When students are at a physical distance from instructors and peers, we must be intentional about setting up community building structures from day one of the course (or even in the week prior to the course starting).
This blog post will explore ways to set up the learning environment to encourage community and sharing across boundaries (physical and technological). There are logistical and pedagogical considerations when we look at designing "boundaryless" learning environments where there is considerable physical distance between instructors and students. What we aim to do, however, is make "distance" into connection by humanizing our online classes. As Robin DeRosa notes, "Everyone is separate from you, but everyone in this room could be mapped onto your world and become connected...And if distance holds in it the seeds of connections, what does that mean about how we think about the world wide web, the connective technology that we are only beginning to understand in education?”
How do we create immediate connection with students, set up the learning environment to support community and use collaborative technology tools to support this work? The answer begins with a set of questions:
- What do I want to know about my learners from the very beginning of the course?
- What do I want them to know about me?
- How do I want students to begin to interact with one another and to get to know each other?
- What barriers might exist that will inhibit my connection to students and from student to student?
- How might I begin to connect who my learners are to the content of the course?
These are not the usual questions we ask when we begin a course. They aren’t focused on learning objectives or outcomes or assessment or grades. Instead, the focus at the start of a course that takes place in a digital or distant environment should be about building relationship.
It’s worth noting that, when we go online to teach, a couple of things happen: first, we tend to get more task- or goal-oriented than we might be in the classroom. While most of us really long for connection with our students through the screen, we nonetheless don’t put relationships at the forefront of our course planning. When we write our syllabus, when we record a video lecture or an introduction, when we set up rubrics in Canvas, we are thinking less about who and where our students are than what we want them to do, how we want them to perform. And, in the desire to make expectations crystal clear, the language we use can become formal, almost robotic.
The other thing that tends to happen right away is that we assume, since we can’t see our students, they will cheat, plagiarize, and work less. That sets up an adversarial relationship with students even as we hope to build stronger relationships and rapport across distance. Creating that rapport is a kind of digital literacy. If we are going to make teaching and learning at a distance work, we need to recognize that what we face are not actually bureaucratic or policy or academic integrity issues. Nor are they technological issues. Using a videoconferencing platform isn’t like waving a magic wand: it doesn’t actually bring people into a room, but only gives the illusion that they are present. It’s just as easy to bring in someone virtually as it is easy to forget they are there.
The digital literacy that we require in this case is an interpersonal one. We have to cultivate our ability to teach through the screen.
Once we choose to make a commitment to this digital literacy of relationship, we can begin to take steps toward teaching and learning. Some of those steps might include:
- Always asking: “Who is not in the room who could be?”
- Checking in across distance to see how learning is coming along.
- Allowing time in synchronous meetings and collaborations for connecting and relationship-building.
- Finding back channel spaces for communication between classes (e.g., virtual office or “coffee” hours).
- Recognize and appreciate time zone differences. Early morning means different things to different people.
- Perhaps most importantly, we must develop empathy for one another in virtual or digitally-inflected spaces. It may seem like learning from home is easier (pjs and comfy chairs, studying in bed, etc.) but it also means that most learning happens alone. And rushing to an online class is very different from having to cross campus to make it on time.
What are your biggest concerns with teaching across distance? Or teaching in a room where some students are in desks and some are on-screen? How will you solve the issues that hybridity creates?
Leave a comment below with your thoughts.