Building community-minded experiences into learning is critical to help students find their path to post-academic success

Humanizing education with community

Building community-minded experiences into learning is critical to help students find their path to post-academic success

As we enter our second year of the pandemic and as most of us look forward to another semester of remote teaching, it is important to recognize that there are two paths that we can take. The well-worn path is to continue to try to replicate systems of education that have the effect of turning students into widgets and serve to alienate them from their learning. Alternatively, we can address this challenge by pivoting to more humanized forms of teaching and learning.

Like much of the planet, our students are feeling alienated, isolated, and alone. School is a part of their identity at this stage in life and that identity is centered on the communities that they create or join in college. At some institutions, these communities are firmly centered on learning. All human communities have suffered during this trying time, but perhaps none more so than our communities of learning.

We have heard time and time again that students are unwilling to endure yet another semester of online learning. Enrollments are down at the vast majority of institutions but they are down particularly at institutions that serve the most vulnerable among our students. This should not come as a great surprise.

Students need help creating positive communities of practice more than perhaps any other group. I have taught at both elite institutions and community colleges, and the critical difference separating those students lies not in intelligence, but in their exposure to good learning skills and strategies. Informal communities of practice are critical to developing these traits. At institutions with a high percentage of experienced learners, these communities can form organically. However, this is not the case everywhere. Even before the pandemic stripped us of our informal spaces, at ironically-named “community” colleges, you still had to work hard at the social aspects of learning to be effective.

It should therefore come as no surprise that community colleges are being hit hardest by enrollment declines. Courses and systems that do not replace some of the lost face-to-face community are likely to lead to failure or withdrawal among the most vulnerable. Students who fail or withdraw from their classes are unlikely to return the following semester. It’s no surprise that so many of them recognize this and are simply electing not to embark on journeys so fraught with uncertainty–and now isolated from their peers to boot.

We have become accustomed to relying on informal systems to help our students build community outside of our classroom walls. These systems are largely gone. We no longer have the casual conversations that occur around tables in our hallways or in a library study room. Community facilitators such as librarians, designers, tutors, and counselors are distant and often hard to get to. Informal learning is essentially gone from most of our campuses due to safety concerns.

Course designs that prioritize the creation of community are essential in these difficult times. This goes far beyond “icebreakers” and other kinds of light play that are often bandied about as “solutions” to get students to engage in online activities. Community has to be baked into the fiber of our class experiences. This was way overdue before the pandemic and will not disappear once life returns to “normal.”

Under these circumstances, business as usual within our classrooms is no longer feasible. Because of the design priorities of our software tools, it is far easier to replicate a classroom online than a study room. Vulnerable students are learning the ropes of what higher education means, often alone.

Mindful space design can help guide them to places where they can find others. It requires even more careful design to create similar experiences online. Expecting our students to do that is asking a lot of them. Simply “lecturing” to them in a Zoom session does little to connect them to meaningful communities of practice. Even when we held them captive in a lecture hall, we complained about them tuning out. It’s no wonder that that is their response when their tools to hide are even more effective remotely.

My classes are better now than they were before the pandemic. I focus on facilitating community during the precious synchronous time I have with my students. I make the class about them, not me, and have frank conversations with them about how they expect the class to work. While I set forth class goals, I am willing to adapt my frameworks accordingly. My priority then becomes helping them get across the intellectual and skills hurdles they will face in trying to master the content and activities designed into the class. I am also very proactive in reaching out to them on an individual level to make sure they feel they are recognized and supported within the community.

Fundamentally, I seek to put the student in the middle of their learning experience instead of making them feel like they are hanging on for dear life from a conveyor belt of information, assignments, and assessments. This feeling is a problem when we are dealing with “normal” processes at our institutions. It becomes a critical failing when students and teachers are divorced from each other by time and space.

We have at our fingertips a vast array of digital tools that can be used to facilitate communities. In my class I have curated and foregrounded a set of social tools that my students can use to create their own communities of learning. I use digital tools to bring support (like an embedded librarian) into the class.

Recently, we have seemed to be focused on all of the negatives social media has visited upon our society. However, digital tools are agnostic and can be used to facilitate positive communities where people help each other, not hurt each other. Education should provide a pathway to a positive future for our students. We just have to design it, and the technologies and systems we use to implement it, with the human firmly in mind.

eSchool Media Contributors