Re-imagining online learning communities with equity, creativity, and care (Transcript of my keynote at Vancouver Community College, 25.02.2021)

Keynote held at Teaching, Learning and Research Symposium

25.02.2021, Vancouver Community College

Recording available here. Slides here

Our department offered a free, online Finnish course for staff members who were not so fluent in the language. Like me. Not a long course, just a few Zoom sessions in total. When I joined the first class, the meeting had already started, and I could hear my colleagues having a lively conversation with the teacher in Finnish. They all had their cameras on and seemed to have fun. I realized in less than a second that my Finnish was poor, much worse than my colleagues’, and definitely not good enough to join in. I felt ashamed. Feeling very uncomfortable, I did not switch on my camera. I wanted to hide under the desk, or under my skin, if possible. After this first session, I quit the course.

When I was doing an online training on Virtual Exchange, I had to contribute posts and comments to a forum, which had been set up specifically for this course in the Learning Management System. There was a new forum thread each week. The minimum requirement for the course completion was to make at least one post and one comment per thread. Although I was interested in the topics, I felt almost physical pain every time when I had to visit the forum. However, I did what was needed and I completed the course eventually.

In another online course, we were working in groups of seven. The course was demanding, requiring the participants to consult background sources, write a blog, have two video meetings per week, attend regular webinars, and prepare a group presentation every second week. I was flourishing as a learner. I attended all the meetings, watched all the webinars, wrote my blog, and read more sources than what was required. I felt united with the group. We even made friends. I experienced a sort of team flow. Since this course gave me so much as a learner, I joined the team later as a co-facilitator.

Since COVID-19 hit, I have been teaching online, with mixed experiences. In some courses, I have the impression that things are going well, the students are active and engaged. In other courses, I feel that an Arctic wind is blowing into my face through Moodle and Zoom. Silence, passiveness, and switched-off cameras. I still keep going on, teaching blindfolded, imagining a group of students behind the black boxes that I am facing on the screen. What is going on? How come that my experiences of online learning and teaching are so mixed? What is the secret of engaging, empowering, and inclusive online learning communities? What brings the magic? To find answers, I started reading. Academic papers, books, blog posts, whatever I could find in the topic.

And I still don’t have clear answers. I wish I had. I agree with Jesse Stommel (2020), who says that “there is no one-size-fits-all set of best practices for building a learning community, whether on-ground or online”. Instead of giving you a list of bullet points on “how to build a successful online learning community”, I would like to invite you to join me in the quest of reimagining our classes as places of engagement, support, and love. I’ll share some of my favourite quotes from the sources that I have been reading recently. 

We need communities. We need the feeling of belonging. Especially now, in COVID times, when our opportunities for physical meetings are so limited. A learning community can emerge both within and outside of courses, where learning happens as a natural side effect, arising from the members’ genuine interest in exploring and sharing knowledge. I will focus on three keywords: equity, creativity, and care. Let me deviate from this order and start with care. However, as you will see, these three aspects are strongly interconnected.

As pointed out by Sean Michael Morris (2020a), an expert in critical digital pedagogies, most online learning and teaching take place in a cold-cold world. In the cold world of the Learning Management System, the curriculum, the course syllabus, the rigid list of learning outcomes, the switched-off cameras, grading rubrics, and surveillance systems. What we need is a bit of warmth and sunshine that breaks the ice. Overall care and human touch that goes beyond the “let’s all smile and have fun” ice-breaker games. 

Bell hooks says in her book Teaching to Transgress (1994) that “as a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

In the online learning context, care is manifested in our ability to listen, trust, self-disclose and communicate. Listening to (and hearing) what the students are saying, paying attention to even the minor signals that we can sense through the screen. As Julie Byrne, professor in online education, points out, each student contribution, no matter how small, is a bid waiting for a response. She adds that interaction is not simply a matter for educators, it is a shared endeavor that requires co-production between educators and students, and for this to happen, in my view, we as teachers need to first recognize and respond to the students’ contributions, like welcoming them by the name in a Zoom session, replying to their e-mails, or reacting to their comments in a chat.

