Jake Clapp, GOA Academic Dean

Jake Clapp, GOA Academic Dean

By Jake Clapp, GOA Academic Dean

How do we feel when we recognize that we are truly part of a community? We feel acceptance for who we are and what we know, and yet we feel comfortably challenged. We feel that our influence in the community is real, while simultaneously recognizing the influence of others. We feel a shared emotional connection, and yet we are valued for our individual strengths and perspectives.

After over a decade of research social psychologist David McMillan suggested there are four dimensions to successful communities: belonging – a feeling that “I am known and valued within this community’’; trust – members of the community grant each other permission to have a say in what happens in the group; trade – the community’s members engage in mutually beneficial exchange of ideas, amid a backdrop of shared values; and shared emotional connection – the notion that community members share a history together. It is this fourth dimension that McMillan claims is most essential, adding that “shared history becomes the community’s story symbolized in art”.

Creating this sense of a shared history might be the greatest challenge for the online teacher. I’m not sure that I have a definitive answer on how to cultivate this rather amorphous sense, but I do know one thing: it must be cultivated early.

I’d like to ask each of you to do something intentional in your first week of class to foster a sense of community. What needs to happen for your students to feel that they belong, are trusted and can have trust in others, are actively engaged in exchanging ideas, and ultimately share a history together? Start small, with lowered stakes (games, icebreakers, discussions), and work your way towards more involved community-building as time goes on. Some ideas for you to consider: take an assignment that feels somewhat lonely and give it an interactive component; create an adaptable peer-evaluation rubric and share with your students tips on how to give meaningful feedback, and then factor this feedback into the students’ grades; create a blog or wikiproject for your class, and then resist the temptation to control what goes on there. These are just a few ideas.

McMillan, D. W. (1996), Sense of community. J. Community Psychol., 24: 315–325