KIERAN: I happen to know someone who’s quite skilled at creating active virtual learning communities from diverse rosters of students… so let me introduce today’s guest… Wired Ivy’s very own Dan Marcucci!
DAN: Hello. I’m looking forward to talking about things that you and I have been chatting about for years, Kieran. So that should be a lot of fun. And I do want to underscore that point that you made, which is there’s a difference between showing up and being engaged. And I think the goal for online learning communities is to get to the engaged point because showing up doesn’t really carry much water as far as that goes. So I’m looking forward to our talk.
KIERAN: Me too. Why don’t you tell our listeners about the classes you’re currently teaching and how they’re delivered, why you think it’s important for students to form learning communities?
DAN: Currently I’m teaching three online courses and then I also participate in another course which has an international field experience. The core class that I’m teaching is Sustainability Systems and runs usually about 20 students. I’ve also got a course that is called Coastal & Marine Systems that usually gets between about 10 to 15 students, particularly the ones who are interested in the water concentration, and I also have one called urban water systems and that also gets about 10 to 15 students.
These are all graduate courses and mostly filled with students in our Master of Natural Resources degree but, particularly in the electives, I will get students from city and regional planning and from landscape architecture, which I enjoy because I have advanced degrees in both of those fields, so I love having the different types of voices and perspectives come into the classes as well.
KIERAN: I’m curious to know, before you came to this program and started teaching online, did you spend much time trying to help students in those non-virtual classes come together as a learning community?
DAN: Well, I have a mixed outcome on that question. So, I taught for about 14 years in brick and mortar classroom, in the brick box, however you want to refer to it, and it really depended on the class. I can’t say it was intentional as I am now.
These were undergraduates, and they were enrolled in core classes in a professional degree… it wasn’t something where I’d just even thought about trying to get them to sort of get to know each other because they’re all on the same degree and I figured they are undergraduates on campus, they probably know each other. I just assumed it happened elsewhere in their curriculum, in their department, on the campus. You know, I just assumed the organic nature of a, of a college is one that’s going to make this happen. Not so sure about that, in hindsight, quite honestly.
I also taught studio courses for seniors. These would be, like, capstone courses and they were specifically designed to be collaborative work projects or programs that the students would undertake. One would think that by the time they were seniors they already knew each other because, as I said, we just assumed it happened elsewhere on campus.
But I was always surprised that there would be seniors who were in the same degree in the same class that had been taking courses together for two or three years that didn’t know each other’s name. So it was like, okay, well maybe that’s an indicator of something here. And because they were going to work in a collaborative studio setting, I did have to get them to at least learn each other’s names and they got assigned to work teams pretty quickly. So while there wasn’t a formalized way of trying to build a learning community, it was forced on them to some degree fairly early on. But again, I wouldn’t say it was very intentional after the first week of introductions.
The one place where I would say it was more common was when I taught upper level seminar classes, and these would be slash classes, so these would have graduate students in them. They were technically graduate classes, but seniors could take them, advanced undergraduates could take them. They tended to be very heterogeneous, both with the level of the student as well as the different degrees. I would often teach a seminar that would have five different degrees in a group of 12 students. So I knew going into it, they didn’t know each other.
KIERAN: And what do you mean by slash courses?
DAN: So it depends how the university would count them… it’d be they’d be 4000/6000 level classes.
KIERAN: So, like, co-listed is the way they’re often referenced.
DAN: Yes. An undergraduate and advanced undergraduate could take it or a graduate student could take a, technically it came through the graduate school, but they were co-listed.
KIERAN: Got it.
DAN: So a big mix of students, big mix of degrees that they would be in. It was obvious that we needed to do something to build because the point of the seminar was going to be discussion. So if they weren’t in some way familiar with each other, how was it going to get good discussion off the ground? They had to be comfortable talking to one another.
So here I would, I intentionally did things definitely in the first several weeks to get them to sort of interact with each other in a social way before we launched into it. And just, there are little tricks, telling stories about each other, or recognizing each other’s names or their variety of things that we did. So, it was something that was important to do and it happened in that particular setting, but didn’t necessarily creating community was not an automatic part of every class that I taught in the past.
KIERAN: Right. And I was going to ask if you think that’s a pretty common thing on campus, for faculty to deliberately try to develop learning communities in their courses or if, like you, they sort of assume, well these students already know each other, they live on campus or they have other classes together. And so while there’s this perception that the physical classroom is more of a learning community than an online… yeah, I’m wondering if that’s your perception of, of or even your experience of, what actually happens on campus.
DAN: I would, in my experience I would say no, that it’s not, it’s not the norm for setting up a course or delivering a course to try to create a learning community… explicitly, actively create a learning community. From what I’ve learned since then and dealing with online learning communities, I certainly don’t think it happens as much as it should happen. I would add that to it as well.
