Community in the Remote Classroom

What do we mean by engagement?

Student engagement generally refers to students’ level of investment, passion, and interest in the subject and course material, as well as the degree of interaction and the motivation shown by students to learn and progress through the course. It can be helpful to consider this in terms of three key relationships—with material, peers, and professor; in this guidebook we’ll discuss engagement with material (We cover engagement with peers and professor in another guidebook). Within a course, however, these elements are often interwoven and do not function separately from each other; the connection to peers and faculty often leads to greater engagement with the material and vice versa.

Why is student engagement important?

Supporting our students’ engagement in our courses is crucial as it leads to behaviors and dispositions known to increase student learning. In particular, levels of engagement impact students’ sense of belonging, levels of motivation and achievement, and levels of enjoyment (Frisby et al., 2014; MacLeod, Yang, and Shi, 2019).

What does engagement look like when teaching across modalities?

As noted, positive engagement is linked to increases in learning (Chen et al., 2010). In a brick-and-mortar learning environment, it feels easy to get a rough sense of student engagement based on students’ behavior in the classroom. Research shows that in an online learning environment, where students and faculty are physically separated from one another, it is not uncommon for students to feel isolated, frustrated, and disengaged (Croft et al., 2015). Similarly, faculty often experience a similar sense of disconnection in online classes, which is heightened in asynchronous environments (Walker, 2016). Thus, in an online learning environment, it is especially important to take steps to develop content, activities, and assessments that engage students—connect with their interests and motivations—and provide students and faculty with opportunities to interact.

How can we accomplish our goals at a distance?

When moving into an online environment for the first time, an immediate instinct is to try and reproduce our in-class experience as closely as we can—which typically means simply offering synchronous sessions in Zoom. Zoom or other video conferencing platform “classroom” differs significantly from a face-to-face environment. Zoom fatigue is real, as are significant issues of equity and accessibility. Informal feedback from students also reveals that they can feel less engaged and more easily distracted attending a synchronous class over Zoom than when in-person. An unstructured Zoom session makes it easier for students to “hide,” and leaves them with the immediate distraction of other activities on the web.

Consequently, it’s useful to think about the movement to the online space as adaptation to a new kind of classroom rather than a translation from the physical classroom. Skilled faculty take advantage of the affordances of the online space (Supiano, 2020). Doing so makes it possible not only to have an engaging and productive Zoom session, but also likewise create meaningful student engagement with other aspects of the course.

In what follows, we provide strategies and techniques for engaging students with the course materials in both synchronous and asynchronous modalities.

Engaging peers in a learning community

Whether it is through discussion and dialogue, brainstorming, problem-solving, roleplays, or group presentations, interactions with peers create learning spaces where students can practice, refine, and deepen their ideas, their skills, and their growing understanding of new concepts and materials. When students have structured opportunities to collaborate, it often means they are sharing their own learning process and teaching each other. It also requires higher order thinking skills and application (Darabi et al., 2013; MacLeod et al., 2019). 

When it comes to remote learning environments, here are a few key strategies (and lots of great tools!) for designing effective and inclusive synchronous and asynchronous peer-engagement opportunities for our students:

  • One of the important aspects of facilitating peer learning is student agency. There should be a balance of highly structured peer learning activities and activities and opportunities for students to take more ownership of their learning.
  • Strive to create a culture of shared responsibility for learning by integrating collaborative learning in remote settings. Create ways for students to get to know each other, connect with, and draw on each other’s academic interests and strengths. To do this, design ways to bring small group structures and low-stakes engagements into online learning spaces—perhaps through study groups, collaborative assignments, or individual assignments that connect students to each other, such as peer-editing. 
  • Structure group work for a balance of accountability and flexibility. Scaffolding assignments for deliverables in stages and assigning roles for each member of a group can be a helpful tactic to bring in multiple voices and create different ways for students to see a range of expertise in each other. In remote settings, we may need to allow for greater flexibility in teams, allow students to choose their own teams, or create smaller teams to aid in scheduling and getting the work done.

