What can we do together that we can’t do alone? Thoughts on community in online learning

What can we do together that we can’t do alone?

My colleague Paul Connolly used this question as a key to open thinking about how (and now not) to spend time in classrooms.  As Director of the Institute for Writing and Thinking for 15 years before he died in 1998, Paul guided and inspired an interdisciplinary faculty to foster joyful communities of learners.  Working with college students and K-16 teachers alike, Paul showed people how to use writing as a tool to enlarge understanding through collaborative inquiry, reflection, and what he called “serious play.”  He guided us to hold the deeply social character of learning in high regard and to place personal experience in conversation with academic study, each informing and enlarging the other.

Rather than assume the conventional role of writing to present finished thoughts, the Institute for Writing and Thinking, where I have been a faculty associate since 1993, encourages learners to employ, experience, and share writing as a process of thinking. In this, we draw on the Russian psychologist Vygotsky’s definition of thinking as internalized conversation.  Paul taught people to enjoy the social experience of thinking and revising thoughts.  To work in a group over a text or question, with writing a tool for probing and pooling possible meanings, is to witness the ever-mobile, brightly colored stitch-work of language across the interplay of minds and experiences.

As this year comes to an end but not yet our reliance on online learning, Paul’s question returns to me for its application to organizing shared time online. When people assemble virtually or in person, there is great potential for learning though interaction, provided of course that the interaction is well facilitated.  (The same can be said of the assembly of the brain itself, though this is for another blog post.) Rather than sit together but alone, doing worksheets, answering questions, or listening to lectures, learners working together can benefit from access to one another’s thinking to generate questions, fuel learning and give courage for the struggles it entails.

This is the basic insight, of course, of the “flipped classroom” — the idea that when learners and teachers are gathered together, they should be able to gain from being together, and do at home the course work they can do without that presence, such as prepare (teachers) or listen to (students)  pre-recorded lectures. And certainly, the online space includes lots of powerful collaboration tools, ranging from Google docs/slides to Padlet, Flipgrid, and breakout rooms, among others.

And yet, the tendency to emphasize in the online space forms that are essentially transmission-driven and procedural is strong.  PowerPoint slides are the ur-case in point.  As flashy as they can be, they essentially reproduce the mode of the “sage on the stage.”  Similarly, to give a multiple-choice reading quiz following each textbook chapter in the remote course portal may help with asynchronous assessment but does not create or depend on interpersonal engagement of any kind; it simply moves online a well-worn-out format.  More compelling is the creative way today’s students crowdsource answers in online flash card apps that double as cheat sheets.  There, in websites such as Quizlet, students create a commons for their own purposes, unsanctioned, un-paid-for, impersonal but generously present to the demands of the day.  Could teachers find in this looking-glass ways to make instruction more lively?

The draw of didactic, uni-directional instruction is also strong where building community is hard, certainly the case in online contexts.  And sometimes, yes, it’s a responsible move to set aside the possibility of community and just focus on being kind, consistent, and flexible in a more traditional vein.  Still, as an organizer of decision-making for online learning, Paul’s question — What can we do together together that we can’t do alone? — can help teachers and students give value to community and to building it, not only, though crucially, as conducive to engagement and wellness, but as essential to learning.  It can encourage us to think together about how to build community online in ways equitable, aspirational, and gentle — such as by encouraging people to turn cameras on when they comfortably can; establishing regular, expected ways to invite connection among people and students’ lives to course material; creating norms around checking in (and, as needed, checking out); and showing students that they can support and inspire one another in their learning journeys (and not only by crowdsourcing “the answers”).

When teachers are pressured to create visually perfect, seamless online course materials, our focus can shift away from the messy, homely work of doing things together.  When students do not feel known or seen, their focus can shift from the adventure of learning to the grind of achievement.  At worst, the online context is corporatized, commercialized, depersonalized, another commons privatized and stolen.

This pandemic calls up urgent questions about how people see one another even if distant in space and experience.  What can we do together that we can’t do alone?  Everything that matters.