Some safety considerations for online community building

Contributed by Kate Bowles

When choosing community building activities it is important to recognise the risk of unintended harm. 

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The community building activities that are shared here have been designed to suit learners in many different cultural contexts, and they are framed by a philosophy of intentionally equitable hospitality and a pedagogy of care.

Most instructors will have the experience and knowledge of their students’ situation to make wise choices about activities that will work best.

However, when choosing community building activities that ask students to disclose information about themselves, and especially about how they are feeling, it is important to recognise the risk of unintended harm. 

This risk is significant for students in a wide range of personal situations, including students living with anxiety, students who have experienced loss or trauma, or those who study with a condition that impacts the way that social interaction works for them.

This means some general safety considerations can help you in the preparation stage. 

What kinds of risks are we talking about?

First of all, social pressure in group activities can cause people to disclose something personal that they wish they could take back. The risk is that the feeling of having overshared will make students feel less confident in the community that you are trying to build.

On the other hand, some students may feel they have to suppress negative feelings to protect others; a vulnerable student may find the demand of this emotional labour an extra burden, not a help.

Second, an activity may threaten a student who has not disclosed something relevant to you. Before you ask students to share a story of their name, for example, remember that some students will have changed their name for reasons of personal safety, family breakdown, or gender identity. 

Finally, there is a risk that your students may not feel they have the skills or resources to listen to each other’s challenging stories or feelings. A student who finds themselves in a small group listening to a distressing account may come away feeling that they were underprepared, or said the wrong thing.

How can you and your students prepare for this while building your community?

The best way to develop an inclusive approach to community building activities is to be proactive about showing that you prioritise safety—both cultural safety, and mental health safety. This also means reminding your students that you value and respect their privacy and their culture.

As you review each activity, take time to ask yourself: who could I be placing at risk, even if this goes as I planned? What is my safety plan if a student finds this unsettling, in a way I didn’t expect?

Choose the right activity for the right time

Some community building activities are very safe for the first week of class, and some may work better when some trust has been built up — including trust in you. Some check-in activities work well to rebuild energy, create new reflective space or adjust the group dynamic among students who have been working together for a while. Remember that some check-in activities can allow for anonymous participation which may feel safer for some students.

Keep in mind that your students who live with social anxiety may find the first couple of weeks of meeting a new online class already very difficult. You might choose to reserve more social activities that ask for personal stories or check in with feelings until everyone is more used to the space that you are creating. 

Before the activity starts

Give your students enough time to prepare for each activity, and avoid rushed changes between activities. As you invite students to prepare, encourage them to choose carefully what they share, and to keep themselves safe at all times.

Keep in mind that students who find social interaction problematic are not going to suddenly feel better if they are forced into it. Apprehension about an activity may also mean they find it hard to remember complicated instructions. Some students find impromptu social activities particularly difficult to process.

It will help if you offer (and repeat) a simple form of words that makes it safe for anyone to sit out any activity, for any reason that doesn’t need to be discussed. Make clear that you will honor this calmly, and all other participants will do the same.

“I’m choosing to step back from this one.”

“I’ll skip my turn, thanks.”

After the activity

Make sure students can reach out to you privately to let you know if anything about the experience was uncomfortable for them. Seek all students’ feedback early and often. This includes offering a space for students to offer anonymous feedback at times, e.g. via survey that does not collect personal information. 

Invite students to let you know if there is a better or safer way for you to run the activity, and let them know that this will be valuable to future students.

Many of the students you teach now will be responsible for workplace team building activities in the future. Involving them in reflecting and redesigning activities to be safe for everyone is a valuable way of sharing this skill with them.

Finally, if you are reading this, and have found an activity here that you feel can be unsafe or can be adapted to be more safe, please give us your feedback via the form. Or reach out to the creators on Twitter. 

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[…] are more about setting a tone for the course and are more reflective – one of my favorites is Some Safety Considerations for Building Online Community by Kate […]

How do I use these resources?

We have created a welcome video and some introductory text that explains in detail how to use these resources. You can also find answers to some key questions below. 

Yes you can. We have included descriptive text and slides that you can reuse / adapt for this reason. We have suggested some variations for activities to help you make adaptations.

We show how much time an activity should take and what resources you need to help you make a decision.

As we include more resources over time you will have a greater choice of activities and more information about the different contexts within which they work best. 

Any technique can block some people out, make them feel unwelcomed, or be used in a way that privileges some and makes it harder on others.

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