Managing Classroom Culture and Community in Online Learning

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Thursday, May 20 | 3:30PM – 4:30PM


Steven Secord, Instructor, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Orillia, Ontario

Justine Johal, Vice principal Hyland Elementary in the Surrey School District (UBC BEd’15 and Masters student)


Helen DeWaard, Learning Designer, ETS

Yvonne Dawydiak, Manager, Learning Design, Teacher Education


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In our Viewpoints session, “Managing Classroom Culture and Community in Online Learning”, we welcomed observations and reflections from faculty, staff and students as they discussed the many dynamics of facilitating and managing the online classroom. In this session, we were joined by Steven Secord, Instructor, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Ontario and Justine Johal, Vice-principal Hyland Elementary in the Surrey School District (UBC BEd’15 and Masters student).

Opening remarks

Steven Secord
Steven Secord began by describing his work in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University as a digital curriculum specialist and instructor. He focused on “how to engage students and make sure that they are part of the class and they’re part of the community.” Referring to the work of Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2001) and ideas of Community of Inquiry, Steven highlighted the importance of cognitive, teaching, and social presence and continued with pointing out that “our role as teachers is to design, facilitate, and direct cognitive and social parts of the class”. He described his work over the pandemic of “humanizing the learning environment” as important to building connections. Over this time, he found that students were craving it and actually began to request increased Zoom sessions to be able to connect. He also described using Flipgrid to engage students before the class begins with a fun interactive introduction. Another point was the importance of learning the student’s names, and particularly the name they like to be called versus their official name. In addition to these techniques, Steven used drop-in sessions that were interactive and allowed students to present their ideas and share was useful for connecting.

Justine Johal
Justine Johal, who is a vice-principal, but also teaches a grade 2, 3, and 4 combined class in a blended format, brought an elementary school viewpoint to the session. She pointed out that she often gets asked if there is classroom management in online teaching “and the answer is yes, you still have to manage your classroom: kids who are shouting out and unmuting and just doing silly things on camera and messaging in the chat.”

For Justine, there was a key process to classroom management and building community and it was based on establishing expectations and a culture of care.

“In my classroom, in terms of classroom management, I always set out the expectations at the beginning of the year. We can create them together and we co-create criteria for what are the expectations in the classroom and for the first few months, we follow those really, really strictly until the kids can get into a habit of following those rules and just showing respect to each other. That’s what it’s all about, showing respect to each other. But what I find makes the biggest impact on my classroom management is really building that classroom community. (…) I’m not so much managing as I am, just showing them that I care, that I respect you and I expect you to also show respect to me.”

Justine described her use of the zones of regulation for managing the classroom. The zones of regulation are a simple way to teach students to recognize their feelings by color. She uses techniques to bring them back to the green zone which is their “ready to learn zone” but with an understanding that it is okay to feel other emotions.

“A big piece for me is teaching my kids how to self-regulate. And that’s really my classroom management as teaching them to be aware of their feelings when they’re feeling a little bit off. What caused you to feel off today? And what can we do to help you get back to that ready-to-learn zone? … it is super important because when we talk about classroom management and behaviors, Those behaviors, there’s a reason for all those behaviors. And really the key is to figure out what is that reason. And knowing that, knowing, having them know that I genuinely care and I want to know what the reason is.”

Justine also described the importance of morning meetings with the students and allowing them to share and hear from each other. After Justine’s opening words, many of the participants agreed that whether you are working with university students or grade 3s most people want to feel like you care and want to share and be heard.

Justine’s experiences and efforts to connect with her students and foster self-regulated learning (SRL) bring to mind Dr. Nancy Perry’s research into SRL. Dr. Perry had hoped to join us but was unable to do so. In her absence, we can look to a book chapter she co-edited recently. In chapter 29 of The Sage Handbook of Developmental Psychology in Early Childhood (2019) on understanding the role of motivation in children’s self-regulation for learning, Dr. Perry found that “children are more willing to engage with tasks and activities that exercise their capacities for SRL when they perceive a safe and supportive learning context” (Perry, Lisaingo & Ford, p.13). Establishing such an environment includes teacher modeling and the provision of supportive feedback focusing on a students’ “effort, effective strategy use and progress”. This modeling and feedback will help students develop a growth mindset (Dweck in Perry, Lisaingo & Ford p. 3) and contribute to the development of a positive learning community. While the studies Perry cites are from face-to-face environments, we might learn from and apply her findings to online learning environments.

Discussion themes

The participants came from a range of backgrounds among which were technologists, faculty, learning designers, K-12 teachers. This led to a range of perspectives on the topic and a few themes that occurred throughout the discussion.

The role of synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication in building community was discussed. With Steven’s success with students wanting to Zoom for connections, others in the group noticed that many of their students were experiencing Zoom fatigue. Some participants acknowledged that due to Zoom fatigue, they were now looking at more asynchronous approaches. One participant mentioned that it is not only Zoom fatigue but pandemic fatigue that was hard to overcome at the moment within the classroom. Getting students enthusiastic was not always easy a year into the pandemic. This was recognized by university and K-12 teachers. Another factor mentioned was that students may also be reacting to the curve of technology adoption, and it is a possibility that when first introduced at the beginning of the pandemic there was a novelty factor, but the excitement can wane.

One participant pointed out that they work in the K-12 with lower SES students who may not want to (or their families don’t want to) show their house and that you had to be conscious of this when building community. There had to be other options and the possibility of the screen off to create a comfortable interaction.

On a fun note, a special needs instructor described inviting guests the students would recognize to ‘Zoom bomb’ their class as a strategic opportunity and others also mused at how sometimes coming into people’s lives and meeting their pets and kids was an opportunity for connection.

