March 2021
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Michael D. Winans, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA

The classroom has traditionally been the space for teaching, and teachers have grown to respond to student needs in this environment. Beyond formal learning, it is in the classroom where students often build communities with their classmates and teachers. With emergency remote teaching (ERT) (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020) brought on by COVID-19, it is important that teachers focus on the usefulness of digital tools (DTs) to ensure opportunities for building community. “While some believe that the human-interactive experience is critical in language learning and fear that online education cannot adequately provide it, the concern can be successfully addressed if one views community as a key element of course design” (Goertler, 2019, p. 72). Since many teachers and students are suddenly interacting in digital environments, I will present three practical solutions for building community in the online language classroom (Charalambos et al., 2004).

Even in a new reality of isolation, students adapt to their learning environment, and teachers can implement activities that mimic some of what the pandemic has taken from the communicative classroom. Poignantly, students in isolation lack opportunities for social interaction, a key element in classrooms. To assist in maintaining social connections, I will describe the following DTs that focus on building community via Zoom and Flipgrid. Additionally, a follow-up idea for creative social engagement using Google Slides will be presented to also facilitate community building.

Since we can acknowledge that the internet is in constant flux and DTs change and disappear, the focus below is on how each tool can be used within the teaching context rather than the tool itself (Steffensen & Kramsch, 2017). When selecting DTs for solutions to pedagogical needs, the focus should be on ease of use and meeting students where they are, including utilizing the DTs that students may already be using. This will allow teachers to present the content of their lesson rather than teaching how to use the DT.

Zoom offers face-to-face interactions, but it is often hard to have the same interactions as in the classroom because only one person can talk at a time. Breakout rooms allow the students to be in separate rooms where multiple students have the opportunity to talk, present, or discuss at the same time, similar to group work in a classroom. Teachers can drop in and out of each room to ensure the conversations are productive and on-topic. A best practice for breakout rooms is to create a list of questions or topics to be discussed that is accessible beyond the Zoom environment so that students can reference these materials for discussion. This can be done simply by creating a Google Document and sharing it with your students by posting a link in the chat. Another option is to repeatedly use the same Google Document for this activity, so students will already know where to access this material. Make new entries at the top of this document for quick access to the content.

An additional way to ensure student-to-student communication and community is to direct students to use the chat function for questions and side conversations - this function is included in most video-conferencing apps. Since side talk, where a student asks their classmate for clarification, for example, cannot take place in Zoom, students should be instructed to ask questions, share resources, and engage with their classmates by using the chat function. You can monitor these interactions by clicking the “Chat” button at the bottom of the Zoom window, which will also allow you to contribute if needed. Lastly, synchronous instruction in Zoom (or any video conferencing platform) should be recorded so that absent students have access to class material.

Flipgrid is another resource that facilitates community building by allowing students and teachers to record short videos that respond to topics. I use it to compensate for the lack of interaction in online environments. It is relatively easy for both students and teachers to use, but provides a high level of virtual interaction. The videos can auto-play, which allows 30-second videos from a class of 20 to be watched in ten minutes. I ask questions like “What’s your favorite book and why?” or “Where is your hometown, and what’s interesting about it?” In this way, students are speaking and listening to one another as they learn about their classmates and teachers, all while building a learning community.

The final tool is Google Slides, which can be used as a practical solution for building community by allowing students to co-construct the slides of a single presentation. Teachers share the presentation with “Editor” permissions and assign individuals or groups to design a slide on a topic. This topic could be as simple as creating a slide about a hometown or national holiday for lower language levels, or it could be a summary or main points of a text for higher levels. Upon completion, the teacher can change the sharing permissions to “Commenter” and have students leave feedback on the other slides, much like the discussion boards that are built into our learning management systems, but with more freedom for design and multimodal expression.

It is important that teachers include themselves in the community to build rapport with the students. If you assign a Flipgrid, you should participate, i.e., share your hometown and why it is interesting. Since students often look to the teacher for guidance and as a model, your active participation is paramount (Meskill & Anthony, 2015). Just as we adapted to become teachers in the classroom, we can also adapt to new environments and continue helping our students by building a community that supports their learning.


Charalambos, V., Michalinos, Z., & Chamberlain, R. (2004). The design of online learning communities: Critical issues. Educational Media International, 41(2), 135–143. DOI:

Goetler, S. (2019). Normalizing online learning: Adapting to a changing world of language teaching. In. N. Arnold, & L. Ducate (Eds.), Engaging language learners through CALL:

From theory and research to informed practice (pp. 51-92). Equinox Publishing.

Hodges, C. B., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. Retrieved from

Meskill, C., & Anthony, N. (2015). Teaching language online. Multilingual Matters.

Steffensen, S. V., & Kramsch, C. (2017). The ecology of second language acquisition and socialization. In P. A. Duff, & S. May (Eds.), Language socialization: Encyclopedia of language and education. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-02327-4_2-1

Michael D. Winans is a doctoral student at Arizona State University in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics. His research focuses on CALL and second language teacher professionalization. He has been published by Language Learning & Technology, CALICO Journal, and TESOL Press.
« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed
What are you looking forward to the most at this year's TESOL Virtual Convention?
Learning about new tech tools
Interacting with other participants
Getting new ideas for my teaching
All of the above

EVO celebrates the 20th anniversary of EVO sessions!
May 26, 9:00-10:30 US EDT-TESOL hosting “EVO: 20 Years of Free Professional Development in Online Teaching/Learning for English Language Teachers Worldwide” Register here. June 2022 CFP/ Information.
Dates of Interest
See the TESOL Calendar of Events for Worldwide Conferences.
2021 CALL-IS Open Meeting
Based on the time slots available from TESOL, the 2021 CALL-IS Open Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, 27 March at 1pm ET.