Finding a place in the distance

One of the things that we hear regularly is that we are nervous about students getting lost in the ether. We are afraid that as we move our educational experience out of the bricks and mortar and into the electronic environment we may lose some students.

I think that the truth is that we lose some students within our classrooms as well. The truth is that there is the possibility of students falling behind within any environment. We as people have a wonderful ability to “get lost in a crowd” to “hide in plain sight” and to basically just disengage from any environment that we find ourselves in.

An article that I discovered yesterday, written by Maria Northcote, really caught my attention. She provides some insightful literature studies and lessons learnt, all around the topic of creating a sense of place in distance education. This sense of space is critical for creating community and engagement.

A sense of place

She sets out a list of 6 things that we can do as educators in order to increase our students’ sense of space. These are:

  1. Humanisation: To humanise a course is to build in staff-student and student-student communication. It is especially valuable at the beginning of a module to incorporate personal one-on-one contact between the lecturer/tutor and each student. We need to think of ways to draw the students in, make contact, and begin to build human relationships. This is what makes the biggest difference when the learning gets a little hard.
  2. Socialisation Process: This is the process by which the students come into the environment, become comfortable in it, as well as become comfortable with the people who will be sharing the educational place with them. We need to build into our modules a way for students to learn to be real people who are engaging with one another in an online environment.
  3. Student Contributions: It is incredibly valuable for students to be involved in producing content within the learning environment. Giving students a sense of ownership and freedom to influence the module content also gives them a sense of value and worth.
  4. Teacher Presence: The role of the teacher is to “enhance the learning context”. Part of this role seems to be to that of leadership, even in self-directed modules. The teacher needs to be able to provide direction when students would otherwise feel lost and out of place.
  5. Graphic Tools: Visuals representations help to create a sense of place by creating a sense of playfulness, values, tolerance and guidance. Well thought out graphics are able to communicate the feel and personality of the module in a way that helps to build the students sense of being a part of something identifiable. Let us think about images that may give personality, guidance and reality to our modules.
  6. Guiding Structure: In short, we cannot just dump information on students and hope that they will succeed. We need to build some sort of structure that is able to support students in their learning without being to rigid for them to think creatively. How do we order our modules? How do we put things in place to make sure that students are aware of exactly what is required of them and when?

Access the article itself here if you want to read it in more depth. Otherwise come back in the next few weeks as I unpack some more of these lessons.

For now, let us continue to think about how we can generate community by creating a sense of place, and space. Let us continue to try to create spaces in which our students can feel engaged, valued, and stimulated.

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