Like so many educators around the world, I’ve spent more time than usual this summer thinking about what September would bring. Unlike March 2020, when we were engaged in a rushed response to the unfolding global pandemic, the Fall semester would reflect purposeful planning on the part of institutions and administrators, departments and individual faculty. Program advisors have been a vital link in the communication chain between programs and students. As an example, in my Faculty, our program advisors organized August information sessions for new and returning students to engage over Google Meets with faculty. Plans for how classes would run and how students would be assessed were shared, with students asking follow-up questions. The intention was to lower anxiety, set a positive tone for the semester, and re-establish a sense of community that was lost by the closure of campus.

The importance of community is something that we as chemists often take for granted. We hold lab meetings, attend departmental seminars, and travel to conferences when all of these things could be managed over email or other forms of digital communication. Similarly, most university students in Canada choose to attend a physical campus for their degrees. Why do we make such efforts for in-person gatherings?

McMillan and Chavis’s influential Sense of Community (SoC) model includes the concepts of need fulfillment, membership, influence, and emotional connection. Aspects like emotional connection can be difficult to establish in an online environment, which may be part of students’ preference for campus-based learning.

Other research into SoC in virtual learning communities has found that successful online communities “‘gather’ together, generate social ties, and create online identities with trusted groups that can develop common projects together and transmit practical experience easily.”

The concepts of identity and community are also explored in Social Presence Theory, published in The social psychology of telecommunications (Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B., 1976). Others have argued that this requires community members to have the ability to “project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants ‘as real people’”. Analyses of different communication tools have shown that even with the availability of video conferencing to support the projection of identity and formation of a sense of community, prior to the pandemic most online learning continued to use text-based communication, such as forums and mobile instant-messaging. Text-based mediums lose out on the nonverbal components of communication that are available during in-person meetings or over video chat.

A sense of community is particularly important when we engage in a challenging activity, like learning chemistry. A 2014 study by Jaggars published in the American Journal of Distance Education found that students only preferred online learning for “easy” academic subjects. With regards to chemistry, the study found that students classified it as a difficult subject and preferred to take it through on-campus learning.

Despite the clear preference for learning chemistry in-person, the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks has driven most higher educational institutions in Canada, and many more abroad, to move to remote instruction.

Dr. Layne Morsch, Professor of Chemistry at University of Illinois Springfield, has experience with building a sense of community for his learners through collaboration over video conferencing software.

“Collaborative learning has always been valuable in chemistry for teaching students the value of communication and working with colleagues as they prepare to be effective professionals.”

Student feedback from Morsch’s organic chemistry class run online over the summer highlighted the need for community during COVID-19.

“In the current pandemic reality, collaboration seems to hold even greater value for helping students feel less alone. It helps them find connections with other students in their classes, connections that can be lost without face-to-face learning on campus.”

This Fall, my colleagues and I at Mount Royal University will be using a collection of strategies for supporting students in developing a sense of community in my chemistry classes, including breakout rooms, online tutorials, and online collaborative learning with chemistry classes at other universities, including Dr. Morsch’s class.

For transparency, online collaborative learning is an area in my research program. Over the past few years I have been working with chemistry faculty to facilitate and research international collaborative learning experiences for second-year organic chemistry students through free online video chat software. The International Network for Chemistry Language Development (INCLD) was established to tackle known weaknesses in oral and written communication training in chemistry degrees.

“There’s the community aspect of online collaborative learning, but what really stands out to me is the internationalization component,” explains Dr. Michael Wentzel, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.

“Our professional language has a universality to it, which my students get to explore with their international partner. The experience compliments what we normally do in a chemistry degree. Students learn the theory in lectures, gain skills in the lab, and begin to understand how they can apply that expertise in a professional setting when they partner with a peer in another country.

“My students come away from the collaboration excited to realize that there is a vast international community of chemists. They see themselves as members of that community.”

Given the shift to remote learning, the opportunity to have her student in Ireland connect with international peers in Canada and the US was particularly attractive for Claire McDonnell.

“It was clear to me that a great deal of pedagogical expertise and insight went into the design of this unique learning experience and that this would be a valuable opportunity for our TU Dublin students.

“By working on assignments with international partners, they will have opportunities to develop their confidence when communicating chemistry using both words and symbols,” McDonnell explains, citing one of the original goals of the INCLD project.

“Research has shown that students also benefit from a deeper understanding of chemistry concepts, experience of international academic relationships, an emerging professional identity, an ability to evaluate their own learning, and enhanced engagement. My colleague, Sarah Rawe, and I are looking forward to our students’ first experience of online collaborative learning in the coming months.”

This Fall, Canadian undergraduate chemistry students will be connecting with peers in Ireland and the US. Even though they won’t get to form their normal community this Fall, I know that they will have opportunities to establish a sense of community with other chemistry students. It’s going to be a challenging semester, but I’m excited to guide my students in forging their own professional network with peers at home and abroad through the collection of strategies we have planned, including online collaborative learning.

Brett McCollum is a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow, MRU Board of Governor’s Chair in Educational Leadership, and past-chair of SoTL Canada (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Canada). He is the Senior Editor of the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. His research focuses on effective uses of technology for chemistry education, student development of chemical language and representational competencies, and approaches to enhancing student engagement in research partnerships.