Here are a few tools to consider for facilitating student-student engagement. The tools shared below are presented in order of increasing agency and flexibility.

Discussion boards

Discussion boards are probably the most commonly used but also most maligned forms of engagement and peer learning. It’s important to note that the empirical research indicates that not all discussion boards are created equal and that there are strategies that instructors can employ to improve engagement, interaction, and learning (Darabi, A. et al, 2013; Oh, E. et al, 2016; Lieberman, M., 2019.). This research highlights that there are a number of ways to make discussion boards more effective, including (

  • Provide clear and engaging prompts
  • Be an active participant
  • Model the responses you want to see
  • Provide feedback and guidance, especially in ways that help students see the range of expertise of other students 
  • Be creative and design a variety of activities

Also keep in mind that the discussion boards in Canvas support multimedia responses. So students aren’t limited to responding with just text; they can incorporate images, videos, sounds, animated gifs—if it can exist on the web, then it can exist in a response on a discussion board. Consider allowing and encouraging students to change up their types of responses.

Annotation Tools

As we saw above, VoiceThread is also a tool that can be integrated into Canvas, which allows even richer multimedia responses to a discussion prompt. Faculty can record themselves and annotate a document or other artifact, and students then respond with voice or video annotations in turn. The same guidelines apply as in a “regular” discussion thread, but VoiceThread allows for a bit more flexibility and space for creativity. The learning curve is more significant for both the instructor and the students, but not insurmountable.

Collaborative and/or common work spaces

Google Docs is an excellent collaboration space for students to take collective notes, work on projects or assignments, share resources, and other peer learning and engagement activities. Students can also collaboratively use Google Slides, Google Sheets, etc, for projects, resource sharing, and other collaborative activities.

There are also a number of tools that integrate with Google Apps. One such tool is Timeline.js, where students can create a collaborative, multimedia timeline using Google Sheets. Google Maps can be used to create simple, collaborative, interactive maps. And Jamboard on Google can be used for collaborative mindmapping, brainstorming, and drawing. Students can work synchronously or asynchronously with these tools. 

Students can also use Zoom on their own to organize study groups, synchronous collaboration time, and even record presentations. While time zones are challenging, consider polling your students to facilitate the creation of groups with similar schedules and time zone limitations. You can also poll students to find out which platforms they are most comfortable using to keep in touch with one another, and create space for them to share contact information for working together synchronously. 

Another platform that GU supports for peer-learning is Georgetown Commons Blog. Instructors can create a single course blog in WordPress that everyone can contribute to, or one central class blog with each student getting their own blog. This is great for longer-term projects, weekly reflections or research journals, or a collaborative space to be able to share research, resources, and have discussions. Students can also create ePortfolios or exhibits on their Commons Blog. You can limit access to just students in your class or make them public. 

Georgetown Domains is a more robust way to create websites for a course or for students to create their own web presence. With more options than just WordPress, Georgetown Domains allows for different ways to share scholarship and work on the web. Installing a platform like Omeka can allow for the creation of robust online exhibits, certain WordPress themes not available on the Commons Blog facilitate multimedia portfolios, and students can even create their own website via coding. 

Engaging Students through Presence and Community

Another key factor for student success is engagement with faculty.  There are many ways faculty can engage with students and, while there is no “one size fits all” approach, there are two key interrelated components: establishing and maintaining a positive faculty presence and building a learning community. Rather than waiting until the first day of class in to begin establishing presence and building community, you can begin to develop your presence during the planning phase by doing the following:  