We need to humanize the online learning experience. To teach through the screen and not to the screen, as Sean Michael Morris says. We need to see the learners as flesh-and-blood human beings even when they are not visible. And we need to be authentic as teachers by giving cues of ourselves as human beings. We have to show our personhood, as Stephen Brookfield (2006) suggests: “when teachers move out from behind their formal identities and role descriptions to allow aspects of themselves to be revealed in the classroom.” 

Brookfield (2006) adds, though, that this does not mean that we should turn the classrooms into zones of personal confession. There is no need to share anything private. By bringing in the personal, giving a glimpse into our non-academic lives, struggles, and interests, the students will hopefully see us as human beings, vulnerable and approachable. Sharing autobiographical stories, anecdotes can help a lot to achieve this.

Communities can only be formed on true dialogues. Let me cite Paulo Freire (1970) here, who says “dialogue cannot exist without humility”. “How can I dialogue, he asks, if I regard myself as a case apart from others - mere "its" in whom I cannot recognize other "I"s? So, in other words, how can I, as a teacher, engage in a true dialogue with my students or how can I ask them to open up to me and to each other if I don’t recognize my own humanness and vulnerability in them and through them?

However, there are some factors that can endanger the development of caring relations and true dialogues. As Suler (2004) and Rose (2017) point out, some people feel a lack of restraint when communicating online. This can happen, for example, due to anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, or the minimization of authority. Online disinhibition, in its mild form, can even be good for community building. When people start sharing personal feelings and disclose themselves, they can establish interpersonal relations sooner. However, disinhibition can take toxic forms, like the use of hostile language, swearing, and even threats. 

Another factor that can work against caring relations is “increased inhibition” or “extreme politeness”. When everyone is just so nice. When there is always an agreement in the group. When the students seek risk-free, “frictionless” relationships, by engaging in excessive niceness, in order to avoid conflicts and hide differences in viewpoints. Such conflict-avoidance can actually stand in the way of ‘straight talk’ and true dialogues.

I agree with Vygotsky (1987), who was an advocate of social learning, that it is only through others that we become ourselves. However, we need to be aware of the factors that can work against caring relations and true dialogues and take steps to eliminate them, for example, by establishing a code of conduct, or some rules of behaviour in an online learning community. We also need to bear in mind that trust is not the same as excessive politeness. As bell hooks (2004) says in her book Teaching Community “Creating trust usually means finding out what it is we have in common as well as what separates us and makes us different. Lots of people fear encountering difference because they think that honestly naming it will lead to conflict.”

Just as important is to share our enthusiasm about our subject. How is this related to care? If we are excited about the topic, if we show true love for our subject, then this will (hopefully) ignite a chain reaction of interest and engagement in our students. Care is also about tending to the topic at hand with genuine interest. As a student, I did not take those courses seriously where the teachers were not pulling their weight or got bored in their own lectures. To build a community, we need communication, engaging dialogues. This can only happen if we care for our students and also for our subject.

Care is intertwined with equity. Equity is not the same as equality. While equity refers to justice or fairness in a given situation, equality means "sameness". As Öztok (2003) says “equity judgments should go beyond the issues of equal access or equal treatment and consider how social, political, and historical dynamics can create unfair or unjust learning situations.” In addition to gender and language inequity, there can be many other factors generating inequity, such as differences in ethnicity, race, social status or in digital literacy. 

Cathy Davidson (2015) makes an important point when she says that “Places and practices that seem democratic do not always work like that”. We need to take a critical look at our teaching practices and also at the tools that we are using from the perspective of equity and accessibility. Whose voice is heard, and whose isn’t. Who has full access to the platform and who hasn’t. We can discuss such questions with the students. Cathy Davidson, for example, suggests scaffolding WITH students and not FOR students, by involving them in the course planning.

It is not easy to transform our established routines radically. Inequity can be present despite our best intentions. For example, it happens that I fail to respond to all the comments in a Zoom chat. Or I do not notice that some participants get disconnected because I focus too much on content. But I am working on this, and also try to raise my students’ awareness. 

