Community Can Build Content (and vice versa)

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By Eric Hudson, Dean of Instruction

Teachers agree that a strong sense of community is a critical component of any successful class. Traditionally, though, communal activities are based on course content. We find a textbook or a novel, and we have lively discussions about it. We have an important lab to complete, and we group students and ask them to complete the experiment together.

In “live” classrooms, we also tend to rely on spontaneity to engage students: humor and warmth and charisma can instantly elevate the feel of a room. In addition, and not insignificantly, bricks and mortar teachers often work in already vibrant communities: they are part of the larger culture of a school where the arts, athletics, clubs, and socializing are essential components of a shared student experience.

Online teachers have the responsibility not just to create and curate great content, but also to build a community from scratch. As we’ve seen recently, the MOOC movement has suffered from too much emphasis on content and not enough on engagement. Gradually, the online learning world is coming to realize what the bricks and mortar world has known for generations: students learn and engage more when they like and trust their teacher and their classmates.

But, in an online learning environment, meaningful interaction requires time and planning, especially when multiple time zones and new technology are involved. Teachers can’t rely on spontaneous interactions as often, and students from different places don’t have the benefit of a shared school experience. Community-building work must be foundational coursework, an idea that presents the opportunity to rethink the relationship between course material and class culture. In addition to our traditional practice of seeking content around which students can connect, we should also find ways for them to connect that generate meaningful content.

When designed thoughtfully, online courses can be like town squares: they are communal spaces for students to gather, share information, collaborate, and recognize they are not alone. Teachers who can leverage the communal possibilities of an online course will better engage their students: the investment in the material becomes emotional in addition to intellectual.

Some ideas:

1. Make your students your collaborators. Students are as capable as teachers of curating course content; in an increasingly connected world, they have access to the same tools we do. Technology allows the teacher to shift from the sole provider of content to the leader of a team of curators, helping students develop a good critical eye as partners in generating course material. This wiki in our Medical Problem Solving course is the work of a student who, well-coached by his teacher in research skills, built a multimedia learning experience that, because it is published to the communal space of his online course, is now a resource for his classmates.

2. Leverage location. However you feel about the grip social media has on most teenagers, the phenomenon speaks to their eagerness to share their voices and their lives with an audience. When you have students from a number of different places in your online course, their enthusiasm can be a tool for generating unique and personal course material. In our Digital Photography course, each student created a “My City” portfolio to represent themselves to their classmates. By publishing these portfolios and using them to spark discussion, the teacher was able to create a global experience for all of his students.

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3. Nurture a spirit of transparency. In most classes, student work and teacher feedback is a private dialogue, an important component of education that allows the teacher to build a meaningful relationship with each student. But what if that dialogue became a communal conversation where the student connected not only with the teacher via his/her work, but also with the entire class? In our poetry course, the teacher was committed to recreating the feel of a writing workshop. By developing an atmosphere of transparency and trust, he made student work and peer feedback not just a part of a class, but core course content. Not only is the quality of student work enhanced by “The Audience Effect”, but students have the chance to collaborate frequently and practice the skill of giving and taking robust feedback.

At first, it can appear daunting to foster connections among students across great distances and through technology rather than in-person. A shift in approach, however, in how we view the relationship between content and community can capture that most important of results: a student’s investment in his/her own learning.