  • Craft a welcoming, engaging, and inclusive syllabus. Consider using second person rather than third person. For more information on syllabus design visit the Teaching Commons website.  To learn more about designing an inclusive syllabus visit the LGBTQ Resource Center and download the CNDLS Inclusive Pedagogy pamphlet.
  • Send out a welcome email or announcement in advance of the course.
  • Develop a communication plan in advance so that students know how to best reach you, what your turnaround time will be, etc.
  • Build an Orientation in your Canvas course, make it available to students before the course begins, and require students to post a video introduction. This will give them a chance to read the syllabus, get required books and materials, and become more acquainted with you and their classmates.
  • Follow Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines when designing your course.  Design your course with variability and some flexibility in mind so you can reach all types of learners.
  • Make yourself visible. Pre-record a Canvas-posted welcome video where students get to see you and learn more about who you are, and build in opportunities during the first week of class for students to see and get to know you and each other.
  • Learn your students’ names.  In Canvas you can see who your students are by selecting “People” on the navigation bar. 
  • Require video introductions on the discussion board during the first week of class. While this is a low-stakes, ungraded assignment in most online learning environments, it can also be a high impact one in that it allows you to establish your presence, begin to foster a community of learning, model the appropriate tone and content, and set the norms and expectations for the discussion board that you want students to follow for the duration of the course.

Once the course begins, you can continue to establish presence and build community, both synchronously and asynchronously.

Synchronous Engagement: Office Hours

In addition to class sessions, you can offer scheduled Zoom office hours just like you would on campus, set up additional office hours by appointment, require one-on-one meetings with students (e.g., to discuss their ideas for a paper or provide feedback), put students in break out rooms during live class discussion, and schedule Q&A Review sessions at different points during the semester (e.g., before an exam). 

  • For office hours, it is recommended that you schedule regular office hours, stagger the times to accommodate different time zones, and that you enable the waiting room so that you can meet with students one-on-one. Keep in mind that offering additional office hours by appointment may be helpful for some students, but not all are likely to initiate appointments and many may be more likely to drop into regularly occurring sessions.
  • Where feasible, consider requiring at least one one-on-one meeting with students to encourage engagement, and offer office hours by phone or chat for those who may have bandwidth issues or are more comfortable talking by phone or text (Zoom also has call-in option). For other synchronous Zoom sessions (e.g., review sessions), consider recording (in the cloud) so that those who are unable to attend can watch it on their own. 
  • Follow Georgetown’s security recommendations on Zoom.

Asynchronous Engagement

Three common ways to engage with students asynchronously include discussion boards, announcements, and feedback. Some advantages of asynchronous learning are that it provides students with more flexibility and students don’t have to think on the spot and will have more time to think before responding.

  • Discussion Boards: When you engage in the discussion board, students will notice and be more likely to see value in the activity. In addition, asynchronous online discussions provide you with an electronic record that can be used to evaluate student progress over time, get a “temperature check” of engagement levels among students, and also can be used to identify what worked and didn’t work in class discussions. Also, consider a one-to-many approach, such as recording a video that responds to the discussion board as a whole rather than engage with individual students—this can both save time and avoid bias in choosing to whom you respond.
  • Announcements: You can establish your presence by communicating with your students on a regular basis. If you use the Announcement feature in Canvas, you can modify the settings so the announcement appears on the homepage of your course. By default, the announcement will also be sent to the students’ email as long as they do not change their notification settings in Canvas. Announcements can be used to provide updates, inform students about current events that relate to the course, provide global feedback, and remind students about upcoming deadlines, and can be text, audio, or video. The Online Learning Consortium reports that video announcements can increase the connection between students and their instructors. 
  • Feedback: As with announcements, feedback can be provided by text, audio, or video.  Create rubrics that clearly communicate what the expectations are for assignments and consider using Speedgrader in Canvas to add more personalized feedback. Speedgrader also allows you to annotate, draw, and mark up student work, which can also be images, graphs, charts, text, audio, or video. 


As we’ve seen, there are numerous possibilities for designing in significant engagement with course content. The literature makes clear that this engagement enhances student learning. Rather than get lost in the weeds or distracted with the novelty of the tools that exist in the online space, work to increase your competence in a small set, and then use the variety of affordances in this set to create multiple and dynamic means for both synchronous and asynchronous engagement. When doing so, remember to build community, remain present, leverage low-stakes activities, create engagement feedback loops—where activities, assignments, course content, and synchronous sessions connect and reinforce one another—take advantage of student engagement in order to assess how they are doing, and design for inclusivity.

