Building Learning Communities in Digital Spaces – First Lessons

‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’


The above reference from The Wizard of Oz has become an expression when one finds themselves in new and unfamiliar territory. To call this academic year, new and unfamiliar is an understatement to say the least. It has been a series of firsts for me. My first time of organising Induction & Orientation activities for online delivery. The first time of delivering teaching and learning activities without having met our students in person or even in the tiny little ‘boxes’ in my Collaborate classroom. However, as I come to the end of the third week of teaching and I begin the reluctant  gradual acceptance of what is actually within my control at the moment with respect to teaching, a short note from a student prompted me to reflect.

“…I also wanted to say that the session yesterday was really great. I really enjoy your classes.

Brief.. but was like a glass of cold water after walking for hours in a desert. After weeks of going round in circles, decision making and increasing anxiety about how everything was going to go this year, it was some validation that I did not even realise I needed. It got me thinking about what could be have prompted the feedback and space to reflect and get a more accurate picture about how things are going. COVID-19 is not going anywhere, and I cannot tell how long we will be in the spaces we are currently occupying – as educators and as learners. These lessons are from my reflections and are helping me to navigate the sea of uncertainties in respect to facilitating learning in the digital/virtual/online spaces we all occupy at the moment.

“We are not ‘just’ delivering lectures, seminars, webinars or attending them. We are building, hopefully, a vibrant community of learners.”

Amara Anyogu, PhD (@intentionalacad)

Being intentional – Over our two-week Induction, I had the opportunity to ‘meet’ with the students on our course and share my thoughts and hear from them about building community. Research shows that learners who develop a sense of belonging are more likely to be successful in achieving their learning goals. I talked with our new learners about how they were not just joining an institution but a community of educators and learners. While community members may have distinct roles and responsibilities, there should be a shared, communal goal of achieving success. Each individual brings something to the table, each individual has a responsibility towards ensuring learning happens. While our community is still taking shape, it has been so heart-warming to see so many acts of kindness from our students. Developing a communal set of ‘netiquette’ principles for our online sessions, students managing discussion boards and chats, answering their peer’s questions and queries before I can even pick them up. We had our first onsite session this week and it was so great to meet in person. Afterwards, I realised there was no real awkwardness of meeting for the first time. Investing time over two weeks for Orientation enabled us to feel like we had known each other as there were different opportunities to engage. It was like meeting someone you ‘know’ from social media when you have built up enough positive interactions to get over the initial awkwardness. Learning, is in part a social activity and as the semester goes on, I hope we can continue to build on this. Building a community anywhere and at anytime is hard work but it is so essential.

Embracing speaking into space – I have been a silent observer in many Teams chats, email discussion threads and Twitter conversations about our discomfort as educators of seemingly speaking into space i.e. learners not using their videos. Over the summer, I had the opportunity to participate in and moderate panel discussions and speak to large audiences at online meetings. The first time I gave a talk and could only see my slides, I remember calling out to ‘space’, ‘Can anyone hear me?’ It felt so odd…I cannot believe I miss the whole spectrum from engaged to bored, incredulous to antagonistic facial expressions in my classroom. A few months later, I am adjusting, the key word being ‘I’. Of course, we would prefer to put a face to the names in the little boxes on our screen and pick up on body language cues when facilitating sessions. However, as an introvert who often switches off her own video in large group settings, I can empathise. For many students, it is less about engagement and more to do with bandwidth, nerves, and maybe even trust. I love this discussion from Dr Carina Buckley which is encouraging us to focus less on cameras and more on creating avenues for students to participate. I choose to meet students where they are. ‘I would love to see who I am speaking with but please only do this when you are ready’ is my position. I am trying to remind students that their voice matters in the classroom and to use it as. My class has over 160 students who are just starting their Higher education journey. As the weeks progress, I can see more students speaking in class and switching their cameras on in the smaller breakout sessions. I even got interrupted once (smile emoji), a nostalgic reminder of face to face lessons. For any educators out there teaching large groups, I totally understand.

