Teachers have learned a lot this year, including the power of virtual communities to meet students' needs

How virtual communities can amplify traditional learning

Teachers have learned a lot this year, including the power of virtual communities to meet students' needs

Offering virtual hours—with a virtual waiting room, a study room, a relaxation room, and a private one-on-one meeting room—created a sea change for many professors’ office hours. Students showed up in droves. They worked together in virtual study rooms, often answering their own questions by collaborating with their peers. They had no distractions, no privacy concerns and full decision-making power on how they wanted to take advantage of office hours. Professors will likely want to keep this going.

Virtual communities and asynchronous chat

Strangely, during the forced social distancing of the pandemic, there was for some students a sudden boom in social learning. This is because some teachers used technology that enables the creation of virtual communities around every course.

A virtual community—like virtual office hours—involves the use of many different rooms where different kinds of learning and collaboration take place. One room might be devoted to the lecture or the coursework, while another functions as a casual drop-in space where a student can wander in at any time to see if classmates are putting their heads together on the coursework.

In the brick-and-mortar world, students need to ask each other for contact information, and schedule study sessions, which can be awkward. In virtual spaces, students can simply bump into each other, and decide to work together. One of the most important ingredients to making these virtual communities work is a chat function that lets students continue their conversations in whatever virtual environments they go to. Chat should be either synchronous or asynchronous, giving students the freedom to respond whenever it suits them. And chat should exist inside of learning management systems so that students don’t need to switch platforms just to communicate.

Increased flexibility campus-wide

Professors and students loved the flexibility that came with virtual office hours, and this same flexibility can be applied to other offices on campus. Students have intermittent business in the registrar’s office, the admissions office, tutors’ and teachers’ assistants’ offices and other offices. Getting questions answered and business done generally involves making appointments and walking across campus.

With the same concept that professors use for virtual office hours, these other offices can create virtual environments that are essentially “digital twins” of their actual offices, introducing the kind of flexibility that higher education has never known before. Some matters will always need to be handled in person. But a wide range of student concerns can be successfully addressed in a virtual environment, and with the same asynchronous chat functions. Students are already used to this style of chat from social media platforms and are used to digital environments from the explosion in consumer technology. As time goes on, they will increasingly want these digital capabilities from their school experience.

Not all teachers were disappointed with technology as the year 2020 forced us to transition our vocation to software programs that were designed for the business community. Some of us were grasping—and even building—new technologies that can amplify and enrich the in-person experience.

Professors should be demanding that our education system makes use of some of the exciting edtech platforms that exist today, because it’s just a matter of time until our students are demanding it.

eSchool Media Contributors