Online Learning in a Time of Crisis: Using Physical Distance and Digital Space to Develop Learning Communities

Apr 23, 2021

Published in Pedagogy Blog Posts

Lauren E. Salisbury, Bowling Green State University


Picture the place you teach. What does it look like? Sound like? Feel like? Dare I ask, smell like?

For instructors who teach at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, these questions are relatively straight-forward. We might picture the classrooms we teach in, the libraries we browse in, the sidewalks we traverse. At these institutions, we typically see and speak with our students and colleagues in shared, public spaces. However, in mid-March 2020, most courses that shared a common space were hurriedly shifted to online learning environments (OLEs). Students were no longer in a single location or communal learning space. Instead, they scattered to countless individual, private places, distinct from not only their peers and instructors, but the shared space of the institution entirely.

Screenshot of laptop screen that shows multiple windows including Camtastia video editor, a Canvas course homepage, and Zoom meetings open simultaneously and snapped to various parts of the screen.

A screenshot of Dr. Salisbury’s computer screen.


Spring 2020 and the Shift to Online Learning Environments

While this location shift was already happening for courses that originated online, courses that were face-to-face (f2f) at the beginning of the spring semester were suddenly transformed into not-quite online courses, but trauma-induced, pandemic facsimiles of online courses. With little or no warning, instructors with varying levels of experience teaching online became online practitioners, understandably scrambling to move courses to digital spaces while trying to maintain the momentum of the first few weeks of the semester. Instructors joined in on faculty Facebook groups, email threads, and hashtags to ask questions and find solutions to this sudden crisis.

One of the most prevalent threads in these requests from instructors, frantic for support, was the desire to preserve the relationships they had started to grow f2f, despite the newfound physical distance that separated and had the potential to isolate students from each other and their instructors. The physical distance of online courses does have the potential to displace and disembody students and instructors, creating the illusion that the teaching and learning process happens in a private vacuum.

This “presumption of loss” (Blair) and belief that there’s “something missing” (Rendahl and Breuch 298) in online courses is not a pandemic-induced realization. Perceived online learning inferiority has been a common criticism, both from instructors and administrators, perhaps because instructors are so often tasked not with designing effective OLEs, but instead with adapting f2f instruction without the preparation and understanding for what that adaptation requires given the unique needs of our courses, teaching styles, and students. An example of this resistance is Christopher Schaberg’s “Why I Won’t Teach Online,” where he writes, there are “several things I can’t do in my class on the internet, and these are why I won’t be found teaching online, not ever.” Among these things are getting to know and developing strong bonds with students.

Despite the challenges of developing online communities with students, it is achievable. Online courses don’t have to disembody students, but to avoid doing so, our online courses must include “understanding the specificity of the bodies and subjectivities engaged in those practices,” which Powell and Bratta describe as essential to understanding any rhetorical or cultural system. However, if, as Shawn Wilson explains, “relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality” (7, emphasis original) and as the CCCC’s Online Writing Instruction (OWI) Position Statement argues, “[s]tudents’ motivation as learners often is improved by a sense of interpersonal connectedness to others within a course” (23), what do we do to foster that community formation in online courses especially in times of crisis? Community formation can appear more straightforward f2f. In the introduction to “Our story begins here,” Malea Powell describes the way her co-authors form community by:

Working out a relationship to the land, to the lake, to the histories of this place. Building a space in which our work exists alongside those histories. Building a practice we can remember when we’re not all together, not in this place/space (Powell, et al.).

If “cultures are made up of practices that accumulate over time and in relationship to specific places” (Powell, et al.), how do we co-create that culture alongside students in online classes without the “physical geographies” we can re-make together? What happens when we are never in the same physical place/space with each other? When we have no shared past to remember?

With these questions in mind, I suggest three actions instructors can take when preparing OLEs for the first time with attention toward space and place.


1. Consider Thirdspace as a Framework for Community Building

First, we must avoid conflating physical proximity with community and likewise confusing a lack of physical space with absence of any space.

In OLEs, community members always inhabit at least one digital location and one physical location simultaneously. We are never just online but are instead in a constant state of hybridity. Here we can employ Edward Soja’s concept of Thirdspace to better understand this interplay of the real and the imagined, or as in the case of OLEs, the physical and the digital. The course, which when f2f is in a fixed, specific “place,” becomes an ever-shifting Thirdspace online, based on the interaction between Firstspace: what we perceive to be the “real” world that surrounds us, and Secondspace: the way we interpret the world through imagined representations of reality (Soja 6). The Thirdspace of the OLE is constantly defined and redefined depending on where students are physically and digitally as they engage with it. Instead of being one location, the OLE is a product of multiple unseen and undescribed locations colliding simultaneously.

