Building an Effective Online Classroom Community – University Affairs


Early career instructors should feel encouraged to expand and innovate in the virtual classroom.

Many doctoral students interested in academia pursue various teaching missions during their degree: from teaching assistant positions to lecturer and lecturer positions. While many prepare for their first teaching assignment by taking advantage of professional development opportunities, few of these trainings have focused on virtual-only environments before the pandemic. Developing and designing your first course from scratch can be stressful under regular circumstances, but doing it in the midst of a global pandemic where you don’t have the opportunity to meet your colleagues and students in person can be extremely difficult.

Building a class community in a virtual setting is a major feat. How can we develop an engaging and safe online learning environment? Even more difficult, how can we keep it going over the course of a semester? Teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in health sciences, public health and health services research during the pandemic allowed us to reflect on our experiences of creating an online classroom community. . In our opinion, these reflections also illustrate the new teaching skills in the purely virtual space.

Bridging the professional / personal gap

Home teaching means that students have the opportunity to look at you in your environment and you have the opportunity to observe students in theirs. Bridging this gap between our professional and personal lives can be extremely powerful in building community. Learners observe that their instructors are also human, and that their children and pets can be just as cute (or disruptive) as theirs. In our experience, this professional / staff bridge also makes instructors and students more empathetic to each other and allows for a discussion of the plants or the painting in the background, mimicking the interactions that can occur in the background. class before or after a conference.


Checking in with students in the virtual space only is critical, especially during a global pandemic, and this is something instructors should continue to focus on and foster even when returning to teaching. in class. This is especially important for students who may have turned off their cameras during class, which may indicate how they are doing or that class material may be a sensitive or touchy subject. Checking in with students personally to see how they are doing, offering an ear to listen and starting the class with a checking activity can be powerful. For example, asking students to post an emoji that describes how they are currently feeling can be a very revealing exercise and allow you to identify students who you might want to contact next. Other strategies include indirect checks by starting each class session with small discussion groups for informal discussion among students. To do this, randomly place three or four students into five-minute groups and encourage them to discuss and discuss with each other their academic and non-academic work. We found it to be a great way to mimic informal classroom discussions!

Guest speaker

Guest speakers can make the classroom environment exciting with the presence of a field expert, and can also make the classroom environment more dynamic by shifting students’ attention to a new instructor. Online education greatly expands the list of possible guest speakers. Using technology, it is possible to have a speaker based in Vancouver, British Columbia, lead a seminar in London, Ontario. This not only helps create a vibrant classroom community, but also allows students to expand their professional networks by connecting with experts from other institutions. The accessibility offered by virtual learning for invited lectures must be maintained even after returning to classes on campus.

While many training workshops quickly pivoted to incorporate online education into their offerings, these are expected to continue even after the pandemic. Early career instructors should continue to seek out these professional development opportunities and should feel encouraged to expand and innovate in the virtual classroom.

Arlinda Ruco is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto and at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto. She is also a lecturer in the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Emmanuelle Arpin is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto. She is also a part-time lecturer in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health (EBOH) at McGill University.


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