KIERAN: Yeah, I would say that in my experience in higher education, both in what you like to call–and I think is a great term for it–the brick box classroom, or online, because I’ve had experiences with both, there wasn’t much, if any, intentionality about bringing students together and coalescing them into some kind of community.
DAN: There’s an irony there I think because the learning objectives that we set up for these courses is really one… I mean, they’re the same, you know, we’re trying to teach them to be critical thinkers. We’re trying to teach them to communicate. We’re trying to teach them to collaborate, and we’re trying to teach them to be able to survive in a profession. And, well, I work in professional spheres generally… so all of those things are helped by having an active learning community.
DAN: And yet we assume it happens, but don’t know if it happens…
KIERAN: Or it’s somebody else’s job to teach them that, right? That’s not that subject matter of this course.
DAN: Right, exactly.
KIERAN: Even though we include it in the learning objectives, yeah.
DAN: That happens somewhere else… but when it’s online we know we have to do it ourselves.
KIERAN: Right. Cause otherwise everybody feels like they’re, they might as well just be in a spaceship, alone, circling the planet, taking this class. Right? Otherwise it feels really isolating. You don’t even have the distraction of other people sitting next to you to make you feel like you have a connection to others even if you don’t actually…right?
DAN: Correct. Yeah. They’re both un-human in different ways. If you neglect the fact that we are humans and we are social creatures and community is a positive thing.
KIERAN: It is curious that when we’re all together in a room, often we feel more alone, which I think is one of the reasons why social media has taken off so much. But that brings up the question of what you find most challenging about helping online students to feel connected.
DAN: Well, I would say it’s a little bit what I was just referring to, which is that, it’s obvious, it’s kind of right in front of us, um, is the biggest challenge. But the nice thing is because it’s right in front of us, it’s easiest to address. We have to address it. And that is when you’re building an online learning community, there’s a total lack of nonverbal clues. You don’t really have any idea — if it’s not said out loud, which means written usually on a, on a note or a bulletin board — but if it’s not said explicitly, we don’t have the knowledge or the information. You could make a case that if a student goes radio silent completely, then that passiveness is communicating something nonverbally but not, not much you could work with quite honestly, um…
KIERAN: And that’s a big assumption.
DAN: That’s a big assumption. You know, it’s like I, I can’t assume I know what they’re thinking if they don’t tell me. So the bottom line is, if I haven’t had a learner in class and a previous class, I know nothing about them. When the class comes and I don’t even know what kind of clothes they’d like to wear, or what they look like, and maybe it’s better that I don’t know those things. Maybe I’m just taking the person, you know, for whom they are and for their thoughts. But that’s really the biggest challenge is no nonverbal cues. It’s got to be intentional. It’s got to be intentional on my part to invite the activity and the engagement, and it’s got to be intentional on the members of the class to engage themselves.
KIERAN: Mmmhmm. Mmmhmm. So what’s been easier, or at least less difficult, about creating virtual communities than you expected, or that you found to be the case in a non-virtual class?
DAN: I’m fortunate in that I work in a program that is set up to work with adult learners in an online degree that has a goal of creating a more sustainable world. So they’ve got sort of virtuous goals in mind. I’m not saying that all students don’t have virtuous goals in mind, but in the degree I work in, the virtue is out front.
KIERAN: Right. It’s baked in.
DAN: So they’ve self selected to be in an online degree and that means they’ve got some level of tech savviness. Um, more importantly, it means they’re willing to reach across the wire to get to school. And I think that that is helpful for me. It makes my job a little bit easier. They’re ready to engage. They’re ready to learn; they’re ready to do it online. They’re also studying in a field where they expect that collective action is a virtue, if not collaboration itself is a virtue. So the students are coming in with a certain expectation that makes my job easier.
KIERAN: Do you still get push back from students who say, but I don’t like group work?
DAN: Oh, I do. I do. I do. Yeah. And, and I’ll have plenty to say about group work, I’m sure. Yeah. The one thing that I will add is the students have those things in common, but other than that they can be enormously diverse. My students generally would trend anywhere from 24 to 60 years old. For the most part they have families and, or full time jobs and they live all over the globe. They’ve got a whole variety of backgrounds and life experiences. So that’s great. They come from all this diverse background, but come to the situation where they all have similar goals, and they can be very respectful to each other and respect each other’s backgrounds. So I think that that’s good until sometimes we get some conflicts in group work, but that’s more about style.
So the bottom line is that I strive to create intentional learning communities, but having willing participants, having the quality of students that I get to work with, is a huge element in making it happen. So everyone’s got a responsibility here. It’s not just mine.
KIERAN: So you said your courses are taught asynchronously but do you have any synchronous components like real time discussion by Skype or in a chat room? Do you feel that’s necessary to have some kind of real time interaction, in order to have that community coalesce?
