Cultivating Belonging Online During COVID-19

Cultivating Belonging Online by Carey Borkoski and Brianne Roos

Helping Students Maintain Social Distancing Without Feeling Socially Isolated

By Carey Borkoski and Brianne Roos

Public health experts and governors across the US have implemented social distancing measures ranging from maintaining six feet between individuals to self and mandated quarantines. While we abide by these important health and safety policies, we must also remember that social distance refers to increased physical space to avoid illness, not social isolation or disconnection from those outside of our homes.

Warren (1993) defines social isolation as a “state in which the individual or group expresses a need or desire for contact with others but is unable to make contact” (p. 270). Even with ubiquitous technology tools, apps, and other resources that permit 24/7 virtual connection, we need and crave time outside, on playgrounds, and in our classrooms and public spaces connecting with others. Without this engagement and connections, we miss out on important social supports which contribute to feeling valued, cared for, and part of a mutual system of caring for others (Cobb, 1976).

Similarly, individuals who report strong feelings of belonging feel valued, socially connected, supported, and respected. Brene Brown (2015) discusses our innate human need for connection and James Comer (2001) connects the concept of belonging to education, as  relationship building precedes learning.  Building relationships in a classroom is more natural than in an online learning context, but the concept of relationships preceding learning applies, regardless of setting.  Facilitating belonging through relationships is a part of providing social support, and these networks of relationships are critical for learning and may serve as buffers for stress. COVID-19 forced us into unprecedented ways of being, and social distancing, physical isolation, fear of getting sick, and overall uncertainty created new environmental situations that lead to high levels of stress and threaten our feelings of belonging and connection.

In the Nov-Dec 2019 ACE article, Cultivating Belonging, belonging was discussed as a concept that “requires us to focus on individual development as well as development of the environment” (p.28). The new instability and isolation within our current environments contribute to an evolving and unstable sense of belonging for students, teachers, leaders, and parents. The emergence of remote work and online learning creates discomfort, doubt, and uncertainty for everyone. However, while online learning is new to many of us, the concept of teachers and students separated by geography or time emerged in the seventies when Michael Moore referred to this space as transactional distance. Dewey (1949) described transaction as the interaction of environment, individuals, and the patterns of behavior in a situation. In a learning context, transactional distance characterizes a separation between teacher and learner.  The separation can include the physical distance and psychological and communication spaces that require a bridge. Today it seems reasonable to suggest that everyone is experiencing this transactional distance in some aspect of their professional or personal lives.  These feelings of separation and isolation are potentially made greater or more difficult to manage because individuals no longer have their external social networks on which to rely as they work to bridge the transactional distance. Closing this distance requires intentional work to facilitate and continuously bolster our individual and communal sense of belonging.

While navigating a pandemic is unchartered territory, the community of inquiry (COI) framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) offers some guidance on how we might take steps to close the transactional distance and create moments of deep and authentic learning. The COI framework includes the integration of cognitive, teaching, and social presences that cultivate an environment that promotes the social construction of knowledge among participants. We hypothesize that addressing immediate needs of our students created out of the circumstances of COVID-19 requires that we focus first on the social presence of the COI framework. According to Garrison et al., social presence includes affective expression, open communication, and group cohesion. These elements refer to aspects of learning like getting to know other course participants, establishing comfortable spaces and moments for conversation, and dialogue in which individuals feel heard and seen. These kinds of exchanges contribute to a sense of trust and collaboration within the group that create a foundation for authentic learning.

We are not arguing that cognitive and teaching presence are less important than social presence.  Rather, given the unprecedented stress, anxiety, and uncertainty faced by students and teachers right now, social presence must take priority for learning to happen under these conditions. Curiosity, motivation, brainstorming, knowledge building, and skills acquisition will not easily occur without first listening, learning, and empathizing. Learning depends on teachers’ attention to students’ social needs, including feelings of isolation, fear, loneliness, and belonging. A colleague recently shared that she was so concerned about everything going well with technology in her online course that she jumped right into class content without thinking about addressing student needs. She said the class felt off and disconnected.  The next class she began with talking about students’ highs and lows, and the difference in the discussion and learning was remarkable. Attending to social presence and cultivating spaces for group cohesion and affective expression builds a bridge to close the transactional distance and promotes belonging and community among teachers and students.

While students are often at the center of these conversations, we must also attend to the social needs of our teachers, administrators, and families. Calm, connection, and community represent a few ways we can cultivate social presence and foster belonging.

  • Calm reminds us to breathe and to make time for our own self-care and to check in with students and colleagues to make sure they are also attending to their own needs. Communicating with students early and often, creating routines, and writing to-do lists, may foster comfort and calm by establishing expectations and plans. Communicating availability and following routines can contribute to calm, lower anxiety and stress, and permit us to engage in meaningful teaching and learning
  • Connection offers a way to promote self-care and established routines, it is possible to cultivate authentic connections with personal and professional networks. Consider holding a “no-agenda agenda” meeting, intentionally convened for the sole purpose of connecting. There is “no-agenda” as to where the conversations might go and that is often exactly what we need in moments of great stress and shared vulnerability.
  • Finally, maintaining a sense of community promotes continuity of belonging and virtual town-hall meetings with school leaders and parents allow parents to be together while hearing the voices of school leaders. For the kids, consider a school-wide virtual spirit week with easy themes such as pet day and wacky Wednesday, then post pictures to the school’s website or social media site to foster spirit and community that closes the distance.

Follow the guidelines of public health experts to stop the spread of COVID-19 but remember that physical distance is not social isolation. Now, more than ever, practice self-care and communicate with students, colleagues, and families to cultivate a sense of community and belonging.

Dr. Carey Borkoski is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University where she holds a joint faculty appointment with the School of Education and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Within the School of Education, she teaches research methods and advises doctoral students in the online EdD program. Her research explores the role of communities, bridging media like podcasts and TedTalks, and storytelling in facilitating student onboarding, promoting deeper learning, and mitigating anxiety around learning and engaging in often unfamiliar academic spaces. Connect with her at

Dr. Brianne Roos is an Assistant Professor and director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at Loyola University Maryland. Her career began as a clinician practicing medical speech-language pathology in hospital settings, where her favorite days were spent teaching and supervising students and new clinicians. She has been teaching in higher education for over 15 years and her areas of research include belonging, stress, well-being, and connection for students and faculty. Brianne facilitates workshops about teaching and learning for faculty across disciplines and she particularly enjoys the opportunity to develop and implement holistic onboarding programming to support new faculty. Brianne co-hosts a podcast about belonging, where she learns from a diverse range of guests and whose data contribute to research about belonging during the pandemic, in leadership, and in relationships. Always looking for alignment across established high-impact practices and innovative, engaged pedagogy, Brianne’s publications, presentations, podcasts, and classroom practices connect theoretical support with application that centers the whole person.

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