Building a Digital Community of Learners
The pandemic offers an opportunity to try out new tools to bring students together and explore potential benefits for the return to in-person learning.
By Chris Rogers
Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot about how to educate online. As with all good experiments, some results have been surprisingly positive, while others have been … not so. In my own case, I have been working with my students to test out all sorts of different strategies—from online tools to working with Arduino to sending custom electronics kits to 400 homes or dorms. Except for missing the weekly Ultimate Frisbee game, I have been surprised and impressed at how well education is proceeding, with students able to drive their own learning and leverage the new digital tools for help.
Most of my efforts have focused on developing a sense of community and peer assistance among the students, an approach that had paid off in previous in-person environments with student groups becoming self-sufficient, helping each other solve the posed engineering problems. But now, how do you get the same sharing, curiosity, peer support, and idea transfer virtually as when 20 students are working together in a big room?
Like most people, we started with Slack. As a faculty member, I have always preferred this tool to e-mail because there is no spam. While Slack worked fairly well, it became far more powerful when we integrated Google Calendar. Since students are now all over the world, time zone confusion resulted in a few missed meetings and deadlines prior to the calendar alerts. With the integration, students can plan out their day, knowing when they can get help or when they can participate in activities that the “fun committee” dreamt up. While we also integrated other apps such as Zoom and Asana, the calendar was the most transformational addition (with a distant second ensuring everyone put their Zoom address in their profile to make it easier to connect).
A second surprise occurred in our annual summer research program (with about 30 students, all-virtual). We decided to offer a summer seminar series. Instead of the usual 50-minute talks, we opted for five minutes of introduction, 15 minutes of presentation, and 30 minutes of discussion. In their introductions, the speakers talked about their career journeys and what they would want to do differently next time. It was interesting to see the different paths people took to the engineering jobs they currently held (one taught English before becoming an engineer, another Gaelic literature). There were two surprises with the talks: The first was how willing everyone was to Zoom for an hour at lunch, giving us a huge diversity in speakers and topics—from SpaceX launches to issues of racial equity to the beginnings of AI at Google. The second was how popular they were: By the end, the students were requesting three talks a week. With participants’ various interests, the talks supplied content for more online student discussions, forming that community.
Another positive addition was daily update videos. After students complained that they knew nothing about their peers’ projects, we started each morning with a single three-minute movie from one of the groups (each group had to make a movie every other week). These videos worked very well for sharing both ideas and industrial sponsor updates.
To date, my students and I have tried a few dozen different software packages, from Asana to Teams, with mixed reviews. Miro (a digital sticky note board) had the greatest split in votes, with some loving it and others finding it frustrating. Gather, a video-sharing world you can design, showed great potential for enabling the feel of wandering down the hallway and talking with someone but also brought the odd feeling of eavesdropping when you passed different conversations.
The most successful poster session was when we did “the Zoom Dance” for sponsors over the summer. Each industrial sponsor was put in a breakout room and the students migrated from room to room every 10 minutes to show off their work. The sponsors appreciated not having to move for a few reasons: 1) they did not have to be the ones to apologetically leave a discussion, 2) they did not have to worry about where they should go, and 3) they did not have to worry about dealing with any Zoom issues as they moved.
We have tried many other tools: software, portfolios, reflections, and surveys—with variable success—but all helped build a strong community, as students became codesigners. It is exciting to see how learning is changing to better leverage the digital world, and I plan on retaining most of these tools when we are all together again. But I am most excited to bring back the in-person Frisbee games.
Chris Rogers is a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University.