What do we mean?
Define TEL terms that need clarification (for beginners).
Appleby-Donald, Teaching Matters Blog, University of Edinburgh, 2019: Finding community in online learning
Jessop, WonkHE, 2020: Let's lose the deficit language about online education
LearnWorlds, 2020: How to Build an Online Learning Community (In 2020)
White, 2020: The lecture paradox
Developing Community Online
It is not distance or indeed the medium that makes a 'campus', but the connections we make. Appleby-Donald, 2019
It is hard to dispute that in-person teaching is an effective and often preferred way of engaging students through a shared, live experience that automatically conjures up feelings of connectedness. But part of the brilliance of in-person teaching also incorporates the extended spaces that exist beyond the formal learning space: the chat with the lecturer before or after the seminar; catching up with peers whilst waiting to enter a lecture hall; students dissecting a lecture or seminar together over coffee or lunch; walking to the library together after group lab work (Jessop, 2020). The physical act of our students turning up to our teaching spaces fortuitously supports the development of community. But in an online environment, these informal moments for connecting with peers can potentially vanish (White, 2020). We therefore need to make more explicit and deliberate opportunities for informal conversations and connections to be made within our online teaching and learning environment.
When considering the importance of community linked to learning, it can be useful to think of the acquisition of new knowledge and ideas based on the process of sharing:
Sharing is thinking together, negotiating, collaborating, and co-creating. These are the main elements of productive communities of learning. Learnworlds, 2020
Connections are an integral and essential part of the learning process. This view of learning as a social venture supports Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory of learning, whereby knowledge is co-constructed with others, including learning directly from interaction with one another (Vygotsky, 1975). Learning therefore does not happen in a vacuum (LearnWorlds, 2017). But when learning is predominantly directed through online media, we have to work harder to manage or scaffold our learning spaces to avoid this potential social vacuum, which in turn can undermine the acquisition of new knowledge and ideas.
Strategies for developing online community
In the blended learning context, we need to recognise and compensate for the lack of physical presence and, therefore, create explicit opportunities for students to build and maintain authentic relationships. Co-presence, although differently organised in an online space, is an essential part of the overall student learning experience and supporting students to build and reinforce peer relationships will help students feel connected and strengthen student cohort identity. Clear guidance on expectations will be important to ensure this space is used effectively and positively. Here are some suggestions:
1. Social media platforms
Harness the fact that students already create and participate in online communities, such as establishing WhatsApp groups, interacting on Facebook pages etc. Encourage your students to connect with one another in this way, taking ownership and being inclusive - invite all members of the group, and get the students to run the group themselves. Encourage them to see this as a space to informally connect together as a group with a shared endeavour.
2. The interaction bubble
Explicitly creating pre- and post-sessional opportunities for interaction can help to widen the window to connect by mimicking informal spaces beyond the classroom. This provides students with opportunities to ask questions and interact with one another outside of the official or formal learning space, which some students may be more comfortable with (Gravett and Winstone, 2020).
3. Question and answer forum
Formal methods of engaging students can also be used to promote the building of informal connections. For example, an online question and answer forum could be used to engage students by asking questions that draw on their interests and deliberately fosters conversation, such as asking students about the latest film they have watched or book they have read.
4. Buddy system
Smaller online chat groups could be used to support both a learning or wellbeing context. Smaller groups of students set up in this way could make it easier for students to interact, as reaching out to a large cohort could be overwhelming. For example, assign students to small groups and suggest that they use the Teams chat function to engage with one another outside of formal learning time. A ‘safety net’ approach to learning can also be useful to encourage students to reflect and share those aspects of online study they may struggle with and foster a sense of shared experience.
5. Course Coffee shop
“To facilitate students engaging with one another, I created a “coffee shop” for my online courses. Students learn about one another, support each other through life stresses, and celebrate personal accomplishments.” says Jody Donovan in her 2015 blog about the importance of building online communities.
Appleby-Donald, E., 2019. Finding community in online learning. Teaching Matters Blog, University of Edinburgh: https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/finding-community-in-online-learning/
Donovan, J., 2015. The importance of building online communities. ValuED, Colorado State University Online: http://blog.online.colostate.edu/blog/online-education/the-importance-of-building-online-learning-communities/
Gravett, K. and Winstone, N., 2020. Making Connections: how do we do this in an online space? [webinar]. University of Surrey, 22nd June 2020.
Jessop, T., 2020. Let's lose the deficit language about online education. WonkHE: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/lets-lose-the-deficit-language-about-online-education/
LearnWorlds, 2017. Social and interactive learning increases results. https://www.learnworlds.com/social-interactive-learning-platform/
LearnWorlds, 2020. How to Build an Online Learning Community (In 2020). https://www.learnworlds.com/build-online-learning-community/
White, D., 2020. The lecture paradox. Davod White. http://daveowhite.com/the-lecture-paradox/
Vygotsky, L., 1975. Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.