What communities do you feel connected to? Why? Why do we need community? Benita and Melinda asked the same question this week. And I hope that I’ll leave you with one of many possible answers by the end of this post.
Whether fostering a community online or face-to-face, the instructor and students must establish expectations, participate in interactions, and develop communication skills. Like Schwier says, an environment doesn’t inherently develop into a community in which participants feel safe, belonging, committed and engaged. So, how do I plan to foster interactions using Canvas in my Music 9 prototype course?
Step #1 – Establish boundaries and participation rubric with students
- What rules are we going to follow in these spaces?
- How often do you think you would need to participate for others to benefit from your contributions? Can you make this commitment?
- What type of language are we going to use?
- Learn about “Netiquette” and digital citizenship
- Remember, chat comments cannot be deleted once they’ve been posted. You must be responsible.
Step #2 – Practice using the tools, explain their unique purposes/potentials
I plan to use the interactive and connective tools that are built into Canvas as the primary methods of communication: discussion, chat, conversations and conferences. We would practice using all of these tools and outline the expectations associated with each, before setting students “loose” to use them all.
The discussions section in Canvas allows responses to be organized by the question asked. Furthermore, students can add discussion questions if the instructor adjusts the settings to allow this. I would make sure that students would have access to this feature to increase the number of what Bryce-Davis calls “ringers,” which are new or unusual activities that “disrupt the established patterns and expectations just enough to renew interest” in the conversations. These discussions can be threaded, which allows members to focus in on particular comments of interest and follow that train of thought, rather than a stream of feed is more conducive to general comments. The threaded conversations help to ensure that discussion is organized and therefore potentially more meaningful and authentic. Small group options are available as well. Students can join particular focus groups based on interests or projects. Edutopia provides many suggestions in their Mastering Online Discussion Board Education Resource Guide. One idea is
“Instructional Discussion Boards should be used to meet specific course objectives and should be aligned with course content.”
For this reason, I would set the expectation for the discussion forum to be mostly related to the content of the course.
The chat section is a great option for students to socialize and build relationships. This area could be designed as a place for informal exchanges and for straight-forward student questions like, “When is this due?” or “What time are we meeting?” It is important to note that comments in the chat cannot be deleted and are organized on a separate page from the discussion questions. Students would need to be aware of this ahead of time and know consequences for posting inappropriate comments.
Canvas also offers what they call Conversations, which is really just an email service. It’s a great option for one-on-one student-teacher interaction.
Finally, Canvas offers Conferences through a partnership with BigBlueButton, which is a web conferencing tool for synchronous online meetings, much like what we do with Zoom in EC&I 834. This option is ideal for group instruction or a more face-to-face feeling.
The combination of these tools is important. In his blog post this week, Adam said, “When looking for engagement amongst the class, it is vital to incorporate a number of different interaction opportunities.” The fact that Canvas has all of these tools within the same LMS means that students won’t need to check multiple providers to stay connected with their peers. When the log in to Canvas they will automatically be surrounded by opportunities to connect with each other in a variety of ways depending on the purpose of interaction.
Step #3 – Make the interactions meaningful, supportive and relevant
As I said before, setting expectations for each of the formats for interaction at the beginning of a course is crucial. The various forms of communication available, with students able to guide discussions, will make the interactions more meaningful than a strictly teacher-driven approach. Schwier says, “For a community to emerge, a learning environment must allow learners to engage each other intentionally and collectively in the transaction or transformation of knowledge. It isn’t enough that material is presented to people and they interact with the instruction. It isn’t enough that the learners interact with instructors to refine their understanding of material.”
Students also need to be taught the skill of asking critical or higher level questions for discussions to go beyond surface-level ideas and observations. Edutopia suggests teaching Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure that students ask high-quality, purposeful questions.
Students need skills in research and citation as well, so that they find and support answers to their own and others’ questions.
However, my presence as the instructor in each of these areas will model meaningful and supportive interaction.
I think that required participation is also necessary, especially initially, to help students develop the habit of being a part of and contributing to the community. Icebreakers and introductions are important to developing historicity, which is an essential element of community.
I would also use rubrics for participation, as well as teacher, self, and peer evaluation to give students clear expectations and opportunities for feedback and self-reflection.
Step #4 – Troubleshooting
Edutopia helpfully outlines some Common Pitfalls so that educators embarking on this journey can avoid them. I think that I have planned for each of the concerns in my plan above. But the one that I feel I have the least control over is “Students may react in an inappropriate way by flaming other students or making disinterested or disrespectful comments to their peers or in response to assignments.” If this were to happen in a chat, there is one guide that says that the comment cannot be deleted. This is very concerning to me. If one student chooses to make a bad decision, it wouldn’t go away. I’ve emailed Canvas to ask why they’ve chosen this.
Step #5 – Learn!
The primary benefit of creating a blended learning environment where students can connect online is that it improves the likelihood that they will learn more. Amy noted this in her blog post this week as well. George Siemens’ Theory of Connectivity highlights the importance of networks in learning. I know this has certainly been true of my experience in EC&I 834.