As we enter the learning space, and our students return to the virtual classrooms or physical classrooms, many instructors, parents, and students have concerns and wonder how the learning may feel in the fall? Will we feel connected, will we be seen and heard, and will we feel like we belong? As we, students and teachers alike, aim to foster inquiry, curiosity, agency, and growth, we can’t lose sight of what can best support this opportunity to learn, risk, and think critically—care and belonging.
When we look to design and guide learning with care for our students' well being and individuality, we can move beyond the ‘all of the feels’ and towards fostering a sense of belonging. To do this, instructors might take the time to honor their student’s individuality, backgrounds, or needs by creating an introduction opportunity or develop a sign-up sheet for individual student conferences at the beginning of the course to really get to know each other. We might also treat our topics or learning activities more dynamically in response to our students' needs or intrigue. These can be opportunities for students to develop a sense of acceptance or belonging and become full agents in their own learning.
Many of us have heard the phrase ‘instructional presence’ or ‘social presence’ or ‘teaching presence’ in the distance education and online learning spaces and know it well from educational and industry-accepted frameworks like the Community of Inquiry. Teaching presence is the active engagement of faculty with students throughout the course, learning experience, or activity and aims to move from surface level learning to a deeper level of engaged learning, but this definition of presence might not always consider the student’s agency in the learning. In other words, we are trained or encouraged to think about our own participation and how our students can show up in our classroom tasks, but does thinking about presence in our designs focus on our learner’s agency, feelings, or curiosity? Imagine that we aimed to foster belonging instead of presence and designed experiences and put forth the care to have our students and ourselves feel like we belong. If presence is just merely feeling noticed and being ‘there’ then belonging is the feeling where learners and instructors-alike can take risk, pursue curiosity, spark passion, and fuel deeper peer-to-peer camaraderie and collaboration.
So what does fostering belonging look like in the digital learning space? Let’s consider this deeper level of care and intentional, connective presence as we learn with our peers in our DPL workshops. Let’s prioritize connection and belonging in our designs over our pursuit of finely tuned assessment. Let’s consider pedagogy, digital literacy, and our student’s access while selecting our technologies. Let’s design to care for our students and honor the individuals and create space to let student’s curiosity influence the problems, topics, tasks, and products of their learning. Let’s push beyond a stagnant, canned presence and reach for more than good vibes and ‘all of the feels’, let’s create spaces for belonging where care guides risk and inquiry. As we reflect on our learning in the DPL workshops and courses, let’s consider how we might foster a sense of belonging in our unique learning contexts.