By Chris Bell (Senior Learning Technologist – Digital Practice)
Developing a strong learning community has always been critical in ensuring that our students feel connected to their chosen subject area and to wider university life. However, we shouldn’t make presumptions that the social structures and processes that may have existed in the physical classroom will naturally carry over to an online environment.
As one of the eight baseline expectations of the University of Derby’s Educational Model for the 2020/21 academic year, colleagues in the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching have been working with academic staff to ensure that learning activities have clear opportunities for ‘online socialisation’, meaning that students can interact and collaborate with one another in active and engaging ways across all modes of study. Often, making small adjustments to practice can have a big impact, especially when helping students to develop their voice and identity in a digital environment. Here are some ideas, or quick sparks, which may help you nurture a learning community within a blended environment:
- Create an opportunity for students to meet or work together across different modes of study as soon as possible, this can be especially useful for the early-stage development of an online identity and voice.
- Create a ‘low-stakes’ dummy run through a group task to ensure that students understand the underlying process and the tools they are expected to use. This can often help to iron-out issues around digital exclusion, access to devices, platforms and apps etc.
- When in a hybrid session or even fully remote, select a session mediator/leader to collate and sample questions and present them back to the wider cohort.
- Identify and praise effective collaboration efforts, such as feeding back from Collaborate Breakout Rooms.
- Feedback informally through forums, announcements and instant chat. Where appropriate, encourage students to do the same. Be personable, open and responsive.
- Seek out authentic scenarios that capture the zeitgeist, as a basis for group tasks.
- Complement and signpost to other support mechanisms, e.g. PAT, Library, Careers, and Student Representation
- Be clear about the objective of groupwork, this is especially important in a remote environment. Make sure that students are expending their collective creative energy on meeting the requirements of a task, not trying to work out what the task is.
- Make group work and collaboration as inclusive as possible. Encourage students to draw on their own experiences and backgrounds, whilst ensuring they all have an equitable opportunity to engage.
- Foster an environment of relevance which speaks directly to the developing scholarly identity of your students. Make them feel connected to their subject and one another, even when they are distributed. This can often pave the way for effective collaboration.