The qualitative methods for global health research course at Harvard Medical School is a core course for two masters programs. This year the course welcomed students from seventeen different countries around the globe. For fourteen weeks, students gathered weekly to learn about qualitative research methods. For many of these students the opportunity to learn with and from new people, to network, and to experience different perspectives is a crucial part of their learning journey. Due to the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid transition to online learning, our teaching team made a conscious decision to make community building in the classroom a priority. Careful and thoughtful planning and a real commitment to creating a sense of community between our students became a part of each lesson plan every week.

As a teaching team, we recognized that community building in online distance education was instrumental to help our students achieve a successful learning experience. Furthermore, the majority of our assignments were group-based projects, so we wanted to foster the feeling that members matter to one another and that they have duties to each other through their commitments to mutual goals.

We needed to figure out what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, and how would we know that it is working. With the end goal in mind we decided to answer these questions by working “backwards.” Backward Design is an instructional design model that suggests instructors begin with goals and outcomes and work backward to design appropriate assessment tools and curricular content.

Creating a list of outcomes was the first task at hand: a) Promote human relationships; b) Encourage student participation; and c) Provide opportunities to develop a sense of group cohesiveness.

The next step was to identify a simple way to evaluate the community building activities we develop.  We chose to use the Plus/Delta Debriefing Model. The aim of the Plus/Delta is to generate useful feedback by asking learners to identify what specifically went well with the educational session and what specifically could be improved for next time. By framing our Plus/Delta in an improvement language, this approach helped us foster a culture of continuous improvement into our classroom. We also conveyed respect for our learners and their autonomy - both essential elements of adult learning theory - and we gave students an opportunity to help shape the experience of how they spend their time.

We knew that any efforts toward community building had to start very early, be consistent, and be facilitated by an instructor using specific pedagogical strategies. Below, we articulate:

Pedagogical Strategy 1: Before the first class

Before the course began, we wanted to provide a space for students to begin to get to know each other as a first step to building a community, and to discover commonalities between them. For this reason, we invited all students to create video introductions and post them on a Padlet platform. We requested that they include their name, where they come from and their favorite pastime. We also recognize the importance of role modeling and approachability, so one of the course instructors also created a video of herself and displayed her successful endeavor of growing a beautiful “Angel Wing Begonia” this summer.

Pedagogical Strategy 2: During each class

We decided to take exactly 10 minutes of time between the lecture and lab components from each class and explicitly dedicate that time to community building and connecting with students. Our rationale was to connect as friendly colleagues, with a strong belief that students that have a better sense of community will have deeper engagement and more trust, which will ultimately help create a safer learning environment.

We used breakout rooms of groups of 4-5 participants and gave them a task to complete in 10 minutes as a team. A lot of intentional planning went into creating the breakout room community building activities. Activities and groups were different every time. Some activities were closely related to the course content; as an example, we used a free online crossword puzzle generator to create a crossword puzzle using course concepts. The students had a blast working together to complete the puzzle in time. We also took some time to catch up and share what was going on in our lives. Another big hit was the Rose/Bud/Thorn exercise where students were asked to reflect on the past two weeks and in their small groups share their rose (a highlight or success), bud (a new idea that has blossomed or something they are looking forward to knowing more about), and thorn (a challenge or something that they can use more support with).

Pedagogical Strategy 3: After each class.

At the end of every class, we asked the students to send us their Plus/Deltas. To our joy, the 10-minute community building activity was almost always one of the “pluses” of the class. Students reported feeling energized, less stressed, less alone and more connected with one another. That was our goal.

Learning should never be a lonely endeavor. When community building is considered as a necessity, and when we approach community building as a continuous practice, it can build a culture that supports a thoughtful focus on learning, in person or online.

What have you done to build community in your online course? Comment below and join the conversation!


Did you know that the Harvard Macy Institute Community Blog has had more than 245 posts? Previous blog posts have explored topics including designing programmatic assessment structures to support learning, engaging students virtually, and being together, when apart.


Reem J Alansari MD

Reem Jasem Alansari, MD, (Educators ’20; Leaders ’20) is a radiologist and second year Master’s in Medical Education student at Harvard Medical School. Reem currently holds a position as instructor at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. Reem’s areas of professional interest include clinical simulation and psychological safety. Reem can be followed on Twitter or LinkedIn.