Digital Learning & Design

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In this guide you will find resources to build and sustain communities online. Our approach is grounded in designing spaces and experiences that are engaging, meaningful, and inclusive. These practices can be applied to both in-person and online settings. 

Have questions? The Digital Learning and Design team is available for consultations to help you and your team/department meet your specific needs. Please contact to schedule a meeting.

The way we are using the word “community” is to refer to meaningful connections made between individuals or groups that create affinity. These communities might be temporary or they might be lasting. 

In the fall of 2019, on-campus programs had inherent resources and spaces to foster community. A gesture as small as assigning a physical ID card, for example, signified to students that they were a part of something larger than themselves, that they had access to all Brown has to offer. 

The world has since undergone profound changes and our programs now have different needs. In particular, society as a whole is exploring new ways to socialize digitally. The good news is forethought and informed design can create meaningful experiences. What’s more, we can measure these efforts to ensure they are successful.

Before you offer any online programming, there are a few factors you should consider first. The following reflective questions will help you design programs that meet or exceed your goals.

  • What are your intended outcomes? Be as specific as possible. How did you achieve those before? How might you reimagine meeting them in a virtual setting?
  • Who is your audience and what are their needs? For example:
    • Do they need accessibility accommodations? Connect with participants early on to find out their needs and make accommodation plans with SAS.
    • What would put them at ease? Are they strangers in need of an icebreaker to gain affinity with other participants? 
    • How comfortable are they with virtual conferencing technology (Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.)? Would a short tutorial at the start get everyone on the same page? Would incorporating small groups (Breakout Rooms) allow for more personal discussions?
    • How would they enjoy participating (verbally, non-verbally, visually, etc.)? How might you provide multiple opportunities for engagement? 
    • How might you keep the conversations going? Would an asynchronous written reflection shared between participants after the program solidify bonds?
  • How might you incorporate flexibility in program planning? In a rapidly evolving world, making time to assess and pivot is critical to the success of any event. For example, asking participants to self-report comfort levels with a topic informs the facilitator about the group's proficiency and whether additional support may be needed to get the group on the same page.

Top tips:

  • Consider how you will communicate the purpose, agenda, and schedule of the program.
  • Understand the politics of your platforms (principle from artist/educator Paul Souelis’s “Urgent Craft”). Zoom fatigue is real. If your programming relies on synchronous interactions, support those who may need to turn their videos/screens off and participate verbally.
  • Remember that participants may be facing distress and/or depression during this challenging time. Keeping expectations/barriers for participation low is a mercy. A centering activity could help participants be present, in the moment.
  • Ask participants to share pronouns verbally or in their zoom name. Attendees introducing themselves ensures other attendees can pronounce names correctly.
  • Invite self-awareness in participants by asking them to reflect on the following questions during a group discussion (practice from Making/Being): Why am I talking? Why am I not talking? 
  • Take an inclusive approach to designing your program; design with your users rather than for them. Inviting others to review your ideas invites diverse voices and perspectives to engage in the design process.

Additional Resources: 

Maybe one of your goals includes creating opportunities for informal conversation between participants (we recommend it!). Here are a few methods that can provide opportunities for informal communication.

  • Encourage participants to self-organize. Opening the door to allow them to decide how they want to gather ensures they’re organizing in a way that’s relevant to their needs. Check-in to make sure the platform they choose (Google Groups, Google Chat, Slack) is accessible for all and is working well for them. Is there a way to incentivize self-organization? 
  • At the beginning, provide students with prompts. As time goes on, they will develop authentic, personal bonds.
  • Reserve time for informal but facilitated check-ins. A simple solution (such as the game rose, thorn, bud) when used consistently, often works best.
  • Remember that bonding can take place in free-form environments (such as an un-facilitated group chat) or structured environments (such as a recipe-share).
  • Find ways to bring Brown to the forefront of participants’ minds. Host a guest speaker from another department, curate a suggested Brown reading or viewing list, remind students of resources still available to them. 
  • Consider ways to bridge synchronous (real time) interactions with asynchronous (no specific time or space) interactions through discussion forums or text chats or group websites/blogs. (See student-centered asynchronous discussions)

Virtual environments provide a variety of approaches to fostering meaningful and accessible connections. 

