Thinking Strategically About Student Belonging in Online Learning
Published by: WCET | 4/13/2023
The feeling of belonging is, in my opinion and experience, a truly important factor for anyone’s success in an educational or even professional environment. The courses that I remember the most, the ones that I felt made the greatest impression upon me and my career, were those where I felt connected to my classmates and instructors, regardless of the modality. As our author today reminds us, developing a classroom sense of belonging can be an incredibly important element for a class, but it is especially for online courses.
Thank you to Katy Kappler, Co-Founder and CEO with InScribe, for today’s post considering the importance of student belonging for online courses and the suggestions for ways to enhance student belonging for online classes.
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Creating a sense of belonging for students is uniquely challenging when it comes to online learning. We know that sense of belonging is a critical component of student success, and that when students feel disconnected or unsupported, they are more likely to disengage from their coursework or drop out. More than ever, educators need to think strategically about how to cultivate a sense of belonging in their online courses.
The significance of student belonging in the online learning experience can’t be understated. The lack of physical presence often limits opportunities for organic relationship building that are inherent in traditional higher education settings. Telling online students that they belong is not enough; institutions must proactively create opportunities for interactions that foster connections with peers, faculty, and the institution as a whole. In a recent dialogue with educational leaders, hosted by InScribe, we discussed their perspectives on student belonging and the measures their institutions are taking to promote it. In this article, we’ll share five strategic ways to enhance student belonging in online learning.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula to create a sense of belonging among students that can meet the unique needs of each learner. According to Dr. Omid Fotuhi, Director of Learning Innovations at WGU Labs, “How we see ourselves and who we identify with is largely driven by the places we think we belong.” Dr. Fotuhi has done a great deal of research on the concept of belonging. “When we talk about belonging and how to foster it, there isn’t a checklist of things to do that will guarantee students will feel like they belong. It can’t be forced. It has to be genuine, and it has to be felt,” he says.
That said, giving students access to different environments and channels where they can form authentic relationships and engage at whatever level they feel most comfortable is a great first step in fostering a sense of belonging. These spaces allow students to have conversations, find common identities, and create connections, all of which can further fuel that feeling of personal connection.
Student support and motivation can be more relevant or felt more deeply at different points throughout the student experience. Dr. Andrew Feldstein, Assistant Provost for Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at Fort Hays State University says, “Belonging is not a one-dimensional concept. At Fort Hays, we focus on practical ways for students to connect. These different ways, or bridges, keep students engaged with us and the learning process.” For example, the University’s ‘Tiger-to-Tiger’ online student community empowers students to form connections and build relationships so they don’t experience loneliness or lose motivation at any point in their educational journey. Students themselves are empowered to be the leaders and caretakers of this ever-evolving virtual space, which strengthens their student engagement, connection, and emotional well-being.
How an institution helps students to feel a sense of belonging can take on various forms. At New Mexico Highlands University, leadership and faculty alike consider the institution’s different student populations, their backgrounds, and how they got to where they are. “So many of our students come to school with Imposter Syndrome; they feel like they don’t belong in class,” says Roxanne Gonzales, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs. “For our students to be successful, we have to acknowledge that a lot of them don’t even think they should be here, and we have to find a way to move forward with them individually,” she notes. There’s no simple formula for fostering that sense of belonging from the onset. Many of the University’s faculty now recognize how this notion of belonging can grow in the classroom and find ways to make individuals feel comfortable, whether it’s through the curriculum, learning communities, or other approaches.
Faculty are a great asset when it comes to fostering student belonging. Dr. Tawnya Means, Assistant Dean for Educational Innovations and Chief Learning Officer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, describes how their faculty create opportunities for students to interact in different size spaces with different people and in different ways.
For example, some online classes offer small online breakout groups or divide the class in half for interactive lessons. This allows students to share with the larger class what they learned in their smaller groups, and it helps faculty get to know students and students get to know each other better than they can in a large face-to-face setting.
Additionally, Dr. Fotuhi encourages faculty to notice who isn’t participating, not just those who are. “It can be hard to identify those students who don’t feel like they belong because they don’t reach out or engage. Faculty need to look for these voids,” he says.
While faculty and staff can be proactive in welcoming students, explaining mutual expectations, and helping create confidence, there are opportunities to be deliberate about fostering belonging before students even begin classes. Dr. Means says, “That feeling of belonging can be influenced long before a student comes into a situation. As instructors and designers, we should be doing things that identify where there are gaps or where students might feel like outsiders, and specifically address those concerns.” Dr. Means also believes that the intentional design of an online learning space can help increase feelings of belonging. “In a face-to-face class, we rely on proximity to each other to feel a sense of belonging. In an online space, we need to look to immediacy. Students need to know that if they reach out, someone will respond, and they will respond quickly.” In the early stages of the course creation process, faculty and designers should be thinking about interactivity, logistics, and timeliness for posts and responses.
Feeling isolated is a daunting experience for students, whereas feeling included and valued is reassuring. Providing students with tools and channels to connect, find common ground, and support one another can serve as the motivation they need to remain engaged and persist in their studies.
Fostering a sense of belonging in students involves multiple stakeholders, and no single person or department can take sole responsibility for it. Institutional leadership, staff, faculty, and even students themselves can contribute in various ways to promote a sense of belonging. It is a collective responsibility, and a significant one, particularly as the scope and scale of online learning continues to expand.