One of the greatest challenges facing the higher education sector in the coming year is how to create a sense of community and belonging when a large proportion of students won’t be together in the same physical space. Expertise in fostering interaction developed in face to face settings may not easily translate online. Also, it’s important to build social connections between learners online to avoid isolation and threats to wellbeing.
There is a wealth of previous experience to draw on here as many teachers have been leading online courses for years, it’s just that that knowledge isn’t evenly spread. And some existing expectations and assumptions at a societal level about what high quality learning should look like can make it hard for staff to properly engage with these forms of learning.
These are our top suggestions for leaders in education to consider:
Provide safe online spaces
As with learning in the physical environment, institutions have a fundamental duty of care to students in online spaces. The risks are different but no less serious and learners are much less likely to engage if they don’t feel adequately protected.
This is why Jisc published this guide on supporting online safety. Choosing and managing systems that protect students’ privacy and data are part of that duty of care.
It’s worth remembering that online spaces may not universally be perceived as safe by students, even when hosted on an institution’s systems. For some marginalised individuals and social groups, engaging in online spaces can make them feel vulnerable. That vulnerability may also extend outside the online community; a feeling of threat in an online forum may lead to a feeling of threat in the physical world.
Help staff develop their practice
For many teaching staff, supporting communities of learners online will be a new experience that will require the rapid development of new skills. In a sector where the emphasis on expertise in subject and practice is so high, it can leave many feeling anxious to be in a situation where they are working in unfamiliar environments and in new ways. From a wellbeing as well as a quality perspective, providing the right support will be essential.
Developing online professional identities takes careful work and is complicated. Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps have devised a framework for practitioners to consider their online practice and how it helps them build their identity. Lawrie has also developed an informal tool to help staff have conversations about perceptions their own online identity.
It’s important to recognise the effort that goes into supporting online communities. It may not be as visible as standing in a lecture theatre or leading a lab session but when it’s done well it can lead to high quality and transformational learning experiences. Much of the discussion around value in education relies on an assumption that face to face is automatically better than online which needn’t be the case.
Allow students to develop their skills
The label of Digital Natives has become unhelpful over recent years. It has led to an assumption that young people who have grown up surrounded by technology will need little or no support to use devices and platforms. We shouldn’t assume that familiarity with tech automatically leads to skills in using it to support learning. Nor should we assume that older people have nothing to teach younger people about it.
It’s unlikely that all students experiencing online learning for the first time at university will have had a good grounding in it from their previous institutions. Many schools and colleges were having to do their best to rapidly deal with an emergency situation during lockdown
To avoid throwing students in at the deep end, it’s important t induct them gradually into full participation with online communities of learning. Starting with simple activities to gain familiarity with the group and the platforms provide the basis for more complex interactions further down the line.
Gilly Salmon proposed a 5 step scaffolding model to follow for online interaction some years ago and more recently Baha Mali, Mia Zamora and Autumm Caines have started collating a resource base of suggested activities to build a sense of community through OneHE.
Consider carefully how you measure engagement
How you use data can have an impact on pedagogical issues but the relationship is complex.
Online community spaces often allow detailed analysis on user activity. Where this data can be useful it can also give a narrow interpretation of what activity is happening. What we want to achieve for learners is engagement but the things that are commonly easily measured in online spaces could be better described as “attention”. Attention isn’t always a good proxy measure for engagement as this post argues.
Analytics can give you useful information about some aspects of how people are engaging with the platform. For example, you might be able to see that most activity happens within the community on a particular day or between particular times. This could inform when staff make themselves available for live support chats or group discussions. Looking at how active certain people are in the community might give clues as to who to have conversations with to check progress, looking for early-warning signs of difficulties. The University of Gloucestershire has been taking this approach in using data to inform pastoral conversations.
Organisations should also consider the impact of data collection might have on learning and social behaviours. It pays to be open and transparent with students about what data is being collected and how it is being used. Jisc has produced a code of practice for learning analytics that is relevant here.
Analysis of data needs to go hand in hand with more conversational approaches to determine levels of engagement.