Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Engineering an online community: lessons from a student-centred hack day

A chance to spend a whole day with twenty of our students, selected from over 140 volunteers, for a workshop to find ways of teaching them better: too good to miss. The workshop was run like a coding “hack day”: each team identifying a problem, then developing a solution, prototyping it, and pitching it to the whole group with votes and a prize for the best conception. It was intense and fun (as hopefully comes across from the Twitter posts during the day), but for me the strongest sign of something important happening was that the problem my team chose to work on was not something I’d have guessed at all, despite my many years working in the field: testimony to the power and importance of bringing students into the process.

What’s the biggest problem you face in your studying? we asked the two students in my team. Both of them in different ways pointed to the problem of isolation and the difficulty of contact with other students. The first wanted to be able to share impressions with others, to see how they were responding to the same questions; online forums should have helped her, but she found that other students didn’t reply to her posts, and that in general people tended just to post their own ideas, at length, without responding to others. Long travelling distances were an obstacle to her attending face-to-face tutorials. The second student, on a foreign language course, wanted to find other students with whom to practice speaking; online tutorials enabled this, but low attendance put extra pressure on those who did attend, with added stress when the technology was unreliable. Hearing them talk, I remembered that the problem of student isolation is THE fundamental problem of distance education. I’d forgotten it because the problem has been around for so long, and because we’ve made so many efforts to solve it; what I realised was that despite forty years and more of trying, with all the latest technology at our disposal, we still haven’t really cracked it.

In trying to address the problem of student isolation, I think we’ve been ill-served by academic talk about “community” and in particular “learning community”. In health and social care, “community” has become notorious as a fantasy concept: that thing for which we all long to alleviate our sense of alienation in an individualised and fragmented society – ignoring the fact that communities are not necessarily benign or supportive. In education too, there has been something of the same hippy-like dream of creating “learning communities”, as networks of cooperative sharing and the collaborative construction of knowledge. Efforts to document actual learning communities has not been accompanied by comparable analysis of how they can be deliberately created, sustained and developed, and instead there has been an unhealthy fixation on collaboration as the highest form of participation in a learning community, with less intense forms – such as mere cooperation, or sharing, or (worst of all) “lurking” - relegated to lower rungs on the hierarchy of community engagement.

Yet “community” can be a meaningful concept even if there is only identification and no interaction. I remember once commenting to a colleague that my wife and I were Trekkies, Star Trek fans. “Oh,” she said, “what do you do?” I think she imagined that we went to conventions dressed as Klingons or something, so she was rather disappointed by my answer: “Well, we watch the TV show, and we rather enjoy it.” When I told this story at the Hack Day, two other members of my team to my surprise enthusiastically self-identified as Trekkies, showing that even this minimal level of identification with a community can have social significance.

More importantly, there can be practical outcomes from even low levels of community engagement. When I’m working out at the gym, I don’t interact with other gym users, and I don’t particularly want to; yet I can see them doing what they’re doing, and the fact that they’re there and working out also gives a spur to my motivation and persistence. “Exactly,” said one of our students, when I made this comparison. He regularly went to his local university library to work, so as to be in the midst of other people at study – even if they were studying different things – which helped him work longer and harder than he would have done at home.

The critical point of insight for me came when I realised that he didn’t have this sense of working alongside others with the other students on his course. He had no perception of the other students in his geographical area, who would be potential partners for face-to-face language practice, for example. Ideas started to ping rapidly now: I had a vision of a Google maps display, showing the geographical location of other students on his course (for privacy reasons, probably limited to the first part of the postcode); a faculty colleague had a vision of a dating app, which matched students with similar “would like to meet” profiles in the same geographical area or with a willingness to meet online.

And so, with the assistance of a super-smart graphic designer, we mocked up a screenshot of our solution: a view of the student’s community as >the first< screen a student sees on entering the University’s online environment. It included:
  • a map showing the locations (approximate for privacy reasons) of other students (either on the course, on the qualification, or in the OU), with roll-over pop-ups of their profiles (for those who have made their profile public), and the colour of the indicator showing when they are online
  • a roster of designated “friends” or “buddies” with whom the student already has contact, with again a colour indicator showing when they are online
  • an “Ask the community” message board, switchable between messaging students on the course, the qualification, and the OU as a whole (this was a more modest substitute for the “dating app”, though we still thought this was a good idea).

Our choice of student isolation as a problem was validated when we discovered that two other teams had also chosen to address it, though in very different ways: one conceived an app for instant messaging with other students or with a tutor, and the other aimed to improve the effectiveness of online forums. It was the app which won the popular vote at the end of the day, but we still thought our solution was a good one because it embodied three critical features, necessary for students to build their own community:
  • mutual visibility of online presence (if you can’t see the community, you won’t interact with it)
  • flexible levels of engagement (you can interact minimally or massively, or start small and build, or drop back if other pressures intervene)
  • viable even with initial low participation (unlike an empty forum, the community is visible and invites interaction even before anyone has done anything).
And the best thing about our solution, we thought, is that it requires no new technology: just the common social media tools, already familiar to a good proportion of our students. It can be done right now. Now we just have the challenge of making it happen!

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