DAN: I don’t, in the courses that I’m teaching, the main courses that I teach currently. The one exception is the international field experience that I referred to and, um, in that course our students go away for a 10-day international experience, usually to one country. I’ve led the group to China. I’m preparing to lead a group later this year to Argentina, and so that’s synchronous and everyone’s together. We get to see each other. But beyond that I don’t.
And I did teach at another university at UMass Amherst, a few courses and that was a little bit different. In that course I had a synchronous, element where I did a video conference with each student individually in order to get to know them better, in order for them to be able to express what they were trying to get out of the course. Just, you know, get a lay of the land better. It’s a bit different because those students were all committed to a campus-based program. This was summer school, always with still within one or two time zones of where I was. So logistically it wasn’t a problem. But, honestly, in the end I determined it wasn’t a good use of time. It wasn’t a good use of the resources.
We got to know each other a little bit better, but no better than we would have otherwise if we had group conversations. And, the irony is the best parts of our conversations I wanted to share with the rest of the group. So it’s like, why am I having these one-on-ones? So that was synchronous and one-on-one.
So the program that we’re in now, that I’m teaching in now, isn’t really set up that it makes sense to try to do synchronous work. The students that’ll be in my courses could be from all over the globe. I have them from South Africa, from South Korea, from Australia, from Hawaii, from American Samoa, from Germany, from Iraq, from Afghanistan, lots of them from Virginia. Logistically there’s no way that people are awake at the same hour.
Beyond that, as I mentioned, they have very full lives. These are people who are working full time jobs, who have families. It’s not… the effort and energy and inefficiencies of trying to do something synced up is probably not worth the benefits, and what I really value is the richness of being able to have this highly activated, engaged global team coming together and working in the online space. And I can do that without going to sync sessions.
KIERAN: Plus, if there’s going to be that synchronous component, in many cases that undermines the main reason why somebody chose an online program, which is that it fits into their life rather than making them rearrange their lives to fit around the courses that they take… and if that’s the case and that becomes a requirement, they just choose a different program. So I mean one of the equalizing things about online and the lack of having to be geographically bound in a particular space. If it doesn’t work for them, they can just move.
DAN: There’s no doubt in my mind, knowing how busy the people in my courses, are that synced group sessions, even with me, would be an obstacle, it would be a burden and an obstacle. And for what benefit? I mean it’s always about the learning outcomes and, you know, if it’s not serving a good purpose then it doesn’t make sense to do it.
I do want to add that I’m always available to the students individually. I just don’t require them to be in touch with me one-on-one so they can email me any time. I’m happy to talk to them by the phone. I’m happy to have a video chat with them. Whatever works for them, all they have to do is request it. And I emphasize that often throughout the term. The truth is, email is the most common thing. I get emails from students frequently. Occasionally I will talk with a person on the phone, but maybe once or twice a year. And it’s usually to discuss something that’s a private issue, but it’s there. So they have the opportunity but they’re not required.
KIERAN: One thing that comes up a lot when I’m talking to students is this idea that, actually, what they might have originally perceived as sort of a limitation is actually a strength because what they’re doing in these courses with asynchronous design, is building their skills in asynchronous collaboration with colleagues, which is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the work environment. In fact, the work environment got there before the academic environment so that’s a real benefit to them.
That raises the question for me to ask to you about whether, you know, if teams of students in your classes ever communicate with one another synchronously, of their own volition, outside of the learning management system or LMS… Maybe they schedule a group conference call or they’re doing interaction about their group project by text or something like that. Do you know if that’s something that occurs?
DAN: I hope it is. I don’t require them to do that. but I try to set up an environment where that’s going to happen. A wise woman when I was in graduate school gave me the advice that the people who really are going to be important to you throughout your career are your peers, the people you’re meeting who are at your level in graduate school, because you’re working together in the profession. It’s great to know the professors and all that stuff, but it’s really your peers that become critical.
My philosophy is to set up a course so that there’s as much peer-to-peer interaction as possible, and there are group projects that pop up at times through the semester, and they will have to communicate with each other directly on that. They’re exchanging emails, some of them talk on the phone. I don’t monitor how much or how little that happens. They have agency. I expect them to be able to figure that out, but it’s critical in those situations that I’m not Rome, where all roads have to go through me. I expect peer-to-peer communication and I’m not the filter, I’m not the facilitator of the communication. I’m the person encouraging them to do that themselves.
KIERAN: I think that’s a fantastic approach, and I know I’m not alone in that view because I’ve heard from plenty of students who’ve taken your classes. One of the things they mention is how surprised they are to discover that an online course can provide so much more connection, to the instructor and to other students, than they often experienced on campus, in their face-to-face undergraduate courses.
Dan, we’re running out of time today but I think you’ve set us up perfectly to discuss the nuts and bolts of how to foster virtual learning communities next time.