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Taking the remote out of online learning – using digital co-presence to build learning communities

By Lisa Harris and Sarah Dyer

In this post we challenge the “deficit model” of online teaching and learning that continues to circulate in the media. This model assumes that learners are “remote”, or “at a distance” when they study online, and are therefore at a disadvantage. In contrast, we’ve come to understand the affordances of different techniques and tools for creating digital co-presence as we’ve become more practiced at online education. We argue that designing-in co-presence and opportunities to practice the skills needed for online engagement can support effective and inclusive learning communities. We conclude by providing a number of practical recommendations for digital educators.  

Photo: Challenges Online (UoE Careers)

Dialogue and partnership with our students are central to designing and refining (online) learning. Many students at “traditional” universities may well say they prefer to engage educationally and socially with each other and their tutors on campus. This is understandable as most have years of experience of learning in person and much less experience as online learners. When teaching and learning switched quickly online in the spring, it was fair to say that the “emergency” online experience was “mixed” for students and staff alike. As we are writing this six months later, physical classrooms, labs, studios have been reconfigured by significant health and safety restrictions and are about to reopen. Alongside this, significant effort has gone in over the summer to develop modules for the 20/21 academic year, but the language of deficit remains. So what happens next? We argue that in many subject areas, well-structured online programmes offer obvious and significant advantages over a restricted campus-based experience during a pandemic. Moreover, a number of these advantages hold true even in the (very unlikely) return to “normal” circumstances any time soon.

We must build on the positives that students already know about, for example, the flexibility that has been provided by lecture recordings while (some) related seminars and other activities took place in person. Even pre-covid, the assumption of attendance was challenged as increasing numbers of students were not necessarily available for “full time” study due to many very reasonable practical or health-related issues. Beyond simple lecture recording, modules that we have offered largely online for flexible study over the past few years have proved to be very popular. For example, our online module on the future of work mirrors work-based developments in digital collaboration to allow students to experience that change for themselves. It also cuts across the timetable restrictions on physical attendance so we can include students from across the whole institution, and integrates with an open MOOC that includes learners from all across the globe. Interestingly, last year 20% of all enrolled students on this module had Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) for a variety of reasons and these were almost entirely mitigated by online participation. 

Those who see online education as deficient worry that online platforms cannot be used to build learning communities and strong educator-learner relationships. However, online collaboration can be accessible and inclusive in ways that in person just isn’t, including for those with other responsibilities, those who have long commutes, and people learning in a language which isn’t their first. Through an awareness of the importance of their own digital presence in a learning environment, educators lay a foundation and role-model digital presence for their students. Educator presence can include video introductions and weekly summaries as well as ensuring student contributions are responded to. Educators can provide scaffolding of early ‘low stakes’ opportunities for students to practice being visible in the online space and engaging with their peers. Community building and collaboration can be supported by both synchronous and asynchronous activity. Digital tools have affordances which create new and different ways of being present. We must utilise these and make community building a priority in how we design online learning. There is an evolving literature which speaks to these themes. See “the limits of online education are assumed, not a given” by Cris Costa for a great example.


So instead of treating online study as “distant” or “remote”, here are some practical ways in which we can create presence and collaboration online – even with “traditional” full time student cohorts. 

  1. Using asynchronous and asynchronous activities that support and build on each other. For example, 

    – Students can be asked to source and contribute examples which are then picked up and developed further in real time discussion, and summarised afterwards for the benefit of the whole group.
    – Create shared documents that students can develop and edit before a synchronous class. This provides a way of practicing collaborative writing in their own time. It creates the opportunity to develop writing skills in ways we don’t tend to do in person. It creates a shared resource to be used after the class. A section can also be added for questions or comments to be used during the class so those who don’t feel so confident speaking can ask questions or raise problems. Tools such as Padlet or Mural are very useful for this.
    – Staff development events have worked well online through the summer, in a condensed but more inclusive format. Individual and collaborative elements can be included in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous sessions. We describe in our blog post reflecting on the Dartington writing retreat, for example, making effective use of a recipe sharing exercise to help build community both before and during the event.

Photo: Exeter Education Incubator Retreat Online (Lisa Harris)

2. Think asynchronous over synchronous!

There are many benefits of well-designed and supported asynchronous teaching and learning, well argued in this THE article by Madeline St Amour. She argues that trying to force a whole group into real time activities can be discriminatory, and that tutors should focus on providing significant levels of time-distributed support. Tutor presence needs to be maintained throughout, although extra effort at the start can be rewarded later as students grow in confidence. 

3. Have students work in groups

For example, set time-limited tasks for students to tackle in small groups online. For example, our Challenges Online event enabled over 400 students working in 67 small teams to develop and present their project findings. Subsequently, participating students created guides for others on netiquette and the practical steps which enabled effective collaborative working.

Photo: Challenges Online (UoE Careers)
Photo: Challenges Online (UoE Careers)

4. Take advantage of the ability to invite others in

– Short panel sessions within workshops have worked well where external contributors can be brought together for a real time discussion far more easily than coordinating their simultaneous presence on campus. This supports students to develop skills and confidence in communicating with diverse ‘types’ of people.

-.Integrate MOOCs into credit bearing modules, with space to analyse and reflect on the experiences of engaging with others on the MOOC. 

5. Support students to develop the skills of engaging online

– Be explicit with students that these are new (and valuable) skills and provide opportunities for students to practice and get comfortable by early ‘low stakes’ opportunities. Provide space for reflection and skills self-assessment later on in modules.

6. Be clear about when and how in online, balancing flexibility with clarity 

– There are many online communication options such as bookable meeting slots, drop ins, phone calls, chat messaging or email. You need to be clear in communication about how and when tutors will be present to support students. 

The recommendations we have outlined here illustrate how online study can build learning communities, and thus be anything but “distant” or “remote”. In fact, it offers a more flexible and inclusive experience for students, even setting aside the current restrictions. Looking to the future, we obviously hope to see the “new normal” provide opportunities for staff and students to work together in person, while also maintaining and further developing the affordances of digital collaboration.  

Dartington Online Incubator

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