Ongoing engagement, Setting the tone activities

Third Places for Ongoing Community Building

Creating semi-formal, semi-synchronous spaces outside of class time for students to socialize with each other.

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Third Places for Ongoing Community Building
Educator prep: None
Student prep: None
Synchronous or Asynchronous
Video conferencing
Duration: Variable

Activity purpose

This video was a recorded interview where Dave Cormier asked Maha Bali to give a recommendation for online learning during the pivot to emergency remote teaching during Covid-19. 

Creating semi-formal, semi-synchronous spaces outside of formal class time for students to socialize with each other (and the teacher where possible) to address the socioemotional needs of students.

Useful for

Building community throughout the semester, addressing socioemotional needs and keeping the pulse of the class as it helps you stay in touch in between classes.


Decide which tool works best for your purposes and your students, and if possible, create the space early in the semester and start using it early on.


Recognize that students need spaces outside the formal spaces for assignments and graded discussion forums and blogs, in order to ask less formal questions and discuss things with each other and with you. Create a space from the beginning of the semester where you can all do this, and recognize that even though you need to check the space every now and then, students can also use that space to support each other regularly without your intervention. For this to be a semi-formal space for building community, explain to students that this is a space where they can share music, jokes, or chat about concerns, and make room also for quick Q&A related to the class of the kind students might ask you in the corridor just before class starts, for example. Model this kind of behavior to them early on, then let them run with it.

These can be spaces like a Slack team, a WhatsApp group, or even a “cafe” space on your LMS/VLE discussion board. Occasionally, students create student-only such spaces for themselves, but it’s also helpful for teachers to create them (even in parallel with student-only spaces) and include teaching assistants, for example, for faster communication where it is needed.


A semester-long commitment which involves ups and downs, but on average around 15-30 minutes per day per class of checking notifications on the platform you set up. It depends how active the class are in asking questions and responding to each other’s questions as well.

Adaptations and examples

Although we do not wish to promote any particular commercial tool, Slack is one of the most useful tools for this because it allows for multiple channels, so you can have a channel for school work and questions about assignments, and a separate channel for socialization, as well as allowing private chats with individual or multiple participants (to reduce your email load!). However, if you are uncomfortable with it (because unfamiliar or because of privacy concerns) here are some other options:

  • Create a “cafe” space in your VLE/LMS and explain its purpose. It may be a space the teacher frequents or does not.
  • MatterMost and RocketChat are open source alternatives to Slack, and therefore would not have any of the concerns about privacy, etc. However, they would require someone with technical expertise to install and self-host and administer them. See:
  • If most of your students are on WhatsApp or low-bandwith connections, or if you want to benefit from the voice note functionality, WhatsApp is an option, if you don’t have privacy concerns. If it’s problematic at your institution for teachers to create such groups, ask your students if they would like to create and administer their own group, and then if they want to invite you into it. So it becomes THEIR space that they invite you into, not vice versa. However, some may choose not to use WhatsApp at all as it involves sharing of phone numbers, and discussion can get difficult to follow, unlike Slack.
  • Some people have used “Discord” which some students seem to prefer, as some already use it, and it has room for voice notes as well as text.
  • If you have concerns about your own time, consider asking your teaching assistants to join such spaces in your stead, if this fits their job description.

Technical requirements


Useful resources


More 'Ongoing engagement' activities:
Equity Unbound Activity
PowerPoint Karaoke
Engage students in improv presenting, and enhance oral presentation skills in a light and humorous way.
Maha Bali, Jasmina Najjar, Hoda Mostafa
Equity Unbound Activity
Tiny Tales
Encourage short, focused storytelling, easy to share with others, writing stories in 100 words (or fewer), or 6 words or 2 sentences, etc.
Laura Gibbs
Equity Unbound Activity
Cognitive/exam Wrappers for Metacognition
Help students reflect on their exam/assessment performance in order to improve future performance in your course.
Maha Bali

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