Lost in translation: community

I have been working on a series of blog posts about translating existing teaching practices into online models of delivery. In this post I am starting to look at some of the issues that will impact on the wider student experience, starting with the concept of community.

What do we even mean by community? Well if we look at a dictionary definition we get something like this:

a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

The student community is not a static or defined group. Students will come together because they are in the same cohort, studying the same subject, sometimes because they live on the same floor of a halls of residence, they are members of a sports team or a student society. Students will be members a range of intersecting and discrete communities. They will join and leave them over the time of their study. Some will go dormant for a while and then emerge from hibernation as the need for them arises. Communities rarely have a common purpose or aim, which is the domain of groups more than communities.

When a cohort of students study a particular subject or a module they will often become a community, as they have the course as a  common characteristic. Students will interact with each, not just in class, but also before the session and afterwards. They will meet up in organised informal sessions, but they may also meet up happenstance and conversations and discussions will ensure. The community will grow and be sustained by more than what happens in the formal learning activities. Staff will rarely need to intervene or engage in fostering that community. Even if there is no real learning community within that cohort, this isn’t all bad, as likely the students will be members of other communities on campus.

So why are communities important? Well for many students, the social aspect of learning is a real motivator  that supports their learning. Supporting each other as they study, helping each other, motivating each other, learning from each other. Learning communities often enable students to stay engaged with a programme and succeed in their studies. Take it away and learning can become much more isolating and challenging.

With an online or hybrid programme of study, much of the building and developing of community is lost. There is no informal way to have a coffee and a chat before an online lecture in the same way that happens before a lecture in a physical space. Students will turn on their computers, listen to the lecture, engage in the course discussion and then, more than likely they will turn off Zoom or Teams and that’s that! They may not even want to stay online or in front a computer after an intense online session. Happenstance virtually disappears, whereas you probably will bump into other students from your cohort in the library, the computer lab or even the coffee place. This just doesn’t happen online in the same way. True you might bump into another student on Facebook or Twitter, but this is not the same kind of thing at all.

student on a laptop
Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Another aspect that will be missing in the autumn with hybrid and online programmes is that initial get together at the start of term will not happen, or will be limited in scope due to social distancing. So the chance of a community forming, even online, is diminished even further.

Being part of a community can support the wellbeing of students and help them when they meet challenges in their learning and other aspects of the student experience. Remove that community and students may find themselves isolated and without support.

One of the key aspects of building an online community is that it takes time and effort. Much of the nuances of community building that happens on the physical campus is just missing from the online environments that teaching and learning takes place. It will be simple things like, chatting whilst waiting for the previous class to finish, or waiting for the room to be opened and the session started. It will be going for coffee in the break between sessions. Walking back to halls after a long day studying. Going to the library together to find resources and work on assessments. Meeting up later in the evening or at the weekend socially. These things happen and are part of how communities form, build and cement themselves. You can’t just recreate these kinds of activities online, it just doesn’t work in the same way. 

Spiller & Cole Coffee Shop
Spiller & Cole Coffee Shop

You can imagine learners who have spent an hour in an online seminar staring at a screen, are not going to want to continue to stare at a screen on a virtual coffee break, they will probably want a “proper” coffee break, they may want to get some fresh air… As a result translating those things and activities that happen when communities form in the physical environment into online versions will just not work.

Academic staff rarely need to immerse themselves in the process of community building, they can generally leave the students to do this themselves.

This is something that higher education institutions who have delivered a range of online programmes for years know about. Staff teaching on these programmes realised they needed to create, develop and foster learning communities online to enable students to get that positive impact that they would easily achieve in a physical face to face situation.

You have to transform the process of community building and use different activities to enable that process to happen. This can mean encouraging informal activities to take place online, maybe even replacing some sessions to ensure students are not spending all their time online. Make the most of asynchronous activities, such as informal discussion forums. Create opportunities for non-course related discussion through sharing photographs, favourite films, etc…

Recognise that an online community is not the same as a physical community, it is not constrained by geography or time. This means communities can be more than just the university, it could be much wider.

So what things are you doing to build online communities with your students? What are you planning to do when term starts this autumn?

Back in March I wrote a blog post on building communities.

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