The value of the support offered by participants of a learning community to its members is widely acknowledged. When studies were conducted face-to-face rather than screen-to-screen, our faculty prided itself on the strong learning communities forged between teachers and students, and students and students alike. However, in moving over to online studies, we, as lecturers, needed to find ways to promote and maintain a successful learning community in unfamiliar circumstances. This was particularly important regarding our first year students who we did not meet face-to-face throughout the year. How do we get to know them and their needs? How do we foster open and supportive relations between teachers and students, and between the students themselves?
As the year unfolded we gained experience and confidence. We tried out new ideas to promote the supportive learning community we know and love while in motion -as we became aware of students' needs. At the time of writing it is still not clear how the coming year will pan out with regard to studying face-to-face or online. Nevertheless, in reflecting on the past year and thinking about the coming year, there are some successful strategies that we will be taking on board in either case.
A 'Fly on the Wall' WhatsApp Group
A WhatsApp group for a given course/class is not a new idea, of course. However, in my experience, the teacher invariably sets up a WhatsApp group to be used as a means of delivering information from teacher to students. Students may then respond to what the teacher has posted. However, the 'Fly on the wall' WhatsApp group works differently.
The teacher is part of the group but does not take a prominent role. Students pose questions and comment freely on issues related to a given course. The questions and comments may relate to technical issues, such as: ''Where can I find the document for Assignment 2?', or to content: 'I am not sure I understood the concept of ____. Could anyone help me here?' Students respond to each other. The teacher reads the posts but only intervenes when absolutely necessary – for example to clarify misunderstandings.
This model serves important purposes. Firstly, it provides a forum for interaction between the students themselves -to share knowledge, learn from each other, and give and receive support. Secondly, it provides a window through which the teacher can learn about the students - what they understand or misunderstand, where they need help and guidance. Teachers may choose to respond to selected points as needed -either in the Whattsapp group or in a lessons. The 'Fly on the wall' WhatsApp group thus serves to promote the spirit of a community of learners who support each other.
In our academic context, students have traditionally been assigned tasks to be completed individually. This requirement is based largely on the perceptions that if they work together then a) some students will likely contribute more and some less- maybe even nothing, and b) teachers will not be able allocate a grade for the assignment to each individual student if he/she does not know who did what. In my experience, the former rarely happens, and the latter point can be solved by giving all participants the same grade.
However, when given the choice of whether to work with other students, and which students to work with, the collaboration provides a rich learning experience whereby students share knowledge and ideas, and get to know each other as they work in close contact, thus offering opportunities to consolidate the learning community.
The benefits of working collaboratively on assignments also calls into question the place of the more traditional mode of assessment- exams. Firstly, exams are by nature isolating factors. Students may 'learn' the material with a friend, but this offers only a limited benefit of negotiating their views and ideas to create a joint product that promotes the notion of community. Secondly, the knowledge will then be reproduced individually on the exam.
So, my takeaway from this is that we need to rethink how we assess our student's knowledge. Offering frequent opportunities for students to engage in collaborative assignments helps to seal the bonding needed to form a supportive student learning community.
'Time to Share'
A third strategy that proved to contribute to the sense of community among learners is the opportunity for students to voice their thoughts, successes and concerns with regard to their studies. So… allocating a few minutes at the beginning of each lesson – be it on zoom or f2f -as a stage for students to have their voices heard, and receive feedback from their peers in the form of a short 'Time to Share' session is highly recommended. This could be open whereby students relate to an issue of their choice, or it could be in response to more specific points, pre-determined according to need as perceived by the teacher or the students themselves. Clearly, ground rules would need to be set to ensure that this session does not evolve into 'Time to Complain' but rather maintains a constructive approach to issues that arise.
In this account, I have highlighted some techniques that proved successful in the context of teacher education, in the attempt to establish and maintain a supportive learning community in the distance learning format. I will surely be taking these ideas on board in the coming year, no matter how we will be studying. I hope they may be of use to you, too.