4 Developing Critical Student Autonomy in Blended Learning

Perspectives from a teacher and student at African Leadership University, Rwanda

Laurel Staab and Martin Wairimu


How might we design courses that create inclusive communities where students are able to engage in critical discourse and build their own learning experiences? This was the question at the heart of the design of the first Advanced Education Seminar (AES) at African Leadership University (ALU) in January of 2020. This piece is co-written by Laurel Staab, the designer and teacher of the course, and Martin Wairimu, a student who was enrolled in the course who helped with its conception and design. We provide an example of how Critical Digital Pedagogical theories can be applied in practice in the design and delivery of a course. We start with an explanation of the context and theories that informed the design, then present an overview of the course design itself. Next, Martin provides an analysis on the student experience of the course. Martin conducted informal interviews of his peers regarding the course a year after the start date of the course, and has integrated those perspectives into his own critical analysis and reflection. Then Laurel provides her reflection on the experience of the course from the perspective of a teacher. Finally, we conclude together with our shared observations and recommendations. We hope that this discussion provides some insights to other educators and students who are interested in designing learning that encourages high levels of student autonomy in blended learning environments.


ALU opened its second campus in Kigali, Rwanda in September of 2017 with an undergraduate class of 270 students from over 30 different African nations. By January of 2020, two more classes had joined the school. The students enrolled in the AES were in their final year, and had chosen to study a project-based degree called Global Challenges (Staab, 2020). The course was an advanced elective that thirty students within the degree selected because of their interest in education, and it was the first time that the course was delivered. The majority of students enrolled in the course had taken an intermediate Education Seminar the previous year, where we had studied critical pedagogy and constructionism.

We intentionally designed the course to be self-directed, project-based, peer-driven, and to leverage a blended learning model that incorporated both in-person and online components. All courses at ALU at the time used a blended method of delivery with elements of both in-person and online learning. Students have their own laptops and access resources and submit assignments via an online Learning Management System (LMS). From its founding, ALU viewed the role of the professor as a “facilitator” of the students’ learning, guiding and supporting students towards their own goals rather than setting those goals for students (Faraj, 2019). However, we struggled to practically implement models where students have high levels of autonomy over what they learn and how they learn it. The AES was my attempt to push further towards what I will call “critical student autonomy,” or a degree of autonomy in which students have high levels of control over what they are learning, how they learn it, and how they demonstrate what they have learned.

The first challenge is that critical student autonomy requires a departure from how most education is designed and delivered. Most often a combination of the teacher, the school, and the state choose what students should learn and how they are assessed (Giroux et al., 1988). There are, of course, reasons for this. For one, some might question whether students have the proper expertise to choose what they should learn. Teachers are supposed to know more than their students, and formal education has often assumed a transfer of knowledge from those who know more to those who know less. While ALU set out to resist this model, our institution has struggled with the concern that students might not reach the level of depth that is needed for critical engagement without a teacher-centric approach. Furthermore, from a national perspective governments and regulatory bodies often decide what knowledge and skills their citizens should possess in order to contribute to society, and learning institutions must comply with these mandates.

But for as long as there has been this standardized model of education and learning, there have been alternate theories and practices that challenge these conventions. Paulo Freire presents an important critique of the “banking system of education:” the idea that students are empty repositories that teachers can “deposit” knowledge into the brains of their students (Freire, 1985). When you view traditional education through this perspective, it indeed becomes problematic, undemocratic, and even dehumanizing to view students as passive recipients of knowledge with no autonomy. Critical pedagogy scholars also point to the connection between the banking system of education and the broader project of colonization, itself a dehumanizing project that has had a lasting impact on education systems worldwide (Giroux, 1985; Katundu, 2019; Nyamnjoh, 2012). Therefore, proposing an alternate way for students to participate in education where they have autonomy over their learning experience is a part of the broader project of decolonization of education, something that I was very concerned with as a white US citizen teaching students from across the continent of Africa.

