Online Learning is Communal Work

DSC_0040-001By Eric Hudson, GOA Instructional Designer

In Finland, they call it takloot. In the Philippines, bayanihan. In Swahili, the word is harambee. The concept is communal work: members of a family, neighborhood, or town band together voluntarily to achieve a common objective, be it planning a wedding, building a barn, or helping a neighbor in need. It is social, it is collaborative, and — most importantly — it is for the benefit of the group, not the individual.

Online learning is communal work. Teachers should not be the source of and authority on all the information in the course, and students should not be passive participants in learning. Instead, they must work together to build an educational experience in which the process is as useful to the community as the result.

But how do you foster a sense of community in this unusual environment? Teachers and students don’t have the benefit of geographic proximity, shared backgrounds, or regular face-to-face contact. How do you create and then carry out communal goals? What’s the online education equivalent of building a barn?

Global Online Academy challenges our teachers to answer these questions, and their creative and meaningful responses can teach us much about the potential, rather than the limits, of an online learning community.

1. Solve a problem together. Instead of assigning a textbook chapter to read or a video to watch, take a problem-based approach. To introduce the concept of productivity to her Microeconomics students, Aster Chin of the Lakeside School asked them to build a tower out of nothing but newspaper. The variable? Some students had to work alone; some had to recruit construction teams of various sizes. All had to film the final result, post to the class, and include measurements. That data was used to consider economic issues, but the added benefit was that the videos were inventive and surprisingly personal; friends, parents, and siblings made appearances in the students’ homes, glimpses of life that aren’t common in traditional classroom settings. In uniting around a common academic cause, the students enlarged the community of the class.

A GOA Microeconomics student shows off his newspaper tower with support from his family.

A GOA Microeconomics student shows off his newspaper tower with support from his family.

2. Generate course content with your students. Think of an online course not as a one-way delivery of content from teacher to student, but as an open forum for the exchange of ideas. In “Medical Problem Solving,” taught by Darcy Iams and Nan Keptura-Ching of the Punahou School, students build collaborative wikis that address medical mysteries while sharing goals, multimedia research, and letters to patients. By the end of the first project, the course has richer content than might be generated by one teacher over the course of a semester. Students who generate content and see it valued by classmates begin to recognize the class as a learning community to which they are making important contributions.

3. Make community-building an explicit part of your course. There is plenty of research that suggests students are attracted to online courses because of subject matter and flexibility, but there is also research that shows engagement is what gets them to stay. In “9/11 in a Global Context,” Scott Cotton of the Greenhill School started a virtual coffee shop. Each student is assigned a day to contribute an item to spark dialogue, and each cycle has a different theme, but not one of the themes is academic. The Coffee Shop exists solely as a place for students to connect, and connected students tend to be more accountable to each other. This kind of work can impact academic work; Scott has noticed his students crave socialization, and they are happier and more eager to collaborate on class assignments.

4. Ask students to “Look In.” In “Comparative Religions,” Jennifer Carlson-Pietraszek of Noble and Greenough School divides her units into categories: “Learn it,” “Look in,” and “Look out.” The second category asks students to apply concepts to their own lives, families, and belief systems. Whether they share via synchronous video chats, discussion forums, or peer-to-peer interviews, Jenny’s students combine academic analysis with personal reflection; they must reveal themselves as well as their ideas. Since her students are from around the world, Jenny is able to capture an essential aspect of her course material — geographic and cultural difference — by asking her students to engage with each other.

5. Show your face early and often. This goes for teachers and students. The power of a friendly face can’t be underestimated. In her Arabic course, Lina Samawi of King’s Academy began a virtual club called “Shu Fe Ma Fe” (roughly, “What’s up?”). Each of her students from around the world is partnered with a student from her home school in Jordan. The requirement? A 15-20 minute video chat once a week. The result? Students are talking more and more often than the requirement demands, learning vocabulary from each other and bringing it back to their online class. Collaboration and cultural exchange have become part of the fabric of Lina’s course, right alongside grammar and listening exercises.

As is most likely clear to you by now, these values and goals are not unique to online coursework, and GOA faculty members often say that wrestling with this different learning environment has benefited their brick and mortar classes. The opportunity and challenge of this very modern way of building community often returns teachers to the fundamentals of good teaching: much more is achieved by a collective with a common goal than an individual with a personal one.

Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricGOA