Looking for Place in Online Learning

When I think about the phrase Humanizing Online Learning, I think about it in a very literal way: how do we make online learning more human? A technological device is an inhuman object, one which presents a screen or veil through which the humanity of its users must shine, but how can we do this? Indeed, it can be challenging to be humane, especially when there is little to no separation between our isolated domestic sphere and our academic/professional sphere. Unlike the physical classroom, pants and other social niceties are now largely optional.

Throughout the 8 weeks that I had the opportunity to meet with the #OLDFF Fellows, we discussed many ways that learning and education could be made more humane. We explored many approaches and concepts, among them: creating and upholding inclusive learning environments, ungrading, the ways that technology can both help and hinder the teaching/learning process and vulnerability. The discussions around the role that vulnerability plays in teaching and learning, online and in person, were particularly poignant, in the truest sense of the word.

My academic field might be broadly referred to as place studies and I brought this interest-bias with me to several of the discussions that I had over the eight weeks. Inspired and influenced by my mentor, Dr. Jonathan Bordo, who recommended me to this fellowship, the role of place in learning and making knowledge claims is an area of interest for me and it often informs my approach to pedagogy. One particular #OLDFF breakout discussion with a senior colleague impacted my thinking greatly. I shared with the group my concerns about excessive screen time and the placeless-ness of online learning environments, concerns coloured by my role as a parent of young children. To me, the virtual, although it makes overtures to having or being a place in terms of its verbiage and architecture (web-sites, home page, etc.), presents distinct challenges to being grounded, present and engaged. This colleague smiled knowingly, appreciatively, and shared that, although she didn’t have children of her own, she recalled the rhythms of her own childhood. She spoke about the structure offered by her daily rituals – meals, outdoor play, and the comings and goings of the working parent.

This brief conversation helped me to reflect further on the rhythms and rituals of the physical classroom and I began to think about how these often overlooked micro events offer a structure which is grounding to both teaching and learning. Places exist at the intersection of space and time and are anchored by human experience. The place of the physical classroom may be digitized along with many of its rhythms and rituals, with sufficient care, in a synchronous environment however, replicating this place in an asynchronous environment becomes increasingly challenging. Indeed, for all its benefits in stability and flexibility (for both educators and students), asynchronous teaching can further remove us from the place of the classroom and the pedagogies which were previously grounded in the rituals and rhythms found there.

This invited me to think about how we can ground online learning and virtual pedagogies using established rituals and rhythms of the physical classroom, and indeed perhaps creating some new ones. I also wanted to think about ways we can invite students to engage with their material reality, wherever they may be, in hopes of offering them ways to ground their own learning (and their lives for that matter) beyond the classroom, regardless of its delivery mode. With this in mind, I make the following offerings for contemplation:

  • Invite projects or work which asks students to not just engage in, but celebrate their material surroundings. Consider projects that are sequential, take place over an extended period so that they are drawn back to the physical/material world regularly.
  • Invite students to engage in the rhythms and rituals of the university lecture hall/seminar room
    • Informal conversations before/after class or at break – as an educator, make yourself available as you might during an in-person lecture – and encourage students to use this time to talk to you.
    • Make structural requests that you would in a classroom (i.e. drinks are fine, but please no eating during class).
    • Develop rituals or routines that help you and the students know what to expect. This can be as simple as keeping your slide formatting the same or having a lecture structure that you follow. One could also work to create routines or affirmations (i.e. use Padlet or similar to invite instant and anonymous student feedback about a particular question).
  • In a synchronous learning environment
    • Invite feedback from students while lecturing
    • Check in with students and invite them to check in with themselves
      • One participant, during a subsequent conversation, shared that she invites her students to participate in a mindfulness exercise at the beginning of each class and when they return from break
  • In an asynchronous learning environment
    • Encourage rituals and routines
      • begin class with a recorded mindfulness exercise and/or build in a break video
      • Ask students to submit a reaction/reflection immediately following their completion of each piece of course content – could be as simple as sending the professor an email with one question they had from the lecture
    • Create projects which require students to engage with their material surroundings in some way
      • Invite students to engage in the materiality of writing or drawing
      • Create a project which invites students to engage with and reflect on their place/location in the world and celebrate it
    • Instructor availability
      • Encourage human interaction
      • Create a time for synchronous interaction with students and reward student engagement

While there is more work to do, and things to explore, I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight place and to share some thoughts I encountered through this experience about the role of rhythm and ritual in the constitution of somewhere as a place. Place is an important, and often overlooked, part of teaching and learning, and by exploring ways to ground virtual pedagogies, we might just make some exciting, and worthwhile, discoveries.

Jessica Becking

PhD – Cultural Studies

Trent University

Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash

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