Another important perspective that leads us to question traditional education design and delivery comes from the many scholars and practitioners of education who have made it their life’s work to study how people actually learn. Like the critical pedagogues who question whether knowledge should be deposited into students’ heads, learning scientists and theorists question whether it is the most effective way for people to learn (Immordino‐Yang, 2011; Schwartz et al., 2016). At ALU, our learning model and broader education philosophy attempts to align with learning theorists who have questioned rote learning and the banking system of education. We believe that students should have opportunities to learn by doing, whether through experiential and project-based learning or more self-directed opportunities to build and construct knowledge through action. For myself as an educator, I drew heavily on the work of Seymour Papert and his theory of constructionism when conceptualizing how to create learning experiences, where students have the opportunity to design and create projects of their own choosing related to a personal mission that they have chosen for themselves. Whether it is building a tangible engineering project or designing a curriculum, projects allow students to learn through building, applying theoretical knowledge that they have studied towards the practical creation of a product, and linking their theoretical understanding to the concrete (Papert, 1980; Resnick, 1998).

Designing for this level of student autonomy is also often at tension with systems that demand standardization. However, it predates more recent learning theories and models for schooling and aligns with pre-colonial education models in which most education happened through apprenticeships, some formal where the learner practiced a given trade and worked with a more experienced person to learn the trade, and some less formal where children learned skills with family members and those around them (Ezeanya-Esiobu, 2019). However, while there can certainly be room for creativity and autonomy in apprenticeship and situated learning models, these models can at times be more controlling depending on the needs or requirements of the apprenticeship or work environment, while self-directed learning by definition requires high levels of student autonomy and ownership, both on the part of the student and by the intentional design of the educator (Hiemstra & Brockett, 2012; Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Design of the Course

I had previously implemented some aspects of a self-directed model for teaching and learning in different courses and programs that I designed, but was excited to push the boundaries of student autonomy with this particular group of students, many of whom I had previously taught. I also was excited for the opportunity to co-create the course with student input. In the semester prior to the AES, Martin was working as an intern for my department, and he interviewed several of his classmates about their previous experiences in an education course that I had co-taught, as well as what they wanted to learn and do in the AES. When we analyzed the responses together, we found that students wanted opportunities for practical learning, to learn how to design curriculum, teach, and start their own education programs. We discussed this feedback, and given the many ambitions, we decided that students should have as much autonomy to learn and do what they wanted as possible, but with the intent to provide sufficient structure and scaffolds to help them stay on track in terms of motivation and accountability, one of the greatest challenges of self-direction (De Bruin, 2007). Therefore, there were three critical components to the course that I designed.

The most important component was the projects that students chose to work on. At the beginning of the term, students planned the projects they would complete, chose the learning outcomes that they would master from a menu I provided, and scoped out work plans for how they would complete their work. When conceptualizing what their projects might be, I thought that students might most commonly design curricula for different programs and learning experiences, or might also design broader education projects, theories of change, and workshops, as well as individual lessons. In order to help students conceptualize and concretize what they might choose to create, I provided them with three pathways within which they could design their deliverables, with the option that they could also self-design another pathway that did not fall into my defined categories. Students were meant to meet with me at least three times during the semester so that we could discuss their choice of deliverables and progress.

The next component was the Weekly Learning Journal Reflections. Students were required to write an entry each week recording what they had read, what they had discussed with their peer group, what work they had completed towards their deliverables, and most importantly, what they had learned that week. This was meant to build their critical reflection and metacognitive abilities, and gave me a good way to quickly gauge who was doing what and what was being learned. I used the completion of the weekly journal entry as the measure of attendance in the course, rather than attendance at weekly sessions, to emphasize the importance of self-reflection and personal learning as the key purpose of the class.

The final key component of the course was the peer groups. ALU relies on peer collaboration starting in the first year, but I found that by the time I teach students in their second and third year, many are exhausted by group work and projects. Instead of focusing on group projects, I emphasized building a peer community called Communities of Practice (COPs) where students supported each other and held each other accountable for their individual projects. Students self-selected their COPs in person during the first week of the course based on similar interests. They spent time early on completing team building exercises and drafting a group manifesto that established their group expectations and rhythms for meeting together. Groups were encouraged to meet weekly and discuss readings that they had self-selected, as well as discuss their individual progress on their projects.

