Building and maintaining a learning community in Distance Education

I recently attended a workshop by Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning
called “Emergency Remote Teaching Reflection Workshop.” The two-hour workshop included a 20-minute reflection period during which we could either write or quietly contemplate our responses to five reflection prompts. I’d like to share my response to one of those prompts to talk about how I used a knowledge tool in remote teaching to maintain the learning community my students and I had created before the shelter-in-place mandate.

The prompt reads:
“What immediately came to mind when you read the announcement [that classes will move online]?
How confident did you feel about your teaching at this time?
How would you describe your instructional decision-making process during this time?”

The first thought that came to mind was the question about how to make such a radical shift in so little time without any training. I’m sure that this is not a unique reaction. This task fell on the shoulders of all classroom teachers and instructors nationally, from k-12 teachers to university instructors. But one question I asked myself was how the learning community that I’d created with my class could possibly be carried over and maintained in an online setting. Because I teach Spanish, student-student interactions and interactions with me are a fundamental component of my classes. During the course of the semester, I noticed, with the delight, the energy and joy of the students as they talked with one another in Spanish. How, I wondered, was it going to be possible to foster a learning community online?

Although I was unsure about how to make the shift, I felt confident about my teaching at this time because I had recently benefitted from the mid-semester feedback that I’d obtained with the assistance of a member of the Poorvu Center. I knew what was working well and what needed improvement. That knowledge was helpful for making the transition, but it still did not help me get at the question about how to sustain a learning community.

That challenge of sustaining a learning community informed my instructional decision-making process as I explored and experimented with knowledge tools. As I searched for a tool that would help me create a learning community, I tried to recall one of the many tools I’d seen a few years ago when I attended an MLA session called “DH Curious.” This is what led to me to search for a social annotation tool called Perusall, which enables students to create annotations and respond to others’ comments asynchronously. Luckily, we were in the process of reading a novel and so the use of this knowledge tool worked marvelously. I responded to student comments about the volume of homework (as they expressed it in the mid-semester feedback) by being strategic about the number and quality of questions I posed in the reading assignments on Perusall. I used the principle of “Less is more” and it worked. The most remarkable part of this learning experience was how it transformed the learning community in ways that I had only dreamed of prior to the online shift. While teaching in the classroom, I created space for student-centered learning activities, yet sometimes during group conversations, the students responded to me even when replying to their peers. That was something I had wanted to change, but not yet figured out how.

In responding to my questions, students were able to establish a dialogue with one another as they commented on each each other’s written responses. What is even more remarkable about the tool is that it enabled them to initiate discussions about the reading by allowing them to make their own annotations. No longer were the students writing their responses in isolation to a series of questions written by the instructor. Now they were reading a text socially in a virtual setting that invited them to create their own questions, learn from each other, and engage in a meaningful dialogue with their peers and instructor. The use of this knowledge tool also contributed to the learning objectives, which included the use of many of the advanced grammar structures the students had learned prior to the spring break.

While Perusall does not substitute for and is not intended to take the place of classroom discussions, it does contribute to fostering a learning community if the tool is used well. That entails strategic use of instructor questions about the reading material, validation of the knowledge produced by students in Perusall during the virtual class meeting, and expanding the conversations initiated in Perusall with the use of other knowledge tools (such as google doc free writing sessions) and activities (break out rooms). As a knowledge tool, Perusall works well for knowledge process that involve experiencing the new and analyzing critically. As stated earlier, the tool promotes student-student and student-instructor interactions. It can be used in intermediate language courses, as well as courses in subjects like history, social theory, and in cultural studies.

Previously, I stated that before the emergency remote teaching shift, I had not yet figured out how to encourage a student-centered group discussion in a physical classroom. While the shift to distance education has been jolting, I can now see that what I’ve learned through DE has brought me one step closer to figuring out how to achieve more student-centered dialogues in the physical classroom.

How do you think of power relations in your pedagogy? What knowledge tools do you use to create and foster a learning community (in remote teaching and in the traditional classroom setting)?