Promoting connection and inclusivity: How online classrooms create a sense of belonging and foster community

Talia Kolodny
By Talia Kolodny on June 16, 2022

Is it possible to create meaningful connections in a virtual STEM classroom? Three accomplished educators shared their inspiring stories of impact at the Engage 2022 Global Summit

When Dr. David Attipoe traveled from Ghana to Senegal for his master’s study, it was his first experience with a mixed group of French and English-speaking Africans. The idea of Francophone and Anglophone Africans collaborating seemed absurd at first. “That is not how it was done in Ghana,” said Dr. Attipoe, “but it gave us so much perspective being able to have these kinds of interactions and free flow of ideas.”

The human connections and global nature of the encounter inspired Dr. Attipoe. “Interacting with people with different perspectives continuously, helped all of us become exceptionally good mathematicians,” he said.

Today, in a world disrupted by a global pandemic, educators long for the kind of connection and engagement they remember from their in-person experiences. But they are bound and limited by tools and online environments that fall short. Providing STEM learners with a sense of belonging in diverse virtual classrooms has been a challenge. An insufficient learning environment can lead learners to become disengaged, demotivated, or lost. However, when technology is intentionally chosen, the true magic of learning can resurface.

recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal published on June 6, 2022 ultimately underscores Attipoe’s point: the wrong technology can have undesirable outcomes. 

Written by Jeff Smith, a California math teacher with a self-proclaimed 28-years “in the trenches,” the short article describes how he was a witness to the “unmitigated disaster that remote learning has been for American children,” adding, “Zoom school was no education for my math students.” He claims 80 percent of those students received virtually no math education and ultimately spent the year backsliding, noting, “Most in the class tuned out. Now they’re lastingly behind.” This sentiment has been echoed elsewhere but is noteworthy because educators only had the tools that were accessible to them at the time that remote learning was thrust upon them, and those tools weren’t purpose-built for education. 

This is no longer our reality.

Lessons have been learned, and intentional technology developed for education can create a deeply connected, additive environment for remote, hybrid, synchronous, and asynchronous education.

Leading educators like Dr. Attipoe shared their perspectives on classroom connection and belonging with me at the Engage 2022 Virtual Summit and how this can be achieved through remote learning. Panelists included Dr. Cristina Amon, the alumni distinguished professor and Dean Emerita at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering; Dr. David Attipoe, Managing Director of nonprofit, Industry Immersion Africa (iiAfrica) and its African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) program with ESMT Berlin; and, Dr. Aviv Censor, Senior Teaching Associate from the Department of Mathematics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Collaborative Peer Groups Strengthen a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom

When Dr. Amon first came to the United States for her doctoral studies, she met students from diverse backgrounds, countries, and cultures. She immediately felt self-conscious about her identity as a Spanish-speaking female scholar. She was hesitant to voice her opinion or ask questions. “Today,” she said, “with online learning platforms like Engageli, there is the option to ask questions anonymously if learners feel uncomfortable and are not ready to be exposed.” This option was not available to her at the time, leaving her with complex learning challenges, on her own.

To alleviate this feeling of isolation, Amon joined a study group with other Spanish-speaking students. There, she found her community. “Finding my peer group was key to my success. We stayed connected for many decades," She said. "We supported each other and learned as a group, but as importantly, we had a responsibility to the team to be accountable for our collective progress. It was the way we were able to find our sense of belonging—having a smaller peer group of people we could relate to, inside the larger classroom.”

Establishing Diverse Virtual Teams Can Break Barriers

Dr. Aviv Censor is regarded as a national celebrity by many students across Israel as proven by his popular YouTube math playlists enabling thousands of students to tackle advanced math topics. In recent years, Dr. Censor has been experimenting with methods to enhance the learning experience and learning outcomes in very large classes, in particular, he developed meaningful peer review activities and a contest of virtual escape rooms based on math riddles. 

Dr. Censor highlighted the challenges related to language itself as the student population in Israel is culturally diverse and students speak several native languages including Arabic, Russian, and French. However, almost all classes at the Technion are taught in Hebrew. “I see math as yet another language that students need to learn,” Dr. Censor said. “This creates an additional gap for us to bridge in the learning process. When students feel more secure, they speak more, engage more in the classroom, and in turn, become more fluent with the new language - math.”

When classes went virtual at the Technion, Dr. Censor took advantage of technology-enhanced learning. “In-person, people tend to group with people they know. In online activities such as the virtual escape rooms, students were led to form teams of diverse backgrounds, and then had an amazing experience working creatively together and learning from each other,” said Dr. Censor.

In his virtual Engageli classrooms, Dr. Censor uses random table group arrangements, mixing the students every meeting and creating diverse group dynamics. This approach, supported by several robust studies, incentivizes students to collaborate with new people and ideas.

Today’s Classroom is a Concept that Goes Beyond Time and Space

In 2019, a new engineering building opened at the University of Toronto. Classrooms were intentionally designed for teamwork. They included table seating in teams of four to six learners and flexible furniture that can adapt to different learning activities. It is typical to see cohorts of 1,000 students at the university. But even in large cohorts, Engineering courses include a variety of team projects and small group learning. “The course is developed this way because of the importance of learning to work collaboratively from day one," said Dr. Amon.

Yet, since the pandemic, the key challenge at UToronto has been connecting physical spaces with digital learning. In-person and remote learning aren’t mutually exclusive. Today’s learners don’t want to choose between them, but rather enjoy the advantages of each.

“Changing physical infrastructure is something that takes decades,” said Dr. Amon, referring to the 90,000-student university. “But today, with platforms like Engageli, implementing teamwork and active learning is quick and easy online. If we were designing that building today, we would have considered it better to combine online learning scenarios with physical ones. When used together they are very powerful and effective.”

Another such example is the transition from fully in-person learning to a blended approach in the AIMS program, led by Dr. Attipoe. His main concern was keeping the interaction alive. “I was passionate about this. If we could not keep the existing interaction, we would lose the human essence of what our classrooms are supposed to provide.”

The iiAfrica team redesigned the curriculum to create a blended environment, using Engageli’s learning platform. This allowed the program to bring together peers from across the continent. “These students may have never met each other in a million years,” he said. “But now, they can interact and form bonds that will continue to grow into the future. Participants even launched their consulting firm, with one person in Uganda, one in Saudi Arabia, and one in Kenya. A spontaneous creation like this would have been unimaginable before. The virtual nature of our collaboration makes it possible.”


Published by
Talia Kolodny
Talia Kolodny
June 16, 2022