A conversation throughout the viewpoint session centered around the importance of giving purpose and incentive to community-building activities. Sometimes that incentive can simply be the provision of a time and space to come and interact with your peers and ask questions. However, for some groups that may not be as appealing. Group assignments where students need to come together were mentioned by one participant. This gave students an incentive and reason to interact in a constructive way.

One participant posed the question of “why would they want to show up?”. You need to give them a reason. This again led to a conversation about the importance of purpose. One post-secondary instructor directly built this into his class and brought it back to the students by asking “why are we doing this?” for each activity.

When students are online, they do not always have their cameras on and are not always engaged. The participant then mentioned a group of strategies they were using to lower the barriers and increase participation, such as launching polls, encouraging students to use emojis, post in the chat, raise a virtual hand when done, or providing prompts to get up and go find an object and bring it back to share… all of these helped lower student’s barriers and create community. In the K-12 system, setting expectations and routines was also seen as crucial for a functioning community. This was humorously commented on by post-secondary instructors as also being crucial for their students who recognized that setting a tone is important regardless of the age group of the learner.

With some of the tools that can be fun icebreakers, some participants were concerned about FIPPA compliance, privacy. This issue also brought up a conversation around the different workplaces and understanding what tools were in place. Having options that were accessible was important to an inclusive community yet ensuring the learning space isn’t overly complex or distracting was noted by some to be essential.

One participant mentioned that universities have specific hierarchical structures and power dynamics between instructors and students which also play into community building. Those where the instructor is seen as being separate can be problematic. Instead, it is important to let students know you are human and part of the community.

Another problem was that sometimes building community, creating routine, and creating a fun place took time and this could conflict with a thick curriculum. One participant noted that sometimes it is necessary to say that all the work will not get done, but community is important and should be seen as an essential aspect of learning.

In line with the incentive, there was an acknowledgment that building in fun could help engage students, create community, and create the humanizing aspect that Steven mentioned. For one participant, it was creating a synchronous ‘homework time’ space with music and a place to chat and hang out.

One teacher mentioned the use of gamification to engage students and give them that sense of purpose. She mentioned that just getting them excited, having fun, and seeing the light come on was important. This led to a conversation about building spaces for students (and sometimes families) to have fun. Whether this means creating art channels, shopping channels, or gamifying the environment, these more social spaces can lead to deeper community engagement. One participant mentioned an informal game they played by changing things in the Zoom background and seeing students notice and start guessing what had been changed each time they came on.

Another participant reflected on being a student and the importance of planned social events at the university and by instructors. She felt that this did a lot to connect her with others and the community and wondered if these types of events might be used with learners in K12 as well.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7–23.

Perry, N., Lisaingo, S., & Ford, L. (2019). Understanding the role of motivation in children’s self-regulation for learning. In D. WhitebreadV. Grau, & K. Kumpulainen The SAGE handbook of developmental psychology and early childhood education (pp. 517-534). SAGE Publications Ltd,

Kuypers, L. (2001). Zones of Regulation.

A few resources were also made available prior to the sessions.

Arduini-Van Hoose, N. (n.d.) Classroom Management and Why it Matters. [ebook chapter] Educational Psychology. Lumen Learning. [This 2020 Educational Psychology text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License]

Classroom control is foundational for a safe, secure, and orderly environment that embeds warmth and caring, thus enabling communication and trust. Varying degrees of control and warmth are evident in conceptions of classroom climate and an instructor’s teaching presence. These range from authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful. Despite efforts to plan effectively and design learning to meet student’s needs, the events that evolve during a lesson or learning activity are often serendipitously surprising or disruptive. A prevention orientation is one strategy for creating a positive learning environment.

Bates, T. (2016, May 15). Culture and effective online learning environments. [weblog].

Bates presents what he considers to be the critical components of effective learning environments. He defines culture as the “dominant values and beliefs that influence decision-making”. Classroom culture is deeply influenced by the choice of content, skills, and attitudes that are promoted, and the relationship between instructors and students. Bates outlines how culture can be created in online learning environments.

Behling, A. (2020, May 11). Creating Culture in your virtual classroom. [weblog].

In this post, Andrea Behling reflects back to March 2020 when the world turned, while trying to answer the question “How can we cultivate classroom culture when we are not actually in the physical classroom”? She offers five tips to consider that may have been written for K-12 teaching, but have something to offer to teachers in higher education contexts.

Childs, M. (2021, March 11) Virtual student engagement isn’t impossible. Assocation for Curriculum Development. [weblog].

As a result of the global pandemic, the challenges of student engagement are ever-present. Childs (2021) presents a Virtual Learning Framework involving components of cognitive engagement, emotional engagement, and behavioral engagement. Elements include building a learning community, developing strong relationships, embracing a growth mindset, establishing classroom norms, infusing restorative practices, collaboration with supporters, using higher-order questioning, and explicitly teaching about learning strategies. Childs includes further tips and details for each of these strategies.

Jones, L. (2015, May 25) Classroom Culture vs. Classroom Management. [weblog].

Jones begins with the statement “Students don’t remember everything we teach, but they do remember how classrooms feel.” Management is only one piece of the teaching puzzle. Scaffolding over time helps develop a positive classroom culture that is founded on classroom norms, the application of appropriate consequences, and by creating opportunities for positive student interaction. While this article applies to K-12 contexts, there are applicable strategies for higher education and online instruction.

We invite readers to continue the discussion in the comment area below. Share your thoughts and experiences in relation to classroom culture and community in online learning.

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