Relational Pedagogy in virtual learning environments: A study of online approaches to the development of Communities of enquiry Higher Education.

Orlagh McCabe and myself presented some early findings of our work at MMU at the UCL APT2021 conference. In a nutshell, we used Soft Systems Methodology Problem Structuring techniques to try and better understand one of our key work challenges over the past 18 months captured in this SSM root definition, how as academic developers do we:

This challenge will have been common to many across HEI around the world. So what did we find out?

For me, the experience I had designing and developing fully online degree programmes back in 2003-2008 (Personalized learning and the Ultraversity experience, 2008) means that I am confident that a ‘visceral’ sense of community can be developed successfully with wholly online study, in this case with formal teaching primarily using asynchronous tools. This time, the challenge was similar but different, in that students had chosen face-to-face study and were now being told that a significant part of this would be online. I learned:

  • we now have very effective synchronous conference platforms like Teams and ZOOM (much of a muchness between them), but mostly they can be tricky to get significant widespread student engagement though addition of apps to help with participation (Vevox, Cahoot, Padlet, etc.) helped
  • Other functionality of Teams is inferior to platforms like FirstClass (20 + years ago) that had the channel like functionality but also usefully integrated email in one app – this functionality was little used – structured asynchronous learning was not a preferred mode of teaching or learning
  • Although these students didn’t choose to study online, a sense of community did for many develop – a pretty good result given the challenging starting point for learners and teacher alike who were largely wedded to same-time same-place models of teaching and learning
  • Some activities, like personal tutoring meetings, worked very well online being more efficient and easily accessible for tutees and tutors alike – we need to keep the good bits like this and, where teaching teams insist, large lectures that can be accessed live or later as recordings
  • We have seen a significant shift in terms of staff thinking in terms of teaching design, that is thinking about how activities (a process approach) is important, moving us a little bit further away from the focus on content transmission.
  • Possibly best of all, who needs traditional time-tabled exams – various formats of take-home exam when constructed well can actually asses the things we want to rather than memory under pressure.

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