Building community online


Community (noun):  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; 2. the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common; 3. a group of interdependent plants or animals growing or living together in natural conditions or occupying a specified habitat.

How to define community? From the definition(s) above, it is interesting that the first one refers to ‘living in the same place’, since that is exactly what our staff and students DON’T do!  However, the second one captures our community almost perfectly, which is something of a relief.  And just by coincidence our online distance learning MSc programme in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health is very concerned with the third.  Two out of three is not bad…

When I first started in distance learning, I have to admit I was a bit sceptical – can people really communicate effectively and learn from each other in an online environment?  How can that happen without a human face-to-face element?  Well, after more than seven years I can say that I am still surprised at how strong our online MSc community has become.  Okay, so it’s not for everyone, and what we do is far from perfect, but with limited technical requirements, and a lot of creative facilitation, our staff and students continue to build personal and professional relationships whilst living and working on different continents and in different time zones.

How do we build it?

Our students come to us with a vast range of experiences, and many are highly regarded professionals in their own right.  They collectively know infinitely more about the range of subject areas we cover than we as individuals ever can, so we take every opportunity to incorporate this into our teaching.  I think the sharing of knowledge, whether it is specialist or technical, or is drawn from a lifetime of experience, is an invaluable tool not only in shared learning but also building community.

And this doesn’t end once our students graduate – increasingly we are inviting them back to continue their contributions through presenting case studies and writing course materials.  As people who already fully understand the online environment, they are ideal course tutors and mentors, and we continue to use their skills and expertise to develop our ever-evolving community.

Our efforts to get to know our students starts as soon as they are on programme: all students are encouraged to post something about themselves in a communal online space, the HUB, available to all new and returning students.  They are also welcome to add themselves to our interactive map which gives a good idea of where everyone is living.  Very simple, but very effective in breaking down the initial barriers between people and setting the scene for engagement.  This communal area is used throughout the academic year, separate from courses, for staff and students to share information on new publications, relevant current affairs, conferences, online events, internships and any other items of shared interest.  It gives equal status to those just starting their programme, to those well on the way to completion, and to the programme teaching team.

Within courses, too, there are opportunities to further develop community.  Each course has a designated ‘introduce yourself’ section, especially useful when we have students from other MSc programmes enrolled, and weekly discussions often include an element of personal reflection and sharing of experience.  Where there a large class sizes, particularly in the first year, they are subdivided and randomly allocated into smaller groups of no more than ten.  Experience suggests that any larger than this and people get ‘lost’ in the crowd.    Large groups can discourage engagement as a few individuals tend to dominate and the overall volume of postings can become unwieldy and difficult to keep up with.  Limiting discussion group size helps to ensure there is enough ‘space’ for everyone to contribute if they wish to.

Online discussion is at the core of all our courses, providing regular opportunities for staff and students to share experiences, to discuss thorny issues and to develop collaborative solutions.  Students consistently cite online discussions as the most valuable part of their experience with us, as an opportunity to get to know people from other places, and to understand better the global implications of the topic at hand.

Despite all of this, I still feel that creating opportunities for face-to-face engagement is well worth the effort where possible.  We welcome students to visit us if they are in the area; we visit students if we are in their area; we encourage attendance at graduation where possible; and we are committed to running a summer school in Edinburgh every two years.  A modest financial commitment from our programme budget ensures that we can support people to travel to Edinburgh where they would otherwise be unable.

We ran the first Biodiversity Summer School in 2015 and had 17 student attendees, all of whom presented a topic of interest, and a number of programme alumni.  Feedback from the Summer School overwhelmingly indicated was that it was an excellent way to get to know people, to network, and to further build on relationships started online.  I hope to increase the capacity of our 2017 Summer School to include greater student numbers to further enhance the development of community between students, alumni and staff.

What community do our students belong to?

Ideally, graduates from our MSc programme will leave with a strong sense of being part of a learning community on a number of levels:  as a cohort/year group; as a member of the MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health team; and as a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.  My experience tells me that the first two of these are easier to foster than the third, although it is often the third that attracts students to study with us in the first place.  You might also argue that they should leave with a connection to the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences, but I think this is even more difficult to achieve than the others.  In part this is due to the placement of our MSc within the Deanery, with which we share only a few explicit academic links, and from where very few of our students will have started their careers.  However, our programme doesn’t clearly ‘belong’ anywhere and the outstanding service the Deanery offers the programme team and our students more than compensates for the slightly counter-intuitive hosting arrangement.  All the more reason to work on developing community on the other levels noted above, while looking at new ways to strengthen the links to Biomedical Sciences.

Above and beyond the communities we try to foster, students will inevitably also develop their own sub-groups and communities, in person if they live near each other, on social networking sites such as Facebook, and professional ones such as LinkedIn.  Although these are not fully inclusive they develop as a response to finding similar-minded people they want to continue to get to know.

I can’t say for sure what the most influential activities are for building community, but I expect that different people value different things. For me, building community is about inclusiveness.  We could certainly use real-time strategies to talk to students, for example using Collaborate or Skype video-conferencing, as many programmes do, but if even one of our students is not able to access this then I personally prefer not to.  The problems of internet speeds and time zones can easily and repeatedly exclude individuals from the developing community and for me that is not acceptable.

However, considering the number of personal and professional relationships that have developed within the MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health over the last seven years, and the willingness of our alumni to return and contribute to our courses, I would cautiously suggest that we must be doing something right.

Next steps:

Read other blog posts on online distance learning and teaching on Teaching Matters.

Sharron Ogle

I am Programme Director for the part-time ODL MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health, based in the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences. I’ve been in the role since 2010 and have learnt a lot since then, mostly about people and a little about myself. I started as a medical student here in Edinburgh, which I left to become a secondary school teacher, then returned to complete my MSc in Reproductive Biology and PhD in Veterinary Science. I’m now back where I started but in a very different capacity, and enjoying working with so many lovely people in the BMTO and of course our very varied student group.

When I’m not working I like to be outside, mainly cycling with a bit of climbing, paddling and running. I also love all animals, but especially dogs and rodents.

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