Published on 2016/07/28
The EvoLLLution | No One Is an Island, But How Can We Build a Continent? (Part 3)
The creation of virtual communities is particularly important for online faculty as a culture of inclusion and belonging can be incredibly difficult to achieve at a distance.

This is the third installment in a four-part series by Jamie Holcomb on the creation of engaging and inclusive faculty communities. In the last segment, Holcomb discussed the creation of educational partnerships and the importance of expectation management. In this installment, Holcomb sheds some light on what it takes to create virtual communities.

The Virtual Community: A Space for Learning and Collaboration

Community, by definition, is associated with a defined space or location. Even in a virtual environment, one must establish “home base,” so to speak. A virtual place that all members can visit, work within, communicate with each other, and share resources in the spirit of collaboration. This is a vital component to bringing people together and helping online faculty feel like they are part of the continent instead of islands all on their own.

There are different ways to achieve this. You might use an online classroom modified for instructor collaboration rather than student use, or if that option is not viable, technologies such as Padlet or Google Docs are ways to create virtual spaces to connect. The most important aspect is that the space, whatever it may be, is shared with all faculty associated with the group/team.

Once this space has been created, it then becomes time to revisit some of those questions for change mentioned earlier. What makes you happy at work? Are friendships at work a component of happiness? Do positive work relationships contribute to overall enjoyment and excitement for the organization? I believe that many people would agree that friendships, and positive work relationships, make for a better work experience and work environment overall. With that said, what makes online educators any different? Friendships at work are often grown through things people share in common both in work and outside of work. Therefore, our community space must provide an opportunity for people to connect not only on work topics, but on topics outside of work that are inclusive and enable people get to know each other a little better. Ideally, people should also have access to technology that allows for synchronous communication in combination with asynchronous communication. This isn’t always available, but if possible, should be integrated to foster the development of positive work relationships.

When further considering what contributes to happiness at work, it is important that we look to our question: What motivates me to try new things and refine my craft?

As educators, I believe lifelong learning is something we are naturally drawn to. As such, this curiosity and desire to learn should be celebrated and encouraged because it is fun to learn new things and master new techniques. Providing opportunities (formal or informal) for faculty to learn new things is a great way to help keep the teaching component of education fresh and exciting.

What are some ways to do this? As mentioned earlier, approaching things more informally is a great way to bring people together. Showcasing new technologies by creating educational artifacts, tools and resources for the classroom is a great way to generate excitement for new teaching tools. To do this, one might consider implementing a new technology into a communication to showcase the technology and then provide some information on how to use it. If/when faculty experiment with the technology, encouraging them to share with each other is a great way to further those positive professional relationships. This might necessitate a new space within the community such as a “faculty gallery” or a “toolbox” of sorts. Technologies that appeal to all types of learners and personalities should be shared so that all faculty can find something that appeals to them, excites their curiosity, and generates genuine happiness through mastery and implementation.

We know that learning new skills can often contribute to overall happiness and positive relationships. In a 2013 conference paper titled, Mastery in happiness – the role of expertise in everyday life, co-authors Agnieszka Bozek and Ryszar Stocki wrote, “Preliminary results confirm the influence of expertise on the feeling of happiness and the dependency between happiness and continuous education or satisfaction with relationships with others.”[6] By providing opportunities for faculty to learn new things that they can master and apply to the classroom, we are fostering an environment that contributes to overall happiness. And, as stated earlier, I firmly believe happy, enthusiastic instructors will positively impact students in the classroom.

Within a community, there are often celebrations and awards presented. These contribute positively to the way people feel about their community, their desire to participate themselves, and their overall happiness. Consider your local town newspaper, for instance. Aren’t various contributions to the community recognized big and small, young and old, professional and recreational? Absolutely, and for good reason! This is no less important in a virtual work community, and recognition does seem to contribute to happiness at work. In a 2014 Forbes article, Martin Zwilling explains that smaller, more frequent recognition contributes more to employee happiness than larger, less frequent awards.[7] Encouraging people to showcase their work in the community and frequently recognizing their contributions in both large and small formats will positively contribute to instructor happiness and, I believe, the sense of community as well.

Communities also house resources for community members. Again, consider your physical community (town) and all the resources that are readily available and also consider an office/workplace community and the resources available to staff/employees. An online community should also house resources to assist community members in their work and day-to-day functions. For online faculty, this might come in the form of sample classroom items, featured technologies, or even a how-to video library to help instructors navigate some of the technical demands they frequently encounter. By including resources within the community, we’re establishing the community as a valuable hub, or a “one-stop shop” for everything an online faculty member needs to have a successful, engaging and enjoyable experience with the organization, their colleagues, and ultimately the students within their classes as well.

Finally, communities help create a sense of belonging. This is an important component to happiness in the workplace and one that should not be overlooked in the online environment. A sense of belonging is a fundamental component of happiness and wellbeing for many people and, as we learned earlier, happiness is directly tied to productivity. In a short 2014 article by Alena Hall titled, These 6 Things Will Make You Happier at Work, she quoted Brian Shepland, the general manager of Turnstone, in an interview he gave to HuffPost Live, who said:

The workplace can serve as a destination to bring people together. … As people are sort of burning the candle at both ends and working 24/7, if you can create a sense of choice and control in the office for people to work where they want to work and come to connect with others, if you can create spaces where they informally and socially connect, that really builds trust. And when you have trust, you build a sense of belonging. When you have belonging, you have wellbeing and you’re happy at work and healthier at work.[8]

Shepland’s quote summarizes many of the points presented above about community. What is important to note, however, is Shepland’s connection between belonging, wellbeing, happiness and health. This is why belonging is so important for us to achieve in an online environment. Furthermore, Shepland is not alone in his belief that belonging is important. In a 2014 article by Lisa Shelley, she referenced neuroscience research that looked at social needs and how humans manage them much like their primary survival needs, which means they are pretty important. She then applied those social needs to the workplace and referenced the importance of belonging in the statement below:

Employees that find their environment supporting social needs such as belonging have significantly improved enjoyment and performance. When the brain is the reward state, employees perceive more options to solve problems, are more insightful, collaborate better and have higher performance overall. When employees feel a sense of belonging and identification with the organization, they are naturally motivated to help it succeed.[9]

Shelley goes on to offer her recommendation on how to achieve belonging in the workplace. Some of her strategies include leading in a way that makes an emotional connection with employees through inspiration, educating leadership on how to be “open, available and inclusive,” getting to know all employees as people, encouraging people to connect with each other and have fun, and providing employees with an opportunity to share their voice and be heard.[10] These strategies, although not specific to an online environment, are certainly applicable to an online environment. Furthermore, these strategies, in combination with the additional points above, can positively impact the sense of community and belonging developed for online educators working remotely, thus impacting overall happiness and creating positive outcomes in the classroom as well!

In the next and final installment in this series, Holcomb shares the Virtual Wheel of Success before reflecting on what it will take to make this inclusive faculty community a reality. All references will be listed in the conclusion.

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