I de-emphasized the importance of traditional in-person classes for this course, and made all in-person classes optional, but we did meet for synchronous sessions in-person once a week and transitioned to online synchronous sessions when we switched to fully online delivery over the course of the pandemic. During the first week of the course, I surveyed students to see which topics they were most interested in learning about in the synchronous sessions. While my idea was to have sessions “on demand” when students needed to learn a concept or skill based upon their project work, the on demand resources were not as adaptive to student needs as I had initially conceived because student interests and needs diverged greatly, and I struggled to break from the standard class session format that I am used to as a teacher and to have diverse enough offerings to meet all student needs. This was definitely an area in which the course design could be improved, though over time a library of sessions and workshops could be built.

Student Analysis

When Laurel revealed the course design at the beginning of the term I could see mixed reactions from my peers. The most common reaction was curiosity. Questions ranged from, “What is this term going to look like?” to “Is this for real?” One riveting component was the fact that attendance at the “in person workshops” was optional. It felt unbelievable, as classroom attendance at ALU was mandatory. It felt unusual; a mixture of freedom with uncertainty. I was a little unsure if I was ready for this type of learning. I could feel the same reactions from my peers in the classroom. The following were the thought-provoking aspects of self-directed learning that Laurel announced in class that day.

  1. Mission Meets: Students were to meet Laurel at least three times in the term to share the progress of their mission project/product.
  2. Optional class workshops: With no attendance record, attendance was the mandatory weekly reflections that was to be written in the learning journal, where students shared what they learned that week.
  3. Structured Choice: Students selected learning outcomes that they wanted to be evaluated on based on the products they would create.
  4. Communities of Practice (COPs): We also chose peer groups, and diversity was encouraged. COPs were a form of peer learning where a group of students who shared interest in respective fields within education would come and exchange what they had learned during the week.
  5. Workshops: We had two in-person workshops in a week. On Monday evenings there were facilitated sessions based on the students interest. On Wednesday evenings, the COPs would meet in the classroom space and the facilitator held mission meets with individual students at the same time.
  6. Work Plan: We were to submit a work plan for the class with the timeline of when to submit our individual products and the learning outcomes that we were observing.

Choice and autonomy were the words that summarized the AES’s self-directed learning experience. This included the freedom to choose what I wanted to learn, decide how I wanted to learn it, and determine how I was going to be evaluated. I had complete ownership of the learning experience in that class. One of my classmates put it best when they stated, “I feel like my entire ALU life it’s only during the [AES] that I really had what we called self-directed. I understood that education is not just having a curriculum, or just having good content. There are a lot of operations in space that I need to use as keys.” Below are more highlights and aspects of the course that made it an effective learning experience.


Ownership in the self-directed learning that we experienced includes but is not limited to autonomy of learning experience, journal reflections, and COPs. Self-directed learning allowed us to choose the learning tracks we wanted to delve into and subsequently develop two products. The class structure allowed independence in attending optional sessions customized to what students desired to learn as well. However, a fellow colleague remarked on a challenge with this model, saying that “we were learning a particular topic about the course but not everyone was paying attention to everything. Everyone was focusing on what they were doing for their summative. So I’ll recommend that everyone does a formative for every topic whether it’s for the curriculum design, or facilitation, or the workshops. In that way everyone is learning everything.” For many of us this worked because it allowed us to go deeper into areas of our interest. In this view a colleague remarked that “I feel like I was able to learn, like a lot of things that I wanted, and then the whole program was designed in a way that it guides me, like, I may have a passion for these things that may be all over the place. But the [AES] would just give me like, you know, help me put some order.” Self-directed learning in the AES was designed in a way that it gave us a choice of what we wanted to learn as students and how we were going to learn it. The facilitator also gave us a liberty of selecting the deadline for submitting our respective products. The facilitator gave us a range of dates where we could choose to submit our work. In the end we were to provide products as evidence of what we had learned throughout the course.

