Module 4: The Virtual Classroom as a Learning Community
When we think of guiding principles for our courses, it’s easy to immediately point at the learning goals and objectives — the metrics by which we gauge whether learners have succeeded in their pursuit. But does the degree to which someone has “learned” have a bearing on their role in the community? Put another way, does the A+ learner belong more than the C- learner?
While there may be some standard, boilerplate behavioral guidelines for your course (where and how to ask what kinds of questions, general decorum, and other compulsory information), it’s also important to consider the more unique sensibilities of your space. Perhaps an underlying theme in your film studies course is food: it might be expected and commonplace for students to discuss and share pictures of their own favourite dishes and culinary experiences within the course. Such behaviour might be considered out of place in a statistics course, but it would be something that makes that particular film studies course more special and meaningful for its learners.
In The Art of Community, Charles Vogl speaks to the idea of the temple:
a place where people with shared values enact their community’s rituals (Vogl, 2016, p. 67)
In essence, your course is the temple for your community. It is the place where members of your community gather to listen, speak, and learn from one another — where they communicate. Clearly articulating the activities that will take place in the course (the rituals of the temple) will help you to develop an understanding of what makes your course special and unique. It will help your learners to feel more comfortable in understanding the decorum of the space.
Below you’ll find four short lists: three with general considerations about netiquette (things that would likely apply to any course), and a fourth with some thought provoking questions about specificity (what makes your course unique).
Select a topic below, marked with an arrowhead, to reveal more information.
How are we communicating with each other?
- Where are we communicating? Is it better to ask questions via email or in the discussion boards? Is there a “hallway space” for learners that isn’t supervised by the instructor?
- What does our communication look and sound like when we’re speaking? What about when we’re not speaking? How are we addressing each other when we do so? In what language?
- How do we deal with disagreements or conflicts should they arise?
Where and when are we expected to complete tasks and engage with material?
- Are we utilizing spaces and tools that take us outside the confines of the LMS? To what end?
- What flexibility can we expect regarding things like assessment, attendance or participation?
- How does the course account for time and space? Are there opportunities for synchronous meetings? Is there a “preferred” time zone that the instructor occupies?
What institutional information needs to be made explicit?
- Do learners have access to specialty software? How would they go about obtaining it?
- What resources are available to learners that they might not already be aware of?
- Are there preordained regulations regarding professionalization (dress code, diction)?
What makes this course special or unique?
- What is it about this course that will enrich the lives of learners?
- Why will the connections and relationships built here be meaningful?
- Where will learners be able to put into action what they take from this course?
Tip: Remember that these things can change over time; they aren’t necessarily set in stone. The guiding principles and shared values are things that can be renegotiated and re-communicated as the community evolves.
An Invitation for Creation
A shared understanding of who we are, what we do, and where we do it is an awesome way to decrease ambiguity and improve course legibility. But what really transforms your course into a community will be the ways in which your learners come together. Inviting your learners to identify, negotiate and fashion things like guidelines, values and protocol creates an opportunity for everyone to actively take control of their shared relationship with the space (and the learning therein) as “the invitation becomes evidence of their belonging” (Vogl, 2016, p. 47). Soliciting feedback and welcoming expression as part of this process immediately alters the nature of authority: rather than a supervisor merely administering and managing the completion of tasks, instructors become learners alongside students in a communal space.
Sometimes it can be tricky to identify (and agree upon) a set of rules or tenets. Common values like respect for one another, or baselines like academic integrity, are easy to co-sign — but every course is going to be a little different. There needs to be a shared and articulated consistency that influences how we feel about our community. What does respect look like, for example? How does the concept inform things like land acknowledgments, pronoun use or conversation amongst learners? Being able to come to terms as a group about what we value as a community gives us something to inform our actions and decision making. One way of going about finding what you do want is figuring out what you don’t want.
A great way to go about giving a voice to protocol is by making use of TRIZ, a Russian acronym that translates to “theory of inventive problem solving.” It’s a method of framing thoughts and ideas that demystifies the coordination of values and regulations by allowing people to grapple with sensitive topics, or ideas generally considered to be above criticism, by (un)dressing them in a carefree, lighthearted and honest manner. Put more casually, TRIZ is an opportunity to bust out the hammers and break down walls between you and the things you want to get at (or at least identify).
Chances are you’ve thought of a few “winners,” things that learners or members of your community would have a laugh over. TRIZ is an especially powerful tool when explored with a group, as it gives everyone an opportunity to express themselves and collaborate with one another. Engaging learners in such an activity invites them into the course not just as participants, but as co-creators with a meaningful sense of agency. Keep in mind that actions speak louder than words, and while being able to establish a protocol for communication is great, it is the group’s adherence to these ideas that will give them meaning. Especially so as the instructor: if your behaviour is not emblematic of these values, learners might feel let down, and demotivated.
In Self-Determination Theory, individuals that are externally motivated might feel more alienated, whereas those that are intrinsically motivated are more likely to feel enjoyment (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p. 72). Inviting learners to help co-create and negotiate values generates a shared understanding of ritual. That integration paves the way for belonging, which helps to create meaning amongst members of the community (even if in just a small way). Regardless of why someone is specifically motivated within the course (they are personally excited about the subject matter, they are merely curious and filling out a timetable, or this is something that they absolutely need to satisfy a degree requirement, for example), cultivating and identifying shared values and guidelines means everyone will feel better and understand the space more clearly as a result.
Through the identification and establishing of shared values, you will be able to achieve a meaningful and authentic learning experience.
Co-creating the experience with your learners will help to ensure they feel comfortable about their participation, and excited to be a part of it.
Transforming your course into a community will result in better communication amongst you and your learners.
One way of finding solutions to challenging problems is by demystifying the subject — making things easier to talk about leads to more fruitful interactions.
- Vogl, C. H. (2016). The art of community: Seven principles for belonging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68 ↵