Developing a strong and dynamic learning community is critical for sustaining motivation, for creating opportunities to participate in social and collaborative learning activities, and for promoting deeper learning. But inclusive learning communities rarely flourish spontaneously without careful support, or without confident and capable participants. We can't assume that the social dynamics that may have existed in physical settings will carry over to the online environment. Students who were outspoken in the classroom may become less communicative online, for example, and visa versa.
In this phase, our focus is on starting to develop these attributes in all learners, helping students to find their voice and feel a sense of belonging so that everyone can engage and contribute meaningfully and equally in online learning.
Understanding our online behaviours
Firstly, it’s important to remember that students (like many of us) already have private online lives and their own ‘digital identities’ outside of academic spaces and learning contexts. In today’s digital society, these identities are valuable and important, and there’s a risk that students may feel a sense of intrusion as the presence of teachers and College peers starts to feature more vividly in their online worlds. As the line between students’ online private lives and their online university lives becomes increasingly blurred, this risk can be mitigated by attempting to understand how your students, and you, engage in various online spaces.
A useful metaphor for visualising this is offered in the idea of Visitors and Residents, which can help students to conceptualise their online lives, give them ownership over how much they wish to share, and identify which online spaces they would like to use for interaction and socialising. The key aspects in the Visitors and Residents metaphor are:
- Visitor: someone engaging online in a similar way to entering a garden shed, choosing a tool for a particular job, and then putting the tool back after the task has been completed. In a Visitor mode of engagement, there is no obvious sign that the person was ever present.
- Resident: a person who inhabits a particular online space by, for example, creating a profile, posting comments and photos, and engaging with others. Social media platforms are a good example of where some people might be considered to be digital ‘residents’.
We can use this model to map out how we, and our students, engage as visitors and as residents in two broad contexts: institutionally and non-institutionally.
Nurturing community and culture
For many of us, digital communication tools (including, perhaps most conspicuously, popular video conferencing platforms like MS Teams and Zoom) have erupted into our teaching experience with unexpected urgency. With labs and classrooms closed for now, many teachers and students across the higher education sector have turned to such tools in an attempt to fill some of the instructional void left by campus closures.
But just because we can now talk from afar to students and broadcast our PowerPoints we can’t assume that learning is happening. This is true when we are teaching in face-to-face settings, and it is particularly true in remote learning contexts. For this reason, it can be helpful to think of online platforms not just as communication tools, but as spaces in which students can engage in learning activities.
Finding their voices
As teachers, we have a critical role to play in encouraging socialisation to occur through thoughtful and sensitive approaches to online engagement. Think about the kind of learning culture you would like to emerge in your cohort. How do you want them to behave and interact with each other, and with you? This is the perfect time to establish or negotiate some core ground rules and shared expectations.
In this phase, take opportunities to introduce simple online activities that require each student to communicate or contribute something to a discussion – even if it’s as simple as sharing details of where they are now, what their home workspace is like (if they have one), or what concerns or challenges they anticipate as they engage in online learning.
This phase is where students can find and ‘test’ their online voice, establish their online identities, develop the confidence to contribute, and start to build the relationships that will form the foundation for more complex learning activities later on.