Communities of Practice

COPs were an extension of ownership in self-directed learning. We had the opportunity to discuss books, resources, and certain topics in the field of education with minimal supervision. On Wednesdays we’d come together to reflect and share what we had learned from our individual readings and resources over the course of the week. It was an amazing experience learning different perspectives on a subject from my fellow peers. For me, it was an exciting feeling just experiencing a sense of community from my peers who have the same enthusiasm for education as I do. A colleague put it best when they said, “I went above and beyond to utilize the capacity of my [COP] by tapping into the knowledge of my community members. It was actually a community that we wanted to continue with, to, to continue staying in touch with one another after the end of the course. So, we actually continued working together and sharing opportunities and ideas together. So that sense of togetherness is what kept us going. And the teamwork was amazing. You know, like, how I interacted with my peers, it was as if, all of them were, like, my contact was on your speed dial.” The COP effectiveness in the whole education AES learning experience can also be summarized in this quote: “I am a person who does not enjoy peer work at all. However, this one is unfilled. This is more like a book club. So we got to the people we were with, and we got to align.” The students engaged each other in critical discussions that they were passionate about and it was very productive.

The Learning Journal Experience

The facilitator required students to write weekly reflections and share what they learned either during their class sessions, individually when interacting with the resources shared, or during COP meetings. The facilitator shared a Google Doc with a reflection journal template where we made our weekly updates. Since attending in person sessions was optional, the weekly reflections were compulsory. The learning journal experience was unique; it forced me to think and actually made me take the course seriously. Moreover, for some students, it was a journey of self-discovery and introspection. One of the students remarked, “every time we got to reflect, you could find out maybe if you’re not making sense, you see, like, the more you reflect, you can tell if you’re making sense if you’re not making sense. And you are able to internalize even things you’d not known.” That sentiment was echoed by another student. “[It] was a very good experience of zooming everything, putting it there, and understanding why you do what you do. And it also made me reflect on my personal strength. And the reflection was able to make me understand what are the skills that I need to get… Because just to help me reflect, and I get to see where I was struggling, where I was stuck, and really understand, like, what do I need? Which type of skill do I need? For whom do I need to partner with?”

However, the learning journal experience was not as effective for everyone, as the following quote demonstrates: “It was more of something to check off for me because I was supposed to talk about what I learned that week, what we as a peer group discussed in our meeting, and also my takeaways from the week’s topic. Just because this was a self-directed learning course, it made me put everything else first and put this course last because I had my own deadlines and I was doing everything my own way. It kind of lowered my effectiveness. I knew that I was supposed to submit my journal every Sunday so I was doing everything that night including the readings.”

Some students found it very introspective, where you get to see your growth points and strengths while observing your learning journey. For some it became a tedious check of tasks that reduced the effectiveness of the learning process. I loved it since it forced me to go back to my notes and actually reflect on what I had covered that week.


When the pandemic struck in March of 2020, it disrupted the course of things, and the AES wasn’t left behind. We had to transition to fully online learning. The transition wasn’t easy and this marked the biggest challenge in the course. First, things changed very quickly. One day we were in school and the next week some of us were traveling to our home countries. Secondly, we were so used to seeing each other and having those conversations in class, but now we had to have them online. The change was startling and unsettling to put it best. The internet issues, adjusting to the home environment, and learning became so difficult.

A fellow student explained, “It was very frustrating. As much as we talk about self driving, I just saw the importance of having people around me and having people in class…I wasn’t prepared for this…It was a mess. I wasn’t ready, the in-person discussion seeing physical people around me was good and online was very hard…the amount of time you have to invest in an online relationship is two or three times more than a physical one.” The full transition to online learning was very difficult and it was sudden so we felt very unprepared. In spite of the support from the class facilitator, it took time to fully transition to online learning. These challenges also translated to some of us not being able to put down our weekly journal reflections. The facilitator responded to this challenge by providing some more time and reducing the weeks that we were required to have journal entries. She reduced them to ten entries during the fifteen week semester.

