To use the cliched term, these are unprecedented times, and students may be wondering if a new term at university will be a lonely online prospect. Undergraduates who were looking forward to their university experience as much a social rite of passage as a route to a career may be feeling shortchanged.
The latest research from WONKHE/Pearson on the lockdown experience of students at universities thrown into online mode bears this out. 41 per cent of the students agreed with the statement that they had struggled to manage their wellbeing in the absence of face to face engagement with friends, peers, and lecturing staff.
If the informal elements of a campus university experience are reduced - meeting friends, going for a coffee - students experience may be primarily influenced by the contact online. So that contact has to be good.
Not surprisingly, 59 per cent of the student respondents focused on “high quality online teaching” as the key requirement.
What is often underestimated in learning is the power of learning communities and the role of peers. Students who take part in social and connected ways of learning are more engaged in the community and tend to be more successful academically; and disadvantaged students build social capital. Even informal encounters can give rise to students supporting each other in study by talking; more formally it means a structured group collaborating on a shared goal.
Make community matter
In the absence of chance meetings in our new online world, we need to actively construct opportunities for learning communities to form. It’s the role of teachers and support staff to enable a good learning experience. Much can be done to stimulate this - study groups or buddies set up at the start of term,a clear focus on shared goals will have more staying power.
A shared goal can be a whole project, or a simple shared research task, in flipped class style, with groups working collaboratively and tutors enabling this by demonstrating use of shared collaborative online tools, with students sharing their ‘findings’. Furthermore, groups could be set different tasks and bring their findings to the ‘live’ class to share with different groups - the ‘jigsaw’ method.
What is key is to follow up and monitor students: it cannot be left to chance. This also sends a signal to students that learning community is important.
A learning community is an incredibly powerful support system: it builds bonds, engagement in learning and a feeling of belonging to the cohort and university. And that, in turn, reduces attrition.
The power of community
Lockdown has produced some incredible examples of online communal activities - from pub quizzes to mass raves and musical ensembles, to ballet, people have sought community and found it in new and unexpected ways. Zoom has become ubiquitous, equalling google in that both spawned a new verb; as in “zoomed out”. This is testament to our human need to connect. Because of our ability to adapt when we need to, pretty much everyone, including hitherto technophobic elderly relatives, has now learnt to use this online tool to communicate with their friends as a support network and continue their community.
A new online fluency
This also means that in the new term almost everyone will be adept at managing interactions online calls (“you’re on mute!”).
We can expect at least this aspect of the digital literacy divide to have evened out somewhat. Most students will be adept at communicating online and expect that from tutors.
Build online community live
There are some positives from the experience of those thrown into online teaching early on in lockdown.
Some anecdotal feedback suggests, students perceived live online interaction as a more “democratic” experience than the traditional lecture, where one or two of the most confident and loud students can dominate in the (so called) Socratic question - answer method, which can become a table tennis dialogue between lecturer and the front row. Continuing this online is impossible as the clues of body language are missing and turn taking is distorted. So the tools ‘force’ us into new ways of communicating; and managing groups.
A more equal interaction?
Could it be that being online might actually allow or ‘force’ more equal participation?
In synchronous meetings where breakout rooms can be randomly allocated, not only does this make forming groups easy, it also can throw together students who might not otherwise have worked together. And the careful mixing and re-mixing of groups by tutors can mean that, by the end of a module or course, as one student put it, “I’d worked with everyone" and “it truly felt like a shared communal undertaking”.
Isn’t that what a learning community should feel like?
By building in community into our teaching, we also build in some of the missing aspects of campus experience.
Once a community is formed, it takes on a life of its own. Early effort will pay dividends.
But if academics don’t show commitment to building community – how can we expect students to?