A key issue for the teaching of both distance and online learning students is how to encourage the building of a sense of academic community, both with their peer group and with academics. Another important element is to create a sense of belonging to their qualification, Faculty and University. These connections are often taken for granted in traditional University contexts, where social relationships can be formed outside the classroom and in real social spaces.
For those students studying at distance, however, the challenge of working in relative isolation creates the risks of drop out and alienation. One tactic to overcome these risks, which is supported by scholars such as Etienne Wenger, is to promote a community of learners. This approach emphasises the transformative potential of education to be part of an interactive process by which a sense of ’belonging’ to a learning community leads to a changing student identity, with learners becoming more confident and participative citizens. The initiatives discussed here are part of the Faculty’s strategy to build just such a learning community.
The hope from the Faculty’s perspective is that such a feeling of academic community will enthuse learners to stay with their modules and complete their studies. As the use of both distance and online learning continues to grow across higher education, these kinds of considerations are going to become an increasingly important issue for educators.
Technological developments and the explosion of social media have both offered up significant opportunities to develop in this area. In the Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University we have been conducting significant innovations to explore how we can improve student experience by building academic community.
One area of work has been the development of a live online conference called Student Connections. This has taken place in 2014 and 2015, and used Livestream to connect staff and students.
The conference was an inventive mix of pre-made videos (many of which were created by students), live interactive presentations, academic lectures and debates, along with a chat show and various quizzes. Learners were encouraged to make videos on either social science topics of interest to them or on subjects that would benefit others such as study skills tips for new students. It enabled students to present their ideas on a par with academics within the same programme. It used a wide range of technologies and the whole set-up encouraged undergraduates to play an active part, for example using social media and participating in chat during the live presentations, as well as doing their presentations.
To support the new live conference, an online audio magazine called The Pod Mag, was also developed. This serves to give a monthly update of news from around the Faculty and promote other forms of community building engagement. Several thousand students have taken part in Student Connections conferences, and more have listened to and downloaded The Pod Mag
Another significant area of work has involved establishing and developing a Faculty Facebook page. The idea behind this was to use a platform that was already integrated into the daily lives of students to help create a sense of community. This is done by providing information about and links to Faculty open access materials, the Faculty online newspaper and The Pod Mag. It also contains photos and videos, including a module team meeting in progress, a ‘sneak peak’ video of a forthcoming new module, and a ‘rogue’s gallery’ of various artistically posed photographs of the Faculty’s academics.
The regular weekly rhythm begins with the above mentioned links and some light-hearted postings; Thursday sees the introduction of a named Faculty academic, and then on Friday that same academic introduces the ’Friday Thinker’. This is usually a question about some aspect of social science that is in the news, is highly topical or relates to a research interest. This feature has been incredibly popular, often logging many hundreds of responses. The most successful of which have been around the role of the state in ‘bad habits’; the function of the media in the Jimmy Savile affair; the issue of horsemeat in burgers; whether capitalism should be abolished; whether or not children should attend funerals and (most popular of all) why people are attracted to conspiracy theories.
Although some responses are short, many are quite detailed and show clear academic engagement related to social science study. In fact quite substantial discussions can emerge, involving a conversation between staff and students which is likely to help in creating and cementing a broader learning community. Many of the academics that have taken part have felt enthused and engaged by the students’ interactions. The page has achieved 24,000 likes, equivalent to almost 70% of the Faculty’s students. Whilst we cannot yet measure the direct impacts on student performance the feedback is positive – and we feel confident students would complain if any of these innovations were removed.
There are, of course, many questions to be asked and, in time, to be resolved as part of these kinds of developments. These include whether this type of informal learning should be extended into the sphere of formal module teaching? What the implications are for a public sector organisation such as the OU in using a commercial platform like Facebook as part of its work? What the opportunity costs are both for students (who might otherwise be undertaking study of their formal learning materials) and for staff time and how best to evaluate this kind of enhancement activity.
While there are challenging questions in using technology to build an academic community there are also exciting possibilities. At the very least using such social media space in a supported distance educational environment would seem to have an important role in building a feeling of community. Such academic communities, in turn, assist students in combining formal and informal modes of study to shape their learning identities, deepen their learning experiences and become more confident and critical citizens.
Ian Fribbance, Deputy Dean of Arts and Social Science, the Open University
George Callaghan, Head of Economics Department, the Open University