Furthermore, during the course some students didn’t have enough time with the class facilitator, the one-on-one mentor meets. Some students felt like they could have had a greater learning experience if the mission meets were mandatory as this would have pushed them to do more and get more support in their learning experience. Mandatory mission meets could have allowed for more individualized support in student’s learning progress. I’d also have loved more mentor meets, as this would have also pushed me to be more critical. A challenge I experienced was the feedback on my side took a bit of time. I had done my products and had observed my individual work plan well, which was quite ambitious as I remember it. Feedback came later during the end of term and if it had come a little earlier I would have had time to work on it and thus improve my overall learning experience. This is however, something that was limited to me, as other students did not share this remark.

Some students also felt that learning journal reflection guiding questions were limiting the scope of their learning experience. The learning journal had guiding questions that students could use to write their weekly learning reflections. “The guiding questions were limited, it should be a free write of what you learned.” In addition to this challenge, when it came to choosing the learning tracks some students felt that this also limited their learning experience. They recommended more regulation, that every student should study what everyone else is studying in the class to increase knowledge of education in other subjects.

Critical Pedagogy

While critical pedagogy was implemented in practice more than it was in theory, there were several ways that it shaped our experience of the course. First, there was the way the classroom was arranged during sessions. We arranged tables in a circle so that we could all see each other, including Laurel. This reinforced the role of the teacher in class as a guide and a learning companion and challenged the hierarchy between teacher and student. There were also multiple course resources that discussed critical pedagogy. One of them talked about indigenous knowledge systems in Africa, where we critiqued the curriculums we had studied in most schools across Africa. The practice of discussing these resources among the COPs brought about an inquiry that we needed. I remember investigating the identity of authors questioning their background and motivation for writing. Ultimately, we questioned whether the education systems in Africa were meant to empower or reinforce colonial dominance and influence, the latter being the conclusion.

Additionally, in our COPs we were required to be active which involved drafting a document with norms and ways of working as well as roles for every member of the group. I remember the teacher emphasizing that no person should take one role all the time. During our first month, I was the scribe, in our second month, I was the time keeper and in our third month I was the moderator of our discussion. This way everyone took responsibility and we shared leadership. Finally, we had a session on critical thinking and critical pedagogy. One particular question that Laurel posed in the group was, “Do you think a teacher should give their opinions in class?” I remember many peers responding to this question by agreeing that teachers can share their opinions; however, they also expressed that the teacher should be careful to either not dominate the discussion and allow for views that are different from the teacher’s. It was a great discussion where some peers expressed concern in cases when teachers in class shared information that is not factual and questioned who could hold them accountable in that space. We also discussed curricula and questioned whose voices were represented. Does it reinforce oppression of the minority and marginalized, or does it empower? It is my belief that critical pedagogy was understood as the practice of removing a teacher’s dominance in class and any forms of hierarchy in a classroom, questioning the contents of a curriculum and reinforcing student’s voices.

Student Reflection

Overall, this course was a great experience for students as they were able to create their own viable products solving different problems in education within their communities. Some students designed summer leadership camps and others worked on passion projects. Even though some students felt like they could have learned more, many students were satisfied with the execution of this course. One aspect that continually emerged was self awareness in learning. The reflection journals allowed the students to comprehend their level of proficiency or knowledge of respective topics in education. We also valued the fact that attendance was not mandatory and weekly journal reflections were introduced at a good level where students had mastered some sense of self discipline in studying. Moreover, a student also applauded the design and structure of the course. The student added that because of the design and structure of the course, the transition to online learning became smooth. Of course it could be improved to suit overall needs of the students and more feedback is needed. Based on the feedback, even with the challenges experienced, self-directed learning was successfully executed.

