As colleges and universities settle into another semester of remote instruction, many institutions are striving to create a cohesive community experience for students. The commitment to social engagement has manifested in different ways, including the desire to preserve authentic classroom interactions in online learning spaces. In fact, 40 percent of institutions responding to a recent EDUCAUSE QuickPoll cited “humanizing online learning” as a priority in their preparation for the fall semester. While the concept also includes cultural awareness and inclusiveness, social presence—or the ability to interact authentically with peers and instructors in an online learning space—is a major contributor.
Human connection is an important factor in learning of any kind—in-person or online. Decades of educational research connect a sense of belonging with student retention and success. Some of the challenges related to social engagement can occur regardless of the nature of the learning space; as Jesse Stommel points out, the structural inequalities and exclusions found in our society do not automatically vanish in an academic context. Rather instructors and students must work together to create an environment that supports all students in their quest for safety, belonging, and achievement.
However, fostering social engagement from a distance involves special challenges. The human interactions that occur almost without thought in a physical classroom—leaning over to whisper to your classmate or lingering after class to ask a question, for example—require intentional (and sometimes persistent or courageous) action in online learning. Skilled and empathetic online instructors are powerful enablers of social engagement, but even the best can be limited by the online learning spaces in which they work.
Courses designed with strong social learning overtones will optimize and diversify peer communication and collaboration. Structured discussions, groupwork, peer review, and background “watercooler chat” combine to create a rich and holistic social learning experience. Physical learning spaces are flexible enough (and we are familiar with them enough) to support social learning workflows naturally. By comparison, many online learning spaces seem limited, unfamiliar, and awkwardly compartmentalized. Case in point: the discussion forum native to learning management systems (LMS).
To be fair, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes LMS discussion forums as “the equitable and inclusive workhorse of online teaching” and lists plenty of great reasons for its characterization. However, LMS discussion forums are designed to support a specific type of social engagement: instructor-driven, structured discussions. These discussions tend to follow a general formulathe instructor provides a discussion prompt, and students respond to the prompt by a certain deadline before commenting on each other’s responses by a second deadline.
While some educators can work magic in discussion forums, many students perceive these spaces as overused and unauthentic attempts at social engagement, in part because social learning is being shoehorned into one workflow. To be authentic and effective, social learning requires diverse encounter types that are not fully supported by the discussion forum—or any single learning technology solution.
Institutions hoping to foster human connection inside the online classroom must consider LMS discussion forums as a strong contributor but not a silver bullet for their social learning tool kit. (The same argument applies to synchronous instruction through videoconferencing, which should also be used only in moderation). A toolkit of social learning technologies offers a more holistic and authentic approach to diversified social engagement. Therefore, interested technology leaders should consider selecting tools from the following categories.
Discussion forums are essential for structured, assessed class discussions. If the discussion forums native to the LMS are not sufficiently meeting student and faculty needs, consider exploring one of the many next-generation discussion forums that have recently emerged. While still designed for formal, instructor-driven discussion activities, these LTIs (learning tool interoperability) take the standard discussion forum to the next level, including gamification features, AI-driven student feedback, and options for third-party integrations, such as plagiarism detection and videoconferencing software. Some solutions offer creative approaches to specific communication-related learning outcomes, like critical thinking.
Collaboration spaces allow students to annotate, edit, and discuss specific content (e.g., video, presentation, document) together in the same space. Like discussion forums, they support structured engagement but in ways that are more closely tied to the learning material.
These spaces provide flexible organization and communication options (e.g., all, select, or individual participants). They tend to have superior capacity for synchronous engagement (such as built-in video conferencing and calling features) and can be configured to allow students to create their own group chats, without instructor facilitation.
These platforms support synchronous engagement, including class sessions, office hours and student conferences, and student-led collaboration or groupwork. Keep in mind that videoconferencing needs might be addressed through other tools in the social learning toolkit; community hubs especially have improved their videoconferencing functionality in the past year.
Even the best-curated toolkit is only as good as its implementation. Follow through with instructional design support to help instructors understand how specific tools are meant to be used and how their functionality aligns with desired learning activities and outcomes. Some design support may need to originate in house, but some social learning technologies come with significant design (as well as technical) faculty support.
Also, remember the students. Popular digital native myths notwithstanding, students need technical support to navigate any learning technologies—including social learning. Some social learning technologies have excellent student-facing support, while others do not. It is important that institutional technology leaders prioritize student support by investigating its availability or planning to create it.
Educators have been enabling meaningful human connection in online learning spaces for years, but the fact that it is still a concern among institutional leaders, students, and faculty speaks to its challenging nature. As institutions continue forward into remote instruction at scale, it is important to provide faculty and students with the resources they need, including technology, training, and support.
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