In higher education, group support can mean the difference between failure and success. Put simply, when groups perform well, individuals are more motivated; so if we want students to succeed, we need to help and support each and every cohort. But that of course is easier said than done!
In a classroom setting, especially in small classes as we host in Maastricht, group bonding happens automatically – whether it be discussing recent elections results before class, last night’s football game in the coffee break or the location of drinks after class. Building an online community, however, is a totally different ball game.
In our ‘blended’ Evidence-based Policy Research Methods (EPRM), we host three weeks of the programme in Maastricht. During the first and last modules in Maastricht, participants have face-to-face classes, but the majority of the course is offered online as distance learning.
Modules two, three and four – lasting a total of 10 weeks – are hosted online. In order to support our participants during their classes in Maastricht, but more importantly virtually, we developed an online Community of Learning platform (CoL). We use it to distribute materials, collect assignments and spark debate.
Yet providing an online community platform is not the same as building an online community of people. Because without doubt the latter is more important than the former in terms of ensuring success – it is reason enough to assess what is happening during our online and face-to-face teaching periods, and to find out where the real community building takes place.
We know that our CoL works well on a basic level. All participants are able to download the offered materials and upload their assignments. But during the first two weeks of class in Maastricht, the use of the virtual platform does not add to community-building. It is in the classroom that we see cohorts transform into communities.
Being part of a group of like-minded, mid-career professionals, the eagerness to learn how to do better research is the common factor. Groups have lunch together, discuss assignments in the library or meet for drinks in the evening. By the time they leave our city, a cohort has become a community.
Upon return home, the daily use of the online platform increases. With both teachers and participants being in different locations, our CoL becomes the classroom space. The amount of activity on the platform fluctuates, with the working week and start of the weekend being less busy. Online activity peaks on Sundays and Mondays, in line with most assignment deadlines, which are due on Mondays.
We also notice very little interaction online. Participants download their materials, upload their assignments, and request feedback from their tutors. But when asked directly, participants said they are more likely to chat with tutors via email or skype, than via the discussion boards (which would be visible to the entire cohort, allowing them to join the debate). Moreover, there are very few group interactions, e.g. where classmates actively challenge each other. In short, we do not see a community in action online – we just see individuals quietly but successfully completing their courses.
In some courses, the CoL aspects are actively encouraged by tutors. Examples include video sessions set up as part of the course requirement, and pre-arranged group discussions. There is clear value added in each.
In the words of one participant: “the weekly skype calls (with tutor and course participants) were well-executed and highly appreciated. The video call format on a prepared topic allowed for an informed and effective exchange of views contributing to a much deeper understanding of the subject matter. It also offered an opportunity for real-time, two-way feedback on any adjustments needed”.
Yet, when the tutors did not actively offer such options, participants did not seek it either. Individual skype sessions with the tutor were much more often used than a CoL function that would allow for group exchange.
It seems fair to say that the CoL we designed is fit for the purpose of learning – and yet for now that is more or less its sole purpose. The cohorts did not interact a lot with each other on our CoL while they were away, although to be fair we did find that the group of people joining us in the last week of the programme was still a true community.
When we asked our participants how this happened, how communication among the participants took place, they said that they mainly used email and the ‘Whatsapp’ group that was created. During their period of online activity, this is where the group asked each other how they were doing, reminded each other about deadlines, and complimented each other on their achievements.
Without libraries, bars or restaurants, ‘Whatsapp’ becomes the de facto space for social and academic exchanges. In other words, our results show that you can designate a clear space for interactions, but that does not mean that people will use it. As course instructors, we should certainly focus on improving the learning functions of our CoL to spark interactive learning; but we can also trust that participants will find ways to interact socially as a group – at a time and in a way that simply suits them best.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / dave.see