The whole course was different and I loved the fact that I explored my knowledge and skills in education. Most importantly, I challenged myself in working on my mission projects. An integral piece that most of my peers agreed with was the vast experience of our facilitator. I particularly enjoyed her questions when I attended mission meets and anytime that I had conversations with her regarding my mission project. She had a way of asking questions that would either give me clarity or lead me to seek more understanding and do more research on a particular topic. This is something that even my peers would experience. A colleague remarked that before I came to education class I felt like a lost sheep and after a conversation with Laurel, I found how education connected with my project. Such was the power of the conversations she would have with students. One other aspect was the fact that she shared many resources. I enjoyed the books and articles she shared. They were always nuanced and well thought out. Her approach to teaching was always student-centered. On a particular occasion she brought a guest speaker, our former head of college, to discuss education and leadership. It was meant to be a question and answer session. She took the liberty and drafted questions on our behalf, and as many commented, those questions were nuanced and covered the topic very well. In complimenting her, when she remarked that she took about five minutes to draft those questions, I only sighed in disbelief. What followed later was a promise that she would teach us a session on “Questioning and Eliciting.” She covered it at that time when our hearts were terrified of the pandemic, though it was online, it was still one of the best sessions I have attended. To put it in context, I remember the icebreaker she used for that class. We used colors to express how we were feeling, followed by a question, “Why do educators ask questions?” The session climaxed with Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid chart showing the different levels of questions. Sitting in my living room in Nairobi, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgia due to the fact that this experience could have been better if it was in person. Nevertheless, such has been the effect and impact of my facilitator’s teaching experience. That session there marked the height of the course. It was the last session I attended with her, and it’s still fresh in my mind a year later. I can confidently say that this course was successful not only because of the design but also because of the great support from the facilitator. Of course as a student, I was equally responsible for my learning experience, and I learned a lot in the process not only about my skills but also I became more self aware in the process, which was remarked by some of my peers.

Teacher Reflection

I wanted to write this piece because I observed from my role as a teacher that the way that I designed the course meant that it was relatively easy for me to transition from a blended to a fully online delivery model. This was in contrast to the other course that I was teaching at the same time that did not have the same levels of self-direction. The abrupt transition to fully online learning meant that I had to dedicate more time to administration of the transition to online learning for the broader university, and I had less time to support students. It was a stressful time, and I was not as prompt in my feedback to students in their journals as I intended and I did not follow up with students as much as I had intended to. This is something that I still feel guilty about. Yet despite my limitations and failures and the many challenges students faced, their final projects and reflections were incredible. When I began the design of the course, I had seen it as a test of a model that would practically implement many of the components of learning that I believe in: students learning through building their own projects, students reflecting about their process of learning, and students building supportive communities with their peers in which they could have deep discussions about topics that they were particularly interested in. Despite the many challenges that we faced during the semester, many of these components did work in practice the way I had hoped, and many students created impressive projects.

It is also insightful for me to be able to view and reflect upon the student research that Martin conducted. I feel proud to learn that some students not only gained value from their COPs but that they continued to sustain them beyond the course itself, as the creation of communities and lasting relationships is always a goal of my teaching practice.  At the same time, there was valuable feedback about how students interpreted aspects of the design of the course that leave much room for improvement. The weekly reflections were a place where I as a teacher gained valuable insights into the thoughts of students, and I provided guided questions to support students in how to shape their responses. However, I could have emphasized that these questions were only meant to prompt writing if they were useful, and could be discarded if they felt restrictive or formulaic. Additionally, while I valued the regular cadence that the weekly reflections provided, having a required assignment that I graded and used for attendance runs the risk of becoming something that students complete simply because it is required for a grade and compliance with institutional requirements, and diminishes the goal of the critical reflecting that is the true intent. As these reflections were at the heart of the practice of building critical student autonomy, making these reflections ungraded and with a clear opportunity for students to respond in an unrestrictive format is the most valuable revision I could make to the course. Additionally, it is clear from student responses that there were varying levels of internalization of how theory had informed the course design. Most of the students in the AES had also taken the previous education course with me and had discussed critical pedagogy and constructionism, and we delved deeper into these topics during our synchronous sessions in the AES. However, we could have had more explicit discussions and critiques of the course itself during these sessions where we explored how well AES implemented principles of these theories to build critical student autonomy.