  • Create a balance between both formal and informal approaches. A formal approach might be designing a peer-review assignment. An informal approach might be having a place for open discussion within your course.  
  • Encourage rapport through the language you use and questions you ask learners. Maybe you include an anonymous poll at the beginning of each class or week.  
  • Every group of students is different so you may consider a few different approaches. Setting the conditions and providing a place for easy sharing are useful starting points. 
  • While the virtual environment is different, consider what has worked for your courses in the past. Is there something that you could try that would help foster community and would translate well to the online space?

Need help coming up with online community building activities? Consider the examples below.

Canvas Asynchronous Discussions

Canvas Discussions offer a space where students can share thoughts through text, audio, or video. Including an informal discussion in your course can foster a sense of community. Invite students to submit images of their favorite things. Or have them make a short video they feel exemplifies who they are and what they like. 

Group Work

Create teams or small groups (3-5 students) to complete meaningful academic assignments. First, be sure the group work aligns with the assignment goals. Students will want to know why they are being asked to work in groups. Depending upon the intended outcomes, provide students with the resources and tools they need to be successful. If they are struggling the facilitator/instructor needs to know what the group needs to overcome their challenges. At the end of the task, utilize a feedback exercise of some sort that will provide meaningful and actionable feedback to everyone on the team.

Learn more: 

Choose Your Own Assignment

Foster collaboration and agency in your course by having students design an assignment. Share the basic parameters and expectations and then have groups of students design the rest of the assignment. They can then share their assignment in a discussion to be put to a vote. The assignment that wins the most votes then becomes the official assignment. 

Setting Expectations

One way to create community is to envision what the principles of that community would be and set those expectations up front with a Community Statement. It’s valuable to personalize your community statement and to let students know how to share any concerns that may arise. You may consider asking students to suggest additional norms as well. For more statement examples and ideas about norms see Diversity & Inclusion Syllabus Statements (Sheridan Center) and Safe/Brave Space Policy (Art+Feminism). This is one Brown-specific example:

  • Commitment to an Inclusive and Respectful Learning Community | At Brown University, we strive for a sense of community in which the growth and learning of all members is advanced through the cultivation of mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding. Brown University values a socially responsible community within which a spirit of free inquiry and individuality may flourish while also promoting the honest, open, and equitable engagement with racial, religious, gender, ethnic, sexual orientation and other differences. The University seeks to promote an inclusive environment that is integral to the academic, educational and community purposes of the institution.In that spirit, this course aims to build an inclusive and equitable learning community where differences are valued and respected, and students feel both supported and challenged. We ask you to uphold the principles of the University community as you engage in all aspects of the course.

Learn more: Principles of the Brown University Community

Using Design Approaches like Gamification

Gamification is a design methodology that can foster community and engagement in unique ways because the principles of the approach focus on motivation. Gamification is the process of using game mechanics and game thinking in non-game contexts. So in this case, a course would be the non-game context and game mechanics are the game elements the learner engages with to “play” within your course. Some examples of game mechanics are avatars, progress bars, points, signposts, story narrative, and items.

Gamification design can be applied to the entire course or just a component (ex: a single assignment or maybe a multi-week project). With this approach, your course becomes game-like in nature, but is not fully a game. In order to figure out what mechanics are the right ones to use, you would consider the following: 

  • The learning goals
  • The students in your course (what motivates them as individuals)
  • The overall experience you are creating 

One of the easiest ways to start is to use a gamelike framework that already exists (ex: escape room or fantasy sports) and design the experience within that. The Digital Learning & Design Team can also provide resources on how to design with this approach. Professor Jim Egan has extensive experience in using gamification for course design and welcomes questions as well.

There are a variety of ways to gather feedback on your programming to learn what went well and what could go better next time. Keep in mind that for many individuals, our “new normal” is just that- new. As time goes on, individuals will gain confidence in participating virtually and have innovative ideas about how to participate together.

A few methods for gathering data include:

  • Ending your session or following up with an anonymous survey including qualitative questions that measure the cultural climate. For example, asking questions such as “Did this event meet or exceed your expectations?” or "Would you recommend this to a friend?"
  • Ending the program by asking participants to share directly what went well or what could have gone better. This works well in tandem with the previously mentioned anonymous follow-up survey.
  • For a course with multiple points of engagement, sending out a check-in survey.
  • Encourage a culture of inquiry. Praise or incentivize question-asking whether it comes in-the-moment or after the fact. The content of the questions asked are a barometer for participant comfort-levels and understanding. Are they asking clarifying questions? Are they asking reflective questions which show interest or cognition? Do they feel comfortable asking questions? Why or why not?
  • How much participation did you have? Why or why not?