Avoiding Isolation During Social Distancing

Jered Borup, PhD

George Mason University

Social Distancing is a new concept for most of us but one that has dramatically changed our lives since the COVID-19 outbreak. It has brought us inside our homes and kept us from physical contact or closeness with others. It has also resulted in unexpected innovation. For instance, a man in Rome created and wore a large disc attached to suspenders. His tongue-in-cheek invention, quickly labeled the “Coronavirus Doughnut” on Twitter, drew a lot of attention for its effectiveness at maintaining the recommended distance from others.

Most of us have turned to online technology to stay connected with others while still helping to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For instance, live (synchronous) video has replaced in-person conversations with friends and family. In fact, online technology has allowed those who are physically separated to still watch movies or play games together.

As universities close and courses move online, it’s also important for instructors to do what they can to maintain a sense of community with and between their students. Research in online learning has found that students are more likely to fail their online courses compared to in-person courses (Bawa, 2016; Friedhoff, 2019). While there are several contributing factors to a student’s failure to persist in online courses, research has pointed to students’ sense of isolation as an important factor. Many instructors have turned to live video class sessions with students. While these online video sessions can be effective, they can also be difficult for students whose work and family responsibilities have changed. This is especially true for students whose children are no longer attending school.

Video messaging (asynchronous video communication) is another, more convenient way to maintain a sense of community while providing students and instructors with the flexibility they require during this unprecedented time. Unlike live video sessions, video messaging allows people to watch and respond to video comments at a time that’s convenient.

The following are some practical ways that instructors and students can use video messaging to maintain and strengthen a sense of community while teaching and learning online.

If you moved your in-person course online for social distancing purposes, you and your students already know each other so you might question the need to have an ice-breaker. However, it’s important for a couple of different reasons. First, students will likely want to talk about what is occuring. It also helps students to learn how to use the technology in a low-stress activity. Similarly, students may be new to video messaging and feel some discomfort recording themselves. In my research, we found that this discomfort can quickly leave after making just a few video comments.

With my students, I asked them to share a video describing and possibly showing one thing that will help them get through social distancing. To model, I posted a video showing my “emergency” chocolate cake that you can quickly make in a mug. Students then shared things like books that they were reading and pets. One student took the class on a quick tour of her home gym. Another instructor, Richard West at Brigham Young University, found that his students were understandably anxious about social distancing so he asked students to share their “COVID-itudes,” or gratitude for things during social distancing. To model, he started the activity by sharing that he has enjoyed spending more time with his kids.

Instructors can post weekly video announcements to help structure the course and guide students. These announcements provide important structure and guidance to students. When these videos are posted using a video messaging tool, it also allows students to easily ask clarifying questions and request support, similar to in-person office hours.  

Instructors can post a short video lecture and then ask students to respond to a question. It’s important to avoid the temptation to go too long in your videos. Research has found that students tend to stop watching videos after 6-10 minutes (Guo, Kim, Rubin, 2014). One possible strategy to maintain student engagement is to chunk longer videos into shorter, 6-10 minute segments and then ask students to post video comments after each video.

In industry, many teams hold stand-up meetings for members to share their successes and challenges. The meetings are designed to be short so members remain standing. These provide quick accountability checks and afford quick planning and troubleshooting. Similar activities can be done using asynchronous video by having students post a weekly video to share their successes and challenges for the week. These “stand-up meetings” would be especially helpful when students are working or collaborating on larger, multi-week projects.

Instructors commonly assign written reflections based on course readings or other materials. Writing is especially valuable for critical thinking (Garrison et al., 2000) but at times video may be a better option. This is especially true if you are asking students to share their feelings or experiences because it’s easier for students to express their feelings and provide more detailed descriptions using video compared to text.

In my research, I’ve found that students tend to find video feedback more helpful, detailed, and personable (see Borup, West, Thromas, & Graham, 2014; Borup, West, & Thomas, 2015). However, students also found that video feedback was more difficult than text to refer back to. Instructors also found providing video feedback to be more time consuming than text when comments were similar across students. In contrast, video feedback can be more efficient when feedback comments need to be more complex. As a result, video shouldn’t replace all text feedback, but can be powerful when used strategically and in combination with text comments.  

Student evaluations of instruction can be a powerful tool for improving instruction and learning. In his seminal research examining what impacts student learning, Hattie explained, “the most important feature was the creation of situations in classrooms for the teacher to receive more feedback about their teaching” because it created a “ripple effect back to the student” (p. 12). Online evaluation surveys provide students with anonymity that allows them to provide unbiased feedback. However, instructors can have students provide additional, more detailed feedback using video messaging. The fidelity of the video also allows instructors to detect frustration or enjoyment that can be difficult to convey in text.


As instructors transition into the online environment, we must remember that learning is a social endeavor regardless of where we are physically. Video messaging can be an important tool for maintaining a sense of closeness and community even while social distancing.

About The Author

Jered Borup is an Associate Professor in the Division of Learning Technologies at George Mason University. Prior to Mason, he earned his PhD at Brigham Young University in Instructional Psychology and Technology. He has taught online and blended courses since 2008 and his research focuses on online and blended student support systems. He has published seven peer-reviewed journal articles (four award-winning) and two book chapters on the use of asynchronous video communication. Additional information on his research and teaching can be found on his website: https://sites.google.com/site/jeredborup/