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The Connected Conference: keynote discussion on building communities in a digital age

The Connected Conference launched with a fantastic discussion between the BILT team and our keynote speakers Prof. Helen O’Sullivan (DVC and Provost at the University of Chester) and Dave White (Head of Digital Education and Academic Practice at the University of the Arts London).

Tansy Jessop, PVC Education, set the tone for the event by quoting from P.J. Palmer’s evocative “The Courage to Teach”:

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts – meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit will converge in the human self.

The session was chaired by Sarah Davies (BILT Director) and explored how we can think about Building Communities in a Digital Age, drawing on the history of digital learning, the recent shift to online learning during the pandemic, and what all this might mean for the future.

Helen started by making a point is that there is big contextual difference between the unexpected requirement to pivot to online learning in an emergency and courses that were always planned to be delivered online. She critiqued how the media and politicians have reported on this difference as it misrepresents what universities have had to do since early 2020. To equate fully online blended learning to the 2020 pandemic-driven changes is fundamentally unfair.

Next Helen and Dave explored how we can rebuild a sense of community in a world that has been disrupted. Both keynote speakers highlighted the importance of building a shared sense of engagement with activities that invite connection. It’s important the conditions for community are in place both in formal structures and in informal settings that Dave termed intangibles. To explain this concept, he shared the presence-placemaking-pedagogy diagram (read more about this on his blog):

The learning-as-becoming model

This framework prompts us to think about learning as becoming, rather than thinking about a battle of modes of teaching delivery (online v F2F). He suggests that we query what the place of university is, and how students engage with it. When the pandemic hit, we lost our sense of place, suddenly separated from ways of connecting to each other while desperately trying to replace it with technology. Dave talked about the ambient learning environment that being on campus creates that engenders community. This ambience can be created by attending a lecture (as a shared experience) and by the traces that students leave behind – an example is practical arts students’ works covering the walls of learning spaces, so even if you don’t see the students, you walk in a space shaped by student outputs. Helen echoed this idea noting the importance of social learning, using all the standard models of active learning where students work on something together and so can be seen by others. She also prompted considerations of how we think about digital learning design for the future so that in person activity is purposefully chosen to supplement what is happening in the digital environment.

Dave presented a useful metaphor for how we think about the difference between in person and digital experiences. He suggested that we look to architecture where space is designed with purposeful function: lobbies for waiting and interacting, lecture halls for lectures, etc. Here, social modes of conduct are delineated by spatial design. Architecture directs us in how we should behave through its unspoken design. When we move online, we create core spaces for the core delivery of learning activities, but often don’t consider these ambient, transient, or informal spaces. Research at his institution suggests that we need to explicitly design those spaces back in to our digital worlds.

Helen added to this by stating that sometimes we (teachers) can’t be too prescriptive about digital community design. We might make suggestions for a range of options and platforms students can use, but should allow students autonomy to find what works best for them in these informal spaces. Helen noted the importance of also folding in accessibility and integrated tech approaches to our plans for blended delivery. She directed the group to also consider practical issues of students switching between online only and face-to-face teaching in a single day, when they may be on campus, asking how do our campus facilities support these scenarios? How do we think about the needs of privacy for students who might be shy speaking in front of others online in shared study spaces, or when they need to have private conversations? Helen referenced experiments undertaken at Keele last year where bookable facilities were made available on campus for students in such scenarios, but many felt shy, vulnerable or intimidated when others could hear them.

The session concluded with a discussion around student perceptions of what education is, what they assume university learning should look like, and how this is shaped by our local culture. Dave noted that many students consider live lectures a teaching activity, while recorded lectures are not. Helen critiqued how the recent announcement of Manchester University lectures going online was reported in the press as having no value. We therefore need to broaden the meaning of teaching in their minds, noting that students can be more enthusiastic about the idea of live lectures than the reality of actually attending them. Helen suggests that we invite more student engagement with learning design to resolve some of these issues, whether than be as student interns or co-developers using other methods (such as our BILT Student Fellows and Student Hackathons). When students are involved in the design of learning they are more engaged with the results of that learning design. Helen also championed the importance of this collaboration working with professional services. Dave focused on early interventions and negotiations with students on understanding what constitutes learning and learning responsibilities. This takes time and space so that discussions are not just about the subject at hand but on the principles of learning.

In their final reflections, our keynote speakers summed up their key take-away points. For Dave, students should make visible to each other, both the process and the outputs, and academics should make themselves vulnerable to students to model that we are indeed fallible humans. For Helen, we need to design effectively, define what you’re trying to achieve so everyone is clear from the start, and make visible both the process and the final results of shared active learning work.

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