In recent years, belonging has become a bigger priority at many colleges and universities. Research shows students’ sense of belonging can have significant impacts on their success in higher education, and for historically marginalized students, a sense of belonging can be even more important

Most of the current research about belonging has been done in traditional residential contexts, leaving a gap in the literature when it comes to supporting online learners’ sense of belonging. With new data showing that most college students are taking at least one online class, addressing this research gap is more critical than ever. 

What does it mean to design for belonging in online settings?

As a Senior Learning Experience Designer (LXD) at WGU Labs and recent Learning, Design, and Technology Ph.D. graduate from Penn State University, this topic is of particular interest to me. As part of my dissertation research, I brought together twelve instructional design practitioners who work in online learning design in higher education contexts to collaboratively explore what it means to design for belonging in online learning. 

Following a practitioner inquiry research format, I designed a series of workshops that aimed to bring instructional designers’ expertise and practices to light. In the first workshop, we collaboratively brainstormed what belonging looks like in online learning settings. Then, instructional designers were invited to design an artifact according to a prompt that encouraged them to envision a future where belonging is the top priority in online learning. What would that design look like? After a week, we reconvened to share artifacts and discuss the outcomes. 

Over a period of six weeks, I conducted three workshop series and invited the designers to schedule interviews with me to review additional design artifacts. After careful analysis of the professional conversations and review of the artifacts, I drew several conclusions about instructional designers’ conceptions of belonging and how to design for belonging in online learning settings. 

Key insights for fostering belonging in online learning environments

First, instructional designers identified the following observable behaviors as evidence that students have a sense of belonging online

  1. Students create their own norms or subcultures for interacting in courses, such as initiating group chats or using emojis in text-based interactions
  2. Students engage beyond expectations, such as posting more than required in discussion boards, providing more feedback to others than required, or otherwise interacting in ways that exceed the minimum requirements set by the instructor
  3. Students ask relevant, on-topic questions about course content that extend learning opportunities
  4. Students take risks, trying new skills that they may not have yet mastered, especially in performance-based disciplines like the arts, or make different choices when offered options for how to demonstrate their learning

Second, instructional designers consistently used four strategies in their designed artifacts to support the student outcomes identified above: 

  1. Use warm, informal language to create safety
  2. Make expectations clear to mitigate the impact of “digital culture shock,” especially in the beginning 
  3. Encourage learner agency throughout the experience 
  4. Carefully consider how any educational technology tools align with belonging, such as proctoring tools, or the organization of the learning management system 

Finally, as a result of the analysis, I determined there are four “Critical Moments” where instructional design professionals can pause and reflect on how belonging is showing up in the experience. 

  1. Preparation: Instructional designers should consider all the tools, strategies, and learning goals of the course and collaborate with any subject matter experts to plan and develop the learning experience. 
  2. Beginning: This moment should include a formal welcome to all learners, focus on mitigating “digital culture shock” by making expectations clear for learners, and engage learners in setting some class norms.
  3. Maintenance: This is an ongoing phase that provides opportunities for learners to take some responsibility for sustaining belonging. The design should offer many chances for instructors to give encouraging feedback using asset-focused language, as well as solicit learners for feedback on the overall experience.
  4. Aftercare: This moment occurs at the conclusion of an experience and should celebrate what learners have accomplished, provide some sort of commemorative takeaway from the experience, encourage ongoing connection between learners and the instructor, and invite learners to return or continue on their educational journey. 

This project was an important first step in considering the ways we can change the systems our students are subjected to to become more welcoming, inclusive, and belonging-focused, rather than designing interventions targeted at changing our learners to be more resilient against the burdens of difficult systems. By leveraging the expertise of instructional designers, we can change the learning experience for many students to encourage and sustain a sense of belonging online.