Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes is attended to nominally if at all…How can we facilitate the interdisciplinary dialogues that bring a campus to life? What spaces can we build online that aren’t quantified, tracked, scored, graded, assessed, and accredited? How can we use tools like Twitter (and other social media platforms) to build the hallways between our online classes? (Morris and Stommel)
The above epigraph articulates our conviction that community is the heart of learning, whether online or in a physical space (aka “meatspace”). How does one create community in an online course where “place/space” may be an impediment to bringing people together? In our DHSI course on critical pedagogy and digital praxis, we volunteered to explore the role of the environment in online learning. We began with a conversation about ”environment” and what it means to us as learners and instructors.
In the spirit of collaboration, we hope that you, our community, will participate in our conversation by annotation through Hypothes.is, available in this module. Discussion questions are offered throughout, which we invite you to answer via your annotations.
First, we would like you to consider your learning place/space…
The physical spaces we occupy when learning in online courses create places/spaces that can either facilitate or hinder our learning. Students exist in very different places/spaces when engaging in online learning and other participants in the course (including the instructor) may not have any idea about how others’ physical environments are affecting their learning and contributions to the course. We want to encourage you to consider your learning place/space, get to know other participants by considering their learning places/spaces, and give and receive feedback about how to best structure a learning place/space. This activity aims to help create an online community by having students bring their physical learning places/spaces into the online space of the course. It also may increase engagement with the course and the likelihood of online success by asking students to assess and improve upon their learning place/space.
Online Place/Space Activity
If you are willing, please tweet a picture or pictures of your online learning/working place(s)/space(s) and comment on them using #WhereIConnect. If you prefer to not post a picture of your actual learning place/space, you can post a picture that best represents it (or your ideal learning place/space or the horrors of where you spend the most time online). Please also include a description of the space. In your description, you might explain what aspects of that place/space help you work more effectively and what might create distractions, disorganization, or other problems when learning.
— Dorie Perez (@dorieble) June 9, 2017
— Ashley Powers (@ampow83) June 9, 2017
Discussion question: What are the potential (dis)advantages of the places/spaces pictured above?
Also, using the same hashtag, explore others’ learning places/spaces and reply to their tweets while considering the following discussion questions: Is there anything that you think is particularly functional about any of your classmates’ learning places/spaces? Are there any organizational strategies you might try for yourself? Do you have any suggestions for your classmates about how they might improve their learning place/space?
We hope that this activity encourages you to connect with others using this module and learn how to create a place/space that is conducive to learning/working online!
The (Dis)Advantages of Place/Space in Online Learning
There are numerous affordances and advantages to online learning environments. For example, they offer the benefits of crowdsourcing information, more democratic access to information (in theory), and the potential for individuals to be involved in the learning process from beyond the physical classroom. These benefits can increase accessibility and inclusivity, as well as catalyze a more polyvocal learning process.
Yet, through our discussion, we found that despite all of these benefits, many of us had negative experiences with online learning. One of our principal concerns was that many online courses don’t address the challenge of creating “place/space” or building community online — something that we often take for granted in physical classroom spaces. We were also concerned that some instructors uncritically transpose the methodologies of teaching in a physical classroom into online spaces, a process that limits the fluidity of these spaces as well as restricts the potential for dynamic collaboration.
Guiding question to explore within this module: How can instructors create a “place/space” for students online, one that is productive, collaborative, inclusive, and ethical?
Operating an online course presents several challenges that need to be addressed in order to ensure that the online environment we create is conducive to student learning. Potential problems include issues of accessibility, interaction, and privacy.
Accessibility is one of the major issues that came up in our discussions. For one, online learning necessitates specific technological tools. Typically, students must have access to a computer and a reliable internet connection. Because of the realities of the digital divide, there are barriers that disallow certain populations from accessing online space. It is therefore difficult to build a space online that is truly inclusive.
Discussion question: What other considerations need to be taken into account when we talk about online accessibility?
Online environments themselves — websites, discussion forums, educational tools — also need to be accessible to people of all abilities.
Discussion question: How can we help ensure all users have the same opportunities for acquisition and engagement?
Differences in digital literacy or even differences in familiarity with digital tools and technologies can also make online learning environments less accessible to particular individuals.
Discussion question: How can instructors address discrepancies in digital literacy?
Most learning management systems (LMS) use discussion boards as the site of interaction between instructors and students. One problem with these platforms is that they have the potential to lead to stilted conversations that stifle, rather than foster, community building. Students post online because they have to; their grades depend on it.
Discussion questions: Are discussion boards the problem or does the real issue lie in the way that we as engage with these tools? What are possible alternatives to discussion boards? Do these alternatives allow for meaningful conversations in the online space or do they face some of the same challenges as discussion boards?
One benefit to LMS programs is that they offer a closed circuit system that allows for privacy within the institutional milieu and control of the “classroom.” In some ways, the private or closed qualities of LMS programs mean that students might be more likely to interact meaningfully in the online learning environment; there is the promise that contributions will be kept private, therefore students might be more likely to disclose authentic responses, reactions, and feelings.
Discussion question: What privacy issues arise when we quit the LMS and enter into more public/open spaces?
According to Adam Copeland, user privacy is an important consideration when entering an online space as digital tools make “tracking, scraping, and storing private information relatively simple.” Managing one’s online presence is, therefore, very important.
Discussion question: What steps do you take to manage your online presence?
Added reading: The digital learner’s bill of rights.
Discussion question: Taking into consideration issues of accessibility, interaction, and privacy, how might you create community — or a sense of place/space — online?