, where anyone who shows up has a place at the table. Students are welcome to join regardless of their grade level or their academic achievement. The goal is to share ideas, get input on the classroom systems, and make key curricular decisions on things like projects or lesson ideas. The following is a sample agenda:


  • Quick individual check-in: Each student says one high, one low, and one random fact about themselves.
  • Open feedback on what is going well in the course: You might ask specific questions about policies, practices, or lessons. For example, “What is going well with student collaboration?” or “What was your favorite mini-project?” Or, you can keep it open-ended with a question like, “What has been your favorite part of the course so far?”
  • Open feedback on what could be improved: Again, this might be specific, with a question like, “How can we improve the course design?” or “What would you have changed about our last virtual meeting?”
  • Share ideas: In this phase, each group member shares an idea of something they would like the class to do. To avoid judgment, you might just solicit ideas without getting feedback.
  • Ask for feedback on an idea: Here, you might share an idea of something you would like to try with your students. It might be a project or a unit plan. Or, it might be a strategy or a new policy.
  • Decision-making: This is optional, but you might want to make some decisions collectively as a group.
  • Summarize and clarify: In this last phase, you summarize key ideas and allow for any clarifications that might be necessary.

A democratic leadership team meeting does require some extra work. It’s voluntary and it often has to occur outside of scheduled classroom meeting times. However, I’ve seen teachers run democratic classroom meetings during advisory times or during the required open office hours. So, it doesn’t necessarily require you to add something new to your plate so much as re-arrange your plate.

3. Have students negotiate norms and procedures.

Before starting your first virtual meeting, you might want to negotiate norms as a class. If you have a larger class, you could create smaller groups that work together to create specific norms that they can then share with the larger group. Afterward, the class can negotiate the norms together. Another option is to start with an initial set of norms and allow students to annotate the norms on a shared document. They might wordsmith the norms, insert comments, and even add a few norms of their own. If you are in a hybrid environment, you could negotiate norms in person, where it is easier to engage in open dialogue. Regardless of your approach, a set of shared norms can help clarify expectations.

  • Active participation: What does active participation look like? Have students visualize this by stating specific positive behaviors. Are students required to answer questions in the chat, or do they answer questions when they feel like it? This is why it helps to negotiate norms together as a group. It also helps to have students identify what barriers might get in the way of active participation. For example, it might be tempting to have the television on or to multitask with various tabs open.
  • Communication: What does positive and intentional communication look like during a virtual meeting? What does it mean to use active listening skills? Note that you might ask students to mute their volume, use body language, and take turns in a virtual meeting.
  • Being prepared: What does it mean to show up to a video chat fully prepared? For example, students might need to complete course readings, flipped videos, or a project students are working on. You might ask students to create a set of norms around starting and ending on time. You might also include a norm around testing audio and video ahead of time.
  • Staying on-topic: You might also have some norms related to how students use the chat function, hand gestures, or other features.

A word of caution here: the goal for empowered learning is self-direction. If the norms become too restrictive, students will go through the virtual meetings with a sense of compliance. This is also why there should be a strong rationale for the norms you develop.

You can also empower students to have develop classroom procedures by working collaboratively with students on a classroom procedure grid.

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Ultimately, you, as the teacher, will have the final say on the classroom norms and procedures. However, when students help negotiate these systems, they have a greater sense of ownership in the process.

4. Create student jobs.

In a physical classroom, students might collect papers, organize supplies, or take care of the calendar. When this happens, students have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility over the classroom community. It’s a way for students to learn responsibility and self-direction.

In a distance learning class, you can design specific student jobs as well. These include tech geek (helping students problem-solve issues), classroom reporter (sharing the class learning journey with parents or guardians), quality assurance manager (double-checking the course calendar and assignments), or any other job that students can own. As a teacher, you can brainstorm a list of potential classroom jobs that students can do in virtual meetings (chat moderator, discussion leader) or in asynchronous meetings (tech-help, communications director) and then ask for student volunteers. While it requires more work upfront, it fosters a sense of belonging and can actually save time for teachers in the long run.

5. Make synchronous meetings more interactive.

I’ve previously written about specific ways that we can make our virtual meetings more interactive. These include using chats, using breakout rooms, designating moments for silent reflection, and incorporating asynchronous tools into the synchronous meetings. It also helps to create SEL check-ins and to do hands-on activities that take students off-screen. This can feel like an uphill battle in secondary classrooms, where teachers face a barrage of blank screens and muted microphones. However, when we create moments for quality student interactions, we can slowly increase student engagement in our virtual meetings and ultimately build an empowered community.

6. Design collaborative projects.

To build an empowered community, we need to design collaborative learning experiences. n remote learning, students often interact with one another without actually engaging in collaborative work. Here, they are cooperating rather than collaborating. Cooperation begins with mutual respect while collaboration begins with mutual trust. Cooperation requires transparency but collaboration requires vulnerability. Cooperation includes shared goals but collaboration includes shared values. Cooperation is independent but collaboration is interdependent. Cooperation is often short term while collaboration is often long term. Cooperation involves the sharing of ideas as a group. However, collaboration involves generating entirely new ideas together. Both collaboration and cooperation are both necessary in remote and hybrid learning. Cooperation without collaboration can lead to disunity while collaboration without cooperation can lead to groupthink and a loss of individual agency.

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The key, then, is to craft learning experiences that can make the most out of collaboration and cooperation. This is admittedly challenging. However, we can help students become better self-starters and self-managers in their small groups when we design structures to increase student ownership in the collaborative process.

The collaborative project can be something as small as this utopian-dystopian mini-project:

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However, it can also be a longer, multi-week project. Either way, it helps to choose something that is high-interest but also low-risk.

7. Use frequent check-ins to connect with students individually

Although an empowered community is all about deeper collaboration and peer-to-peer interactions, teachers can help provide a sense of belonging through the use of frequent one-on-one check-ins.  Some of these check-ins are more personal while others are more academic. Some of these involve short emails or chats while others are video conferences or phone calls. You can think of it on a continuum:

As educators, we can make strategic attempts to get to know our students. We might even need to create surveys to see the ideal approach for check-ins, in terms of frequency and method.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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