Here is a model that most of you are probably familiar with, the Community of Inquiry for online learning, developed by Garrison and his colleagues (Garrison et al. 2000). The model is based on three presences: social, cognitive, and teaching presence. Cognitive presence is about knowledge and skill acquisition in the subject area. Teaching presence includes the practices of instructional design and discourse facilitation. Social presence refers to the ability of people to present themselves as  ‘real’  through a  communication medium. 

Based on the model, an ideal learning experience happens at the intersection of the three presences. In studies on online learning communities, the role of social presence has received special attention. I was doing research on it myself, focusing on students’ self-introductions in virtual exchange projects. However, the model, like any schematic model that depicts successful learning or community building, is not perfect. It has been criticized on various grounds, for example, for its weakness in not considering equity, diversity, and impression management issues.

For example, Sarah Lambert (2020) criticizes the model saying that it conceptualizes the participants mainly based on their presence. In her view, the model lacks showing the diversity of backgrounds, furthermore, it does not take into account how non-privileged learners can be bullied or silenced by higher status and more privileged learners (or even by the teacher).

Murat Öztok (2013) does not deny the benefits of social presence but says that if not implemented carefully, online learning communities can make individuals feel marginalized, isolated, or even oppressed. The neutrality of digitally-mediated environments is a myth; they are NOT culture-free places, which are influenced ONLY by the characteristics of the particular medium. People bring in their socio-historical norms, values, beliefs into online learning environments. Öztok further argues that the Community of Inquiry model does not account for social absence, which is the degree to which individuals hide their differences and true selves. Representing oneself as a good student is a common concern regarding impression management. Social absence could provide a means to understand and address certain identifications that individuals have but do not necessarily enact in digitally-mediated environments because they want to meet expectations and follow norms.

Connected to social presence is participation. Lesley Gourlay (2015) sees it as a problem that silent listening and thinking are assumed to be markers of passivity. She argues that there is a fetishization of the verbal and textual performance, implying a ‘tyranny of participation There is a risk that learning practices that are quiet, private, non-verbal, and non-observable will be seen as deviant.

Alastair Creelman (2017) edited a wonderful collection of tips on how to enhance the engagement of adult silent learners (lurkers) in online courses. The book, The Silent Learner, which is freely available online, communicates the dilemma of whether we should accept silent learners the way they are, or should we try to “improve” them by activating them? Silent learners, the book argues, may learn just as much as active participants but they do not make their learning publicly visible. So educators should develop individualized or diverse learning resources that support silent learners. The guide offers some ideas on how to do this. But, as educators, how can we find time for this?

Reinholz et al. (2020) in their article A Pandemic Crash Course describe concrete strategies that instructors used when switching to online teaching under COVID-19, so under ERT, to promote equitable participation in their online classes, for example, re-establishing norms, using chat-based participation, polling software, creating an inclusive curriculum, and cutting content. 

Silent learners make me think about camera use in online classes. Is it really important to insist on camera use?. As Maha Bali points out,  “Most ppl want cameras on from day 1 to build community. I say the opposite. Give them time to trust you and each other before turning the camera on.” “voices first and cameras second”. 

In principle and also in practice, I have followed this suggestion. So, at the start of the term, I took a very flexible approach as a teacher and said that I would welcome camera use but also said that it was up to the students to decide whether they had it on. Now, in the middle of the spring term, about 10% of my students have their cameras on. Some of my colleagues, who were pushing more for the camera use from the first class onward, have now about 50-70% of the students with cameras. This makes me wonder if I was right being so lenient. Perhaps enforced camera use does generate a better atmosphere, and we as teachers should push it more. I don’t know. As long as many staff members do not switch on their cameras in faculty meetings, I don’t feel like imposing camera use on my students. 

In addition to care and equity, we need some fun. Play is good for learning and good for the soul. Neurologist and educator Judith Willis (2014) says, ”The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.” Fun experiences can increase levels of dopamine, endorphins, and oxygen – all things that promote meaningful learning. As a result, students are more alert and the information that’s being presented to them is attached to their memories as a positive emotional event. 

Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. The outside world ceases to exist because we are so immersed in the activity. We lose a sense of time and space. Flow experience can also develop in teamwork if there is collective ambition, common goal, aligned personal goals, high skill integration, open communication, safety, and mutual commitment. The tasks need to be enjoyable but also challenging. If we want good interaction, we need a problem. 