In my courses, I frequently have students in local area high schools, in surrounding rural towns, in residence halls on campus, across the country, and across the world. This variety of individual locations means students can share events happening local to them and encourage each other to consider the multiplicity of our experiences on different topics. Rather than being fixed in a single classroom on campus, we each bring a unique worldview that enriches our conversations in complex and compelling ways.


2. Accept OLEs as Distinct Environments from F2F

Certainly, OLEs can feel different than f2f environments, but they should. Though the Thirdspace is inherently fractured because it is co-created by so many divergent locations colliding at once, this deviation is not a limitation, but rather an affordance.

OLEs offer the opportunity to further constellate our teaching and learning practices. The physical distance OLEs facilitate offers the opportunity to further interrogate the spaces and places we inhabit, to foster conversations about the land we reside on, and the relationships of power and disempowerment those locations reveal. When students and instructors do not occupy the same communal, institutional space, we begin to see not just what we share, but how we are distant from one another in terms of access and privilege, in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, in terms of class and economic stability. OLEs have the ability through that distance to open up and uncover those truths, rather than restrict or conceal them.

In my online courses, these truths are often revealed in the optional discussions and surveys I pose to students at the beginning of the semester. This semester, I asked students to share—only if they were comfortable doing so—what access they have to technology and how they will participate in our course; what challenges or concerns they have about online learning; and anything else they want me to know. In addition to asking students to reveal these facts about themselves, I self-disclosed facts about my living situation and context that I’m comfortable sharing: I have a small child at home for whom I’m the primary daytime caregiver; I am able to meet with them online via my laptop or talk with them on my cell phone; and I have a frontline worker spouse. This self-disclosure, paired with my open-ended and optional survey for students, demonstrates that our individual contexts and challenges shape our experiences of and involvement in the course in significant ways.


3. Reflect on Whether You’re Revealing Truths or Removing Privacy

Though I advocate for students to have the option to not disclose any information about themselves, sometimes the aforementioned truths are revealed in ways that disadvantage students. With the rise in online synchronous instruction via Zoom, WebEx, and Collaborate come debates about online “etiquette,” and whether to require students to turn on their videos during online class sessions. Requirements like these do not reveal disparities and contexts for meaningful conversation, but rather force students to expose themselves, make public their living situations, and give up rights to privacy. Instead of creating policies that police students’ presence in the shared OLE, in my current synchronous course I instead begin every session by reminding students that they can turn their cameras on or off depending on their comfort level with no penalty and no questions asked. Doing so reminds students that I’m aware of their right to privacy, their differing levels of access, and individuality. This choice can even provide the impetus for conversations about what kinds of online interactions work for different situations. Rather than inhibiting interaction, policies that favor student choice can encourage more robust and frequent interaction from students that might otherwise feel uncomfortable joining the conversation.


The Power of OLEs

OLEs do not have to be inferior nor spaces of captivity. They can instead become places where we more critically examine our bodies, our subjectivities, and our relationships by maintaining an awareness of not just physical space, but digital space as well. To do so we must draw attention—both our own and our students—to those spaces and have critical conversations within them and about them. To do so gives us the power to begin to analyze, critique, and recreate them.


About the Author

Dr. Lauren Salisbury (she/her/hers) currently teaches in the English department at Bowling Green State University. She specializes in online writing instruction with attention toward student and instructor expectations, the role of space and place in online learning environments, and student-centered pedagogy in online instruction. Her scholarship has appeared in Computers and Composition, Research in Online Literacy Education (ROLE), and the Feminist Teaching & Learning Zine.


Works Cited

“A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI).” NCTE., Accessed 3 Aug. 2020.

Blair, Kris. “Delivering Literacy Studies in the Twenty-First Century: The Relevance of Online Pedagogies.” Teaching Learning at a Distance: Open, Online and Blended Learning, edited by Anastasia Natsina and Takis Kayalis, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010, pp. 67–78.

Powell, Malea and Bratta, Phil. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversations.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, vol. 21, 2016.

Powell, Malea, et al. “Our story begins here: Constellating cultural rhetorics.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, vol. 25, 2014.

Rendahl, Merry, and Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch. “Toward a Complexity of Online Learning: Learners in Online First-Year Writing.” Computers and Composition, vol. 30, no. 4, Dec. 2013, pp. 297–314. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2013.10.002.

Schaberg, Christopher. “Why I Won’t Teach Online.” Inside Higher Ed, 7 Mar. 2018,

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Blackwell Publishers, 1996. Print.

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008. Print.


Production Credits

Editorial Assistant: Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill

Copyeditor: Iliana Cosme-Brooks

Social Media Manager: Mitch Carr