Like probably all other lecturers at Malmö University, I have been heavily relying on a myriad of educational apps and software to teach and supervise since we switched to online teaching in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these technologies have worked well and we (teachers, students, researchers, and administrative staff) have demonstrated what can only be described as digital resilience, I have also experienced the hiccups of this new way of interacting with students. Lecturing into a void of black screens; learners that log off before class is over ; voiced frustration during supervision meetings (e.g., the quote in the title of this piece); anxious emails from students that find it hard to study in a context of worry (e.g., the fear of them or their families getting sick), isolation (e.g., forced lockdowns) or cramped spaces (e.g., small student dorms or apartments). While, of course, most of us lecturers are operating in an environment of emergency remote teaching (ERT)—in other words, teaching courses that were originally designed to be taught face-to-face—and some issues are unavoidable aspects of a pandemic, it does not mean that we are powerless. I began to ponder: What strategies can be put in place to decrease frustration and promote collaborative learning? I would like to share two concrete tips that I am trying to put to use:
Remember that a group is not necessarily a community
David McConnell (2006: 1) advocates in his book E-learning Groups and Communities that a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) should be an event that brings people together to “give them a strong sense of belonging, of being a community of like-minded learners.” While groups can work effectively (i.e., communicating, collaborating and cooperating to get a task done), a sense of community—or “people striving for a common purpose”—is harder to achieve (Siemens 2002 in Brindley et al., 2009). Most of the students that I work with are part of the international Master’s in Urban Studies program and some have been prevented from coming to Malmö and experiencing the thrills and challenges of being a student abroad. Constrained to an online environment, the possibilities for them to feel they are part of a learning community decrease. What I mainly put in practice to try to address this limitation is to make time for chitchat during our lectures and meetings. Simple questions like “How are things going?” make a difference. (This, of course, works better with students that you meet regularly.) Other strategies include: a) giving plenty of breaks to avoid Zoom fatigue (grumpy or tired students participate less), b) making time for Breakout Rooms so that students can discuss issues on their own, c) encouraging interaction in discussion forums in our teaching platform and the chat feature in Zoom, d) allowing them to form their own groups when possible, and e), promoting what McConnell (2006) calls “self-peer-tutor assessment processes” to improve communication skills.
Understand and acknowledge the difference between online and in-person interactions
In the article “Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment,” Brindley et al. (2009) remind us that “the social milieu of online activities is quite different from in-person interactions, thus requiring new skills and behaviors.” This is, of course, perhaps obvious but easy to forget when the expectations and aims of a course were created around face-to-face interactions and not online learning. While, for example, Capdeferro and Romero (2012) show that the greatest cause of frustration among online learners working with collaborative learning experiences is lack of commitment from fellow group members, issues like “communication difficulties” caused by technology and having to deal with asynchronous discussions can also create exasperation. In my view, a way to address these potential problems is to give clear housekeeping instructions and etiquette rules when using a platform or communication app for the first time (and make sure to repeat this information every now and then in subsequent meetings). As Brindley et al. (2009) show us, students need structure and clear guidance balanced with a degree of flexibility to promote learner autonomy. Finally, empathy and patience are key. Thrown into emergency remote teaching, not everybody might have internet connections that are fast enough to support the online tools that we use. Time zones are another issue as there might be students that are forced to log in at irregular hours to attend meetings or lectures that are scheduled according to the local time in Malmö. Unexpected caretaking duties are also a cause of concern in these stressful times.
As we continue teaching in emergency mode, let us actively seek ways to promote effective, but kind, online collaborative learning environments.
- Brindley JE, Walti C and Blaschke LM (2009) Creating Effective Collaborative Learnings Groups in an Online Environment. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 10(3).
- Capdeferro N and Romero M (2012) Are Online Learners Frustrated with Collaborative Learning Experiences? The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 13(2): 26–44.
- McConnell D (2006) E-Learning Groups and Communities. Maidenhead: Open University Press.