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Community colleges are finding innovative ways to maintain or increase student engagement during a global health pandemic that has left most switching to online-only formats for the fall.

Two-year colleges serve diverse populations that include high school students in dual-enrollment courses, senior citizens, working adults and traditional-age students. While it may seem like a daunting task to build community among those varied groups of people, community college faculty often use that aspect to their advantage, said Kate Thirolf, co-editor of the Future Series on Community Colleges books and the previous vice president of instruction at Jackson College in Michigan.

"When we talk about what’s happening in classrooms, I can’t think of a sector that’s in a better position now," Thirolf said, referring to two-year colleges.

Community colleges may not typically have residential housing to foster community, but they tend to have smaller class sizes than some public four-year colleges and faculty who are focused solely on teaching, she said.

"What it boils down to is that community colleges know that relationships matter, and they really focus on that," she said. "Whatever the mode, they recognize that that’s important."

Building community is more important now than ever, as most of students' lives have gone virtual.

Many colleges have pivoted their student services to a virtual setting. At Northern Virginia Community College, students can enter a virtual lobby on Zoom that connects them with advisers, who then connect them with the services they need.

"We have students who don't know what to ask, so talking with someone is important," said Frances Villagran-Glover, vice president of student services at NOVA.

The college's student clubs have also pivoted to meeting via Zoom -- and participation has increased as a result, she said.

"There are two things students don’t have: time and proximity to campuses," Villagran-Glover said. NOVA's virtual student union, an online engagement hub that lets students joins discussions and access resources, has also seen increased participation, from a few hundred students before COVID-19 to 32,000 now. ​

Students can also participate in a program called Rise Up, which lets them do a short presentation for peers on how they've overcome challenges during the pandemic, she said. It helps their peers feel like they're not alone.

Administrators at MiraCosta College near San Diego were concerned about how their programs would shift online when the pandemic first hit. Many of their clubs and programs are aimed at more vulnerable populations, like LGBTQ students and undocumented students.

"Are there going to be students who lack technology access? Are there going to be students who feel intimidated by the structure and process? How will we account for students who stop by the office unscheduled, or those you bump into in the parking lot?" said Wendy Stewart, dean of counseling and student development. ​

The college responded by keeping some programs -- like the Umoja group for Black students -- alive during the summer, when they usually aren't active. They saw an increase in participation for many of the programs, Stewart said.

In some ways, going virtual made it easier for students to participate. There were fewer conflicts with class schedules and no need to commute, Stewart said. Faculty also engaged in these programs so they could connect with students outside the classroom.

Beyond extracurricular programming, there are several ways faculty can increase engagement and foster a sense of community within their classrooms.

One way is to strategically plan synchronous instruction at points when students start to lose motivation, said Scott Martin, associate professor at George Mason University and director of the Virginia Serious Game Institute, which supports start-ups founded at the university and regional economic development through serious game technology discovery.

Working asynchronously would go well for a few weeks, he said, but then he'd start to notice his students lose interest. Adding a live session at that time helped spark motivation for his students.

Faculty can also use algorithms to match students together into learning teams based on their commonalities. Research shows that grouping students by hobbies or interests, rather than academic performance, works much better for building community, according to Martin. The students will start to organically act as peer mentors to help those with lower grades.

Martin hopes that the pandemic will push more faculty to use this method of community building.

One of the more basic but also most important things faculty can do is introduce themselves on day one with, at the least, a photo and a story, said Brian Newberry, director of Jackson College Virtual. They can also create an introduction forum, where students learn more about each other using games or answering survey questions, he said.

At the start of an online course, faculty should also use "richer" media, like video and audio.

"The higher the ambiguity, the richer the media you should use," Newberry said. There's a lot of uncertainty at the start of a class, and using media that can express more than simple text can will anchor students in the course, he said.

​Under current circumstances, with a pandemic, faculty should use different tools to communicate with students, including mass texting services or phone apps.

"The technological landscape is different for those under 30 in that the primary tool for communicating digitally is the phone," he said. Older people tend to still prefer computers.

At Washtenaw Community College in Michigan, campus staff have been calling each student to check in with them and assess their needs, said Kimberly Hurns, vice president for instruction.

Reacting to what students and faculty want has led to some needed improvements, she said. For example, faculty urged the college to switch from using GoToMeeting for online courses to Zoom, as it has more interactive features. Faculty can take polls during class and break students into groups, Hurns said.

The college has also kept many of its annual events, turning them virtual instead. The turnout has been on par with previous years, she said.

​"In retrospect, it shouldn’t be shocking because of this generation’s comfort with technology," she said.

​Community colleges have an advantage right now, Hurns said, as they already know how to be responsive to students and nimble.

"In some ways I am so proud of our faculty, but when I think about it, I shouldn’t be shocked, because it’s what we do every day," she said.

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