In her recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2021) emphasizes the role of play as one of the most natural ways to learn. She says that especially now, in pandemic times, when the news and people’s social media feeds and daily conversations are so filled with danger and threat, play is particularly needed. She suggests using icebreakers or warm-up activities, playful activities involving movement, and basically, any activity is good that breaks the routine of an online class. So doing something out of the box, something fun. You can find a very good collection of such community-building activities on the Equity Unbound website, administered by education experts Maha Bali, Catherina Cronin, and Mia Zamora. 

In order to integrate play, we need imagination literacy. I agree with Sean Michael Morris, who says that ”Imagination is not a doing, an action. Imagination is perception, a way of seeing. Knowing without knowing why.” He calls this ability “imagination literacy”. For me, it entails a sort of optimism and hope. Our ability to have a vision.

I’ve been on a roller coaster in terms of my online learning and teaching experiences. What has brought me the most joy (and where I could apply imagination literacy the most) are these two initiatives, both built on international collaboration. Virtual Exchange is something that I enjoy doing a lot. UniCollaboration is one of the biggest associations of VE in Europe. But you do not need to join any association to get started. 

With one or two teacher colleagues who work in other countries, you can design a collaborative online project for your students that involves teamwork, problem-solving and joint creation. The projects run for about 6-8 weeks and the teachers act as facilitators. Our present project (see also Háhn and Radke 2020) is focusing on virtual tourism, with students participating from Finland, Poland, and the Netherlands. We take an interdisciplinary approach: there are language majors, experts in tourism and ICT, and business students. I’m doing research on data collected from the projects and also report on the outcomes in my blog.

Open Networked Learning is a free online course offered for educators. I completed the course two years ago and now I’m back as a co-facilitator. Perhaps the term ”course” is not the best because ONL is more like an experience, an approach, and a community. It is a kind of virtual exchange but for teachers and education experts. We focus on topics like online learning, digital literacy sharing and open learning, and community building. It’s a lot of work but also a lot of fun! 

In my view, care, equity, and creativity are the keys to online learning communities. In the present situation, under Emergency Remote Teaching, when you are working from home, balancing a laptop on your knees (like I’m doing now), with kids being at home, it is not easy to make all classes engaging and equitable. It is OK to cut content. It is OK not to be perfect. It’s important that we also care about ourselves. As the title of this conference says ”Change is the only constant.” What we should not lose is our enthusiasm and our flexibility to be able to imagine or re-imagine online teaching and learning practices. 


Bali, M. (2020) Voices first, faces second: Behind the tweet. Maha Bali’s blog on education. 
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Creelman, A. (2017) The Silent Learner: A Guide. Nordic Council of Ministers. 
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Háhn, J. & Radke, K. (2020). Combining expertise from linguistics and tourism: A tale of two cities. In Helm, Francesca; Beaven, Ana (Eds), Designing and implementing virtual exchange – a collection of case studies (pp. 11-22). 
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.
hooks, b. (2004). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge.
Morris, S. M. (2020a). Times Which Require Greater Care: Ethos in Online learning. Blog post. 
Morris, S. M. (2020b). Teaching through the Screen and the Necessity of Imagination Literacy. Plenary talk at the OEB Global online event, Berlin 
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Reinholz, D.L., Stone-Johnstone, A., White, I., Sianez, L. M., Shah, N.  (2020) A Pandemic Crash Course: Learning to teach equitability in synchronous online classes. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 19(4).  
Rose,  E. (2017) Beyond social presence: Facelessness and the ethics of asynchronous online education. McGill Journal of Education / Revue Des Sciences De l’éducation De McGill, 52(1). 
Stommel, J. (2020). How to Build an Online Learning Community: 6 Theses. Virtual keynote at the University Innovation Alliance Spring 2020 Convening. 
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(3), 321–326. 
Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The genesis of higher mental functions. In R. Reiber (Ed.), The history of the development of higher mental functions (Vol. 4, pp. 97-120). New York: Plennum. 
Willis, J. (2014) The neuroscience behind stress and learning. Edutopia. 


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