Finding community in online learning

Photo credit: Danielle MacInnes, Unsplash, CC0

In this post, Eli Appleby-Donald, a learning technologist at Edinburgh College of Art, describes her experience of creating an academic community during her online studies…

I’m currently finishing my studies as an online Masters student, studying Digital Education with Moray House School of Education and Sport. Just over 3 years since starting this journey, I’m back sitting in Starbucks, where my student journey began. I was sitting here, at this very table, on my mobile phone reading my first assigned paper. It was exploring the concept of the online university and, specifically, the campus. That paper got me so excited for what was to come, and I felt very “digital” reading it on my mobile phone.

Unfortunately, that feeling of excitement only lasted a few hours and the reality of studying online hit. I had logged in, 9am sharp, like a good student. I had been so excited at the thought of starting my course that I had taken the day off work to get the most out of my first day. The day passed, and I continued to be the only student online. In my excitement, I had forgotten the very reason I had chosen to study part-time online, which was presumably the same reason my classmates chose this mode of study. We had jobs, families and other commitments during the day.

That first couple of weeks were about adjusting, finding my place and routine, just like any other student. The only difference, obviously, was that I was trying to do this without the aid of the physical campus and the visual cues of the bricks and mortar university (and, of course, the plethora of fresher’s week marketing going on around George Square and Bristo Square, including the free pizza). I think this may be the greatest fear people have about being an online student: loneliness or isolation. After all, the image of the lone student hunched over a laptop, usually wearing headphones is the most common image, if you search for “online student” in a search engine. Hopefully, my experience can now dispel that myth.

dispelling the myth

Once the first couple of weeks were over, bonds had begun to form and various students had connected and formed groups much like any campus, where groups of similar students meet and form friendships. It was in these first weeks that I met the students who became my close-knit group of friends, who have stayed with me from the first course through the dissertation. We are now looking forward to graduating together, in person, here in Edinburgh.

Those bonds that brought us together were the same bonds that bring any group of students together. We formed a study group, worked on assignments, supported each other, and met for coffee. Yup, you did read that correctly. To build our relationships, we connected outside the classroom. We created a facebook group that we used to share photos, videos, silly articles we’d found online, opinions, fears, hopes, excitement, and disappointment over grades. We also created a meetup, each week, where we all had a coffee and joined a skype chat. I think this was one of the things that built our campus. Yes, we were still distanced and we were still only able to interact online, but today there are so many online tools to close those gaps that, to be honest, the idea of actually being a distance student quickly evaporated and our campus was built on shared experience, shared identity and support for each other. This would probably be the place to mention the reason facebook, or The Facebook, was created, to help on-campus students at Harvard connect. Here, we were using it for that same purpose.

programme-specific challenges

Some things were different for us though, and I think this was due to the programme’s structure rather than the fact that it was an online programme. You’ll hear other online students often talk about the benefits of learning online; of the convenience in using tools like lecture recordings where you can watch and rewatch lectures, pause them, rewind them, etc. A benefit that you obviously don’t have in a live lecture. However, our programme wasn’t taught specifically using video lectures and I have to say, this was one disappointing area. Each course on the programme was different, but most focused on reading lists and forums for us to discuss the readings and offer our insights on them. I always felt this was one area that could have been improved by adding some video materials to support the tutors.

On some courses we did have synchronous online discussion groups or tutorials via skype or google hangouts, but I found these were usually hard-going. There was a tendency for the class to hang back and not participate, causing some really awkward silences. In-person, in a face to face situation, those types of silences would usually lead to someone stepping in, but online, when able to hide behind a screen, the silence doesn’t seem so deafening, which left the tutor having to fill in the gaps in order to keep the class moving. Those silent moments in class were the only times where the weight of being an online student seemed to hit but they were fleeting. Tutorials were usually over in about an hour and the discussion in our student online channels that followed was usually lively – I would argue that those discussion should have happened within the actual tutorial.

As I said earlier, I am now finishing my studies and I’m the process of submitting my dissertation. And it was only when it came to the dissertation part of my studies where I personally felt that being an online student became difficult. By its very nature of being a personal research project, dissertation time for any student is lonely. For me, where I had experienced such a strong community of students, the loneliness of the dissertation was jarring and I did struggle. Others in my group weren’t yet at the dissertation stage or had completed theirs earlier and others were focused so much on their work that they began to pull away from the more social aspects of our community. I realised then how important those social, community-shaped interactions were in my personal experience of being an online student, and how perhaps my experience is not typical.

finding community

Speaking to others who have studied online, the lack of community or bonding with their fellow students, and sometimes teaching staff, was something they felt was a strong negative in their online experience. However, I also spoke to a fellow PG online student this week who talked about their on-campus undergrad days as being an incredibly lonely experience for them. So, it looks as if it’s not distance or indeed the medium that makes a ‘campus’, but the connections we make. For me, now, this experience and indeed revelation has helped me decide what I want to do after my studies are complete; how I want to make use of them. I’ve realised that the most rewarding thing I can do is to help other students to experience the same positivity I have in my studies. Not just online students but, like me, students who maybe haven’t had the most typical route into higher education: mature students, part-time students. So look out world, I’m stepping out to find my place in academia, and hopefully it will be one where I can make a positive impact.

Eli Appleby-Donald

Eli is part of the learning technology team at ECA, supporting professional and teaching staff in the classroom and online. In this role, no two days are the same, and Eli can be found assisting online teaching teams before elevenses, helping to design courses after lunch, and appearing as guest tutor late in the afternoon. Eli is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a masters student with Moray House, and is embarking on her first research project looking into studio teaching online.

Read her learning technology blog or, if you are bored of learning tech, Eli is also an avid blogger on gardening, growing veggies, and cooking. You can also follow Eli on Twitter: @LearningTechEli.

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