Create personally connected learning communities in the time of social distancing


A few points of reflection shared by Jianwei Zhang in a Zoom meeting hosted by UAlbany School of Education (see videorecording at

The COVID 19 pandemic has caused profound disruptions to societies and nations across the world. Mandatory social distancing has led to the closure of schools at an unprecedented scale. All of a sudden, students are sent home, teachers have to work from home, and school buildings are closed. Educators at all levels are challenged to rapidly adopt remote educational solutions to keep students engaged and support their learning at home.

How can K-12 educators support their students’ learning at home in this challenging time? I share a few thinking points for educators to consider as they develop their approaches and refine over a period of time, which I pray will not be too long.

As a rule of thump, in the time of social distancing, students and educators need social closeness and connection more so than ever. Our foremost concern should be placed on creating distributed learning communities that connect all students as well as their families and local communities. This goal rises above all the specific efforts to deliver remote instruction and keep students on track with their schoolwork.

To create and support distributed learning communities, educators can use the rich set of technology tools and resources that are available for building connections and supporting socially connected learning. But keep in mind that technology is not the centerpiece for community building, as humans are. It’s all about what we do, what/how we say, and how we relate to one another in the real context that gives us a shared experience. Teachers can work creatively to work across the distance to build a connected learning community by attending to the following key elements.

  • Develop a spirit of care, trust, and connectedness. This can be nurtured through the teacher’s communication and students’ mutual sharing on an ongoing basis.  Teachers’ messages should not only be about giving instructions to schoolwork and assignments.  Instead they can make their messages more personal by sharing their own stories, feelings, and fun memories or photos from the classroom, with words of encouragement to express their love, care, and willingness to support. Video interaction platforms, such as Flipgrid, can used to create personal presence and connections.
  • Develop shared and transparent expectations. A learning community forms with a shared focus on learning and growing together. In the current situation of pandemic, educators need to be mindful about what learning expectations are realistic, given the resources and tools that the different students may have access to.  Teachers may set different levels of expectations, including the minimal level of learning to be continued and implemented across board, and the additional learning activities that students may strive for if they can.  Students can be informed and eased with clear guidelines about what work they will produce, submitted where, when. Make the expectations clear upfront, and give plenty of opportunities for students to ask questions and provide their voice.  The expectations should be flexible as possible. Offer encouragement and tools for students to manage their own learning and connect with peers.
  • Create opportunities for students to connect, share and contribute. Teachers can incorporate student sharing and interactions in their courses and classes. They can use tools such as Padlet or Flipgrid, which are great options for younger students, or create Group Forum in Google Classrooms. Our research team created a visual collaboration platform called the Idea Thread Mapper (ITM), freely availably to schools ( This system is current used by our collaborating classrooms to conduct student-driven collaborative inquiry from home.  Beyond organizing online discussions as part of the course work, I encourage teachers to design other creative activities for students to collaborate and share. We can think creatively to turn the pandemic into opportunities of authentic learning, inquiry, and civic engagement. Students may conduct interdisciplinary inquiry to investigate scientific and social issues related to the COVID 19 pandemic using authentic data and visualization tools. They can also take on civic actions to understand the challenges people face in their local communities and come up with ideas and actions to help in responsible ways. They can use Padlet or Flipgrid to create multimedia thank-you notes to express their gratitude to doctors, nurses and other society members who are working hard to serve and protect their communities.
  • Engage parents, caregivers, and possibly other community members as part of the distributed learning community. Let parents know your expectations, and advice on how they may support their child’s learning.
  • Pay attention to issues of equity and inclusiveness: Not all families have high speed Internet. Not all parents are available and capable to support students’ learning at home. Students with various special needs particularly need support. Schools and educators need to be sensitive to such gaps and needs, and make the best commitment possible to supporting all learners.

Finally, educators can benefit from building connections with their peers to share what they do, talk about how they do it, and why, supporting one another in this special time. When our daily school routines have to be put on pause, we may take the opportunity to reflect on our core values and priorities of education, and think outside the box to envision new possibilities and models of learning and teaching.