Shared Conclusions

When we started the AES at ALU in Kigali, Rwanda in January of 2020, we had no idea that a month and a half later a global pandemic would dramatically change how education would be delivered worldwide. But due to the nature of the design of the particular course, making that abrupt transition to fully online delivery worked surprisingly well. But what did we learn about learning design and critical digital pedagogy? There are several key components of the design that we think made the course what it was that we would like to highlight and discuss.

First, one thing that continually came up as the fundamental aspect of the course was that students had autonomy over their learning by choosing what they wanted to learn and how they would show what they learned. As a teacher, giving up that control can be a bit daunting, and for students, it can be more work and can sometimes feel intimidating. There is a tendency among both the teacher and the students to feel uncertain about high levels of student choice, as both may worry, “are students learning what they need to learn?” However, pushing through this uncertainty helped us both to challenge the idea of a standard curriculum that everyone “needs” to learn, and it can also feel liberating to witness and have that level of freedom. For example, one student who is passionate about the applications of virtual reality enrolled in an online course and began to learn how to design virtual reality gaming environments. This is something that the teacher didn’t have the expertise to teach, but based on the course design he was able to clearly articulate what he had learned, the strengths and weaknesses of his work, and how he would continue to learn and apply his learning towards his final capstone for his degree.

Another key part of this course was the idea that students would learn through building and reflecting. This is meant to be an application of constructionism, and the heart of the course was students creating final projects and learning by creating these projects. The weekly reflections became the key place where students could articulate what they were learning through their projects, and the place where the teacher could see evidence that learning was happening. The repeated reflection meant that students built their reflective skills, and the quality of their final reflections was impressive. As a teacher I could see tremendous learning happening simply by asking students to tell me what they learned, and reading and asking students follow up questions or recommend relevant resources for them to engage with. As students we were able to document our learning and make sense of the work that we were doing.

Next, the technology that we used for the course was not particularly advanced. We used Google Docs to create the learning journals that the teacher and students could both view and edit, and ran synchronous sessions using Zoom and Google Slides. Our university was in the process of transitioning to a new Learning Management System (LMS), so we used Google Classroom for submissions and communication. Students used WhatsApp to communicate with their COPs and Google Meet when they chose to meet synchronously. The priority at the time was accessibility as many students were working with low bandwidth or hot spotting when wifi was poor or not available, and the technology was simply a tool for us to stay connected as we worked on our projects, met with our groups, and wrote our reflections.

The fact that the course began in-person meant that a lot of the initial community building as a class and in communities of practice happened in person up front before we shifted to online, which meant that we didn’t have to engage in virtual community building which takes a significant investment. We have both seen and led fully online courses since then, so we know that this takes a great deal of work, but we do believe that it is not just possible but necessary to build strong communities virtually, though it will alway feel different from the in-person experience. Since these strong bonds were built, we were able to have deep conversations about topics like critical pedagogy and creating safe and brave spaces in education during synchronous workshops. The COPs were also a site for learning through community, though some were stronger than others. Students were able to get to know each other at a closer level, and learn about each others’ passions that underlie the projects that they chose, such as why a certain student was motivated to start a community school or why someone else was passionate about early childhood pedagogy. The COPs had shared goals and helped to keep each other accountable in achieving their individual goals, which can be a challenge in online learning.

Students also had deep discussions in their COPs about articles and resources that they selected. One group that led a tutoring program that had been founded to help students read in English explored mother tongue instruction and the colonial ideologies that led them to prioritize English. The fact that the peer groups could select their own readings to discuss weekly meant that there was also autonomy to have deep discussions on different topics that the teacher had not necessarily selected or envisioned.

When we center the design and delivery of our courses around the assumption that our students are the best ones to choose what they will learn and how they will learn it, we are affirming their humanity. Whether this happens in an in-person, blended, or online setting is significant, but it doesn’t change this fundamental assumption. Building relationships between the teacher and the students and among students themselves is not only possible online, but necessary for the type of learning experience that we desire. While many platforms and LMSs have been built to try to streamline learning and assessment, we found that in this course the simplicity of a shared Google Doc provided both a space for students to share what they had learned and a way for the teacher to quickly have visibility into what students were learning, while meeting one on one and in groups created spaces for critical questioning, dialogue, and community.


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