Building a learning community during tough times

I was over-the-top excited when I received my first responses from students to my pre-course survey. After spending the summer reading, adapting, pondering contingencies, and attending course design institutes and digital learning days, I’m tired of being anxious about the semester and just want it to start.

I’m also ready to interact with real students rather than the imaginary ones I’ve been thinking and worrying about all summer.

Some of the students are eager for the semester to get started too. I sent out the survey much earlier than I usually would (11 days before the first day of class), and a couple of students filled it out right away! Responses have been trickling in since then; over 90% had completed it a couple days before class begins.

Their answers seemed especially thoughtful in sharing parts of themselves, what kind of history they’d really enjoyed studying in the past, what they’re hoping to get out of our course, what concerns they have, and which of their experiences, knowledge, or characteristics may help them in the course. 

Usually I do surveys on the first day of class, but everything I read and heard this summer emphasized the importance of social presence in hybrid or remote instruction.

The interactions between students themselves (as well as between the students and their instructor) is part of what distinguishes a class from a learning community. My colleague Kelsey Bitting showed me this wonderful graphic below. She adapted the image from Parker Palmer, influenced also by Gavriel Salomon and David Perkins (“Individual and social aspects of learning,” Review of research in education, 1998). The image on the left illustrates a traditional instructor-centric model, and the one on the right highlights the characteristics and components of a learning community working with the content.

Instructor-centric (left) vs. learning community (right)

At Elon, we’re all about active learning and community, so I certainly didn’t need to be persuaded. But I have needed some ideas for how to adapt what I do in face-to-face setting to my teaching remotely.

I’m teaching one of my favorite courses this semester, a senior research seminar. Students typically feel anxious because they can’t graduate unless they write a good quality paper. One of the cool things about the course is that – perhaps because of their shared stress, and I hope also because of a lot of scaffolded group discussions and tasks – the students tend to become a pretty supportive community.

One thing that made an impression on me from Elon’s Course Design Institute was the effectiveness of very short, easy-to-create videos posted in a discussion forum that allowed people to introduce themselves and get a feel for others in the course. Watching them didn’t take long and was very interesting. The social presence (there’s a sort of immediacy to video) seemed to lay the groundwork for more comfortable future collaborative work.

Of course, there are other ways besides videos to begin the process of getting to know one another, including written introductions accompanied by photos or avatars, spoken ones during synchronous classes, sticky notes posted on a Google Jamboard or other bulletin board format.

I think one key to good introductions is giving students the space to speak for themselves (in an open-ended way, so they decide what they want to share) and to show their personalities, interests, or values to the degree they want to. But introductions or icebreakers can end up being tedious or mechanical if they don’t lead to something more. Kathryn Linder (in her Blended Course Workbook) suggests that whatever the format, it’s important to have students respond to one another’s introductory posts or statements. That can be done in a discussion forum for asynchronous courses or immediately in a face-to-face setting. Asking students to do something with information about a person makes it both more memorable and more meaningful. Doing something might mean making a comment, seeing how many names they remember, finding things in common with other students, asking a follow-up question, or even introducing someone else to the rest of the class.

My theory is that being heard is important to students (as for all human beings). The time this takes at the beginning of the course can pay off. After all, the best discussions are ones where students pick up on what one another says – whether that’s through agreeing and adding evidence, highlighting the implications of what someone said, asking for clarity, disagreeing respectfully, or connecting ideas. Effective group work on almost any task requires listening. Students should start hearing one another from the very beginning.

We can do a lot of things to increase the likelihood of all students having a chance to speak – such as modeling of and unpacking good discussion practices, having students collectively build participation expectations and netiquette, building in lots of structure, increasing waiting time after asking a question, providing thinking time or paired conversations before speaking in front of a large group. In addition, though, I think it’s good for students to do some active listening exercises so that they are all heard (not just all speak).

One thing I’m still pondering is how in Zoom to invite the spontaneous conversations that normally occur in the minutes before class starts in my face-to-face classes. That’s the time when those who arrive early tend to chat informally about whatever is on their minds – what’s happening on campus, parking, breakfast, coffee, the weather, and maybe even reactions to the assignment – things that gradually reveal more of their interests and personalities.

When I’m facilitating a Zoom meeting with new people, I tend to just start chatting with whoever enters first. That seems okay (better than awkward silence, at least), but generally it is a series of one-on-one conversations, leaving others as bystanders. It also feels very me-centric, making the instructor the focus, creating the precedent that all discussion goes through me rather than being initiated by students interacting with one another.

I’ve heard a few ideas from my colleagues for what to do in the time before class officially starts. These include: explicitly inviting students to use the chat function or a separate app like GroupMe, having students take turns playing one of their favorite songs before class starts (which apparently gets them talking about their musical tastes), instructor posing an interesting question either aloud or in chat and then simply bowing out of the ensuing conversation, asking students to take turns posing a question to the group, or asking students to fill out a poll question or two.

Someone else proposed asking students to take turns bringing/posting on the shared screen a cartoon,  a tip for self-care, or a piece of good news. (This semester I might have to specify a non-political and non-offensive cartoon or piece of good news.) I’m open to suggestions – from you and from my students. It’s possible that a nice learning community will form just as it usually does, but I’m guessing the combination of a pandemic and new technology mean that I will need to be more intentional than ever. Thanks for sending ideas.

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