Image credit – Pixabay

Finding what works includes failing forward – As we approached online learning, there were many webinars, many ‘how to’ guides and many discussion forums focused on ‘how to get it right’ online. Asynchronous vs. synchronous? Should we Kahoot or Padlet or PollEverywhere or Google Doc? Chats on or off in large lectures? I remember being told about the attention span online is much shorter than face to face, so to embed an activity after each 7-minute period of speaking. A positive element of learning in digital spaces is the disruption to the status quo. I am asking new questions about the clarity and alignment of learning outcomes, how I am orientating students towards the topic being discussion and better ways to display information and support students in reviewing their learning. However, I must confess being overwhelmed by the plethora of how to’s. I have decided to start by keeping it simple (and sensible) and working from there. I identified that a lot of my anxiety was centred around perfection. How does one achieve perfection as a novice though? As a scientist, I believe in evidence. Experiment, analyse data and make a decision. My simple idea was to deliver synchronous learning around pedagogic principles I use in face to face but realising that while there are many tools (and many of these are useful) I do not need to use all of them, all of the time. In addition, having identified that some learners are engaging asynchronously, it is important that my design includes them too. Some things work, some things not so much. I realised that online, everything seems to take slightly longer. Two hours goes by like its 30 minutes but after the session I feel like I have been at it for 4 hours…lol! How to find a balance between responding to chats in a room with 150 people and delivering, try toggling between ‘chats on and off’ or shut down the notifications. Ask the students what works best and keep an open mind. I am still trying to find the right balance between in class and independent activities and the best tools for engagement in class but I have noticed these days that with most breathes come the mantra to ‘Keep it simple and fail forward.’

Doing starts with being – This took me back to thinking about the best teachers I have had the good fortune of meeting over my studies and career. They may not always have had the slickest slides or the most polished presentations, but there were other, more valuable (to me anyway) things they had in common. They always had a passion for their subject, were patient and creative in explaining difficult concepts and more importantly made me feel I mattered. In a highly metric driven, performance-oriented space that HE has become, it can be easy to forget that at the heart of education and learning are people. Educators, professional service providers and learners, all working together towards a common purpose. Human imperfect beings who are (mostly) doing their best. Yes, I found a way to bring it back to community. Strong communities identify their core values and try their best to live these out in practice. Sometimes in all our learning about how to ‘do’ things differently online, I hope we do not forget to ‘be’. To do good things starts from being good. In these times we have found ourselves, we need to be kind, compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic…to ourselves and then to others.I have received so many kind messages from my students this year, more than I can remember in previous years. At the end of sessions, many students post a Thank you in the chat before leaving the classroom.  In a meeting with my personal tutee last week, she shared that her anxiety at starting University as a mature student was reduced by what she called ‘my positive attitude.’ I was not even aware of what I may have said or did that supported her arriving at that conclusion.  We are all living (teaching, learning, working) in a pandemic. We should not forget this. I think all students starting this year are heroes. I am not sure if I could display some of the resilience I have seen over the last few weeks when I was at the stage of my studies.. Whether we are sending emails or setting deadlines, we should not forget. We should give the compassion we would like to receive. On my to do list is to find spaces and networks that top up my wellbeing. It is hard to exhibit empathy for a student or colleague when you are stressed and running on empty. I have a lot of work to do on my ‘being.’

So, there it is, a few lessons from a few weeks. Although physically tired, I do feel slightly mentally stronger than at the start of the academic year with. I am hopeful for what the next few weeks have in store and will be back to share them. Please do share how your teaching (or learning) has been progressing online. Let us learn from each other.

About our writer – Dr Amara Anyogu is a widening participation educator with expertise in developing and leading Foundation year programmes to support successful transitions into Higher Education for all students. She is a microbiologist with research interests in food safety and security issues. This includes antimicrobial resistance in the food chain, harnessing microbial diversity for food production and the microbiology of food spoilage. A firm believer in the benefits of mentoring in building a successful career, she is the Co-Founder of the Aspiring Professionals Hub, a professional development resource for successful early career professionals. She is also the Co-Convenor of the Nigerian Applied Microbiologists network, a platform for developing research collaborations and mentoring a new generation of scientists. She tweets @intentionalacad.

Research Method & Methodology Revisited

Editor’s note – An important aspect of learning in Higher Education is undertaking research. Research methods and methodology are terms students often come across, many HE institutions run ‘Research Methods’ modules but what do these terms mean? In this article, Dr Nadia Anwar discusses both terms and tackles their use when preparing students for research. Enjoy – AA.

Most of the books on research prefer the titles ending or highlighting the words ‘method’ or ‘methodology’ such as, ‘Introduction to research methods’ or ‘Research methodology’, ‘A primer to research methods’, ‘A handbook of research methodology’, ‘An overview of research methods’, ‘Research methods in social sciences’, ‘Current methodologies in life sciences’, ‘A guide to methodology’ to name a few. Please note this is a general list of prevalent and popular book titles gleaned from hundreds of available books and in no way targets any specific writer or book. These are indeed very helpful resources, carefully designed to assist the readers initiate their research journey with a solid footing and base. Some even taking the responsibility to prepare the researchers in advanced level research.

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