Faculty Insight

Paul Merritt and Sarah Stiles, Georgetown College
PollEverywhere is a free tool (for up to 40 students) that can be used to engage students. Paul Merritt, who teaches psychology courses online at Georgetown, uses PollEverywhere to poll students about sensitive topics. He has found that using anonymous polls takes away the pressure to come up with the “right answer” on the spot and also gives students time and space to consider and share their responses. Sarah Stiles, who teaches sociology, uses emojis in PollEverywhere to get a temperature check on students’ well-being in the beginning of each class session so she can meet them where they are at. Polls can also be used before and after exposure to course content to assess whether or not students’ thinking has changed.

Lee Pinkowitz, MSB
MBA professor Lee Pinkowitz, in redesigning his Valuation course in CNDLS into a hybrid format, made the following adjustments:

  • To maintain active engagement with video lectures, he and the CNDLS team implemented the use of interactive lectures that included practice questions interspersed between the videos to check for students’ understanding of concepts as they are learned.
  • To increase participation and check for understanding of course materials, all students are required to post quiz questions to reflect their understanding of the course concepts. In the discussion board, each student is assigned to review two quiz questions created by their peers. You can read more about Lee Pinkowitz’ class in Issue 8 of The Prospect magazine (PDF).

Huaping Lu-Adler, Georgetown College
Huaping Lu-Adler designed and taught her History of Modern Philosophy class on the presumption that a student’s sense of wellbeing and academic learning are interconnected. With that in mind, Lu-Adler focused on two aspects of wellbeing that, based both on her personal observations and on studies she had read, can greatly impact a student’s learning experience in class: (a) their sense of belonging (feeling seen/heard/valued/understood); (b) their ability to manage, effectively, such stressors as deadlines, public speaking (as part of the participation requirement), and events that significantly affect our day-to-day life but are largely beyond our control (e.g. the current pandemic). To continue to give attention to these areas in the virtual learning environment, Lu-Adler adapted several student-student engagement routines from her in-person classes to the online space, including:

  • implementing “well-being exercises” at the beginning of Zoom sessions where she posed philosophical question prompts that also pertained to student coping skills, gave them time to reflect on the question for themselves, and then invited them to share with the class if they chose;
  • incorporating mini-video assignments for students to explain certain philosophical ideas encountered in class in short video segments that students posted for each other’s benefit; and
  • continuing peer-discussion and review processes around higher-stakes writing assignments.

Students noted that these practices had a significantly positive impact on their sense of connection to the material, their willingness to take risks in the course, and their overall academic motivation and achievement in the course.

James Olsen, Philosophy
In order to regularly check in on and assess the degree to which students are “getting it,” James Olsen has students do a “Muddiest Point” exercise at the end of each module in his online courses. The activity exists as an ungraded Canvas assignment where students respond to the following prompt: “What aspect of the readings and content from this unit do you feel least solid about? What nagging confusions or uncertainties in understanding the material are plaguing you? Or, if you’re comfortable with all of the material, which aspects were nonetheless the most difficult to understand as you were learning it, or perhaps were the most poorly presented?” Originally, he used the Speedgrader to respond to each student. This took a great deal of time, however, and students explicitly asked to be able to see what other students said. In order to maintain privacy and save time he keeps the exercise as an assignment, but now records and posts a single video responding to various “muddy” issues.

Martha Weiss and Randall Amster, Georgetown College
Metacognition is the term used to denote engaging students in reflection or otherwise promoting self-awareness of their learning process. Metacognitive essays or practices can be linked to most assignments in order to enhance student learning. Martha Weiss and Randall Amster designed an environmental studies course where several of the assignments require students to not only create a specific artifact, but to then reflect on that creation in a metacognitive essay. For example, students are required to create an audio-visual artifact in Voicethread (via Canvas) reporting on a researched innovation. Doing so requires what one might expect—in addition to details on the innovation, students provide an analysis with regard to several key metrics studied in the class. In addition to creating this artifact, students also submit an essay (metacognitively) reflecting on such things as why they chose that innovation, why it was important or worth analyzing, how it connects to their personal lives, and what and how they learned in the process.



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