Thriving academic community demands social learning

The history of higher education is one of bringing disparate groups of students together for the purpose of learning alongside academic experts. It is odd, then, that the dominant pedagogic form has historically been the lecture – where students face forward, without interacting with each other. If this were the most effective form of learning, in the twenty-first century we could dispense with universities altogether and simply broadcast lectures online.

We know, of course, that this is not the case. Higher education pedagogy normally includes the expectation that students will interact with peers, in seminars, tutorials, through group projects, in labs, and increasingly through engagement with digital learning environments. There is a risk, though, that the participatory dimension of learning is taken for granted. We assume that any classroom discussion is valuable discussion, or that students are equipped to recognise the learning they gain when they are working together with their peers.

The strategic imperative

There are pressing strategic reasons to think differently about the social dimension of learning. Debates over value for money tend to focus on access to academic expertise, without necessarily recognising the learning community itself as a valuable resource that students can draw on. Students consistently express dislike for group work – the risk of being obliged to carry coasting peers or be marked down on the basis of someone else’s lack of effort feels too high – but the ability to work effectively with and influence others is pretty fundamental to the modern workplace.

When you start thinking about how to foster effective social interaction in the classroom, it makes you realise how ineffective some of our workplace interactions are. How frequently do we waste time in meetings because the conversation has not been structured in such a way as to generate the insight that could inform the decision, or solve the problem? This kind of “hidden” procedural knowledge is what makes organisations and leaders effective.

Students’ mental health and wellbeing is now firmly within the constellation of priority issues that universities must address; fostering a sense of connection in the classroom is clearly a piece of that puzzle. Evidence gathered over the last decade through the Higher Education Academy/Paul Hamlyn Foundation What Works? programme on student retention and success shows that a sense of belonging to an academic community is vital for students’ academic engagement and retention.

Shaping a culture

Participation in any kind of community, and much more so when it is a learning community, depends on the cultural norms established within that community. If students’ experience of the university community is one in which they are marginalised, excluded or overlooked, their experience will be vastly different from the student who has the social capital and/or skills to participate. A feeling of recognition on a human level, and that one’s contribution is valued, is much more likely to prompt participation than a policy that requires students to put a view forward. The goal is inspiring meaningful participation rather than creating the illusion of participation.

For this reason, the role of the academic as a facilitator and curator of a learning environment in which all students are enabled to take part is absolutely fundamental. Academic influence and leadership is required to set the cultural norms and expectations about inclusion and participation in the learning community. Equally, academic subject expertise is required to understand how to structure the conversation so as to achieve learning. How this happens can vary significantly according to the subject discipline.

For example, instead of simply asking students to read a chapter of a set text, the academic presents a combination of readings, videos and diagrams to bring the concept that students need to grapple with to life. They then ask questions that progress from simple testing of knowledge and understanding, to encouraging a more critical response to the topic, or to considering where it might be applied in other contexts.

The process of thinking through what a productive conversation could look like can generate fresh insights into a subject area. Through participating in the discussion students co-produce their own learning, and begin to develop their distinctive voice as a learner in that subject, building knowledge and confidence the more they participate. This only works if the conversation is highly structured, with strong leadership and guidance from an academic.

Social interaction in digital learning

The ubiquity of digital learning spaces offers the opportunity to observe social interactions in learning and understand more about how students learn through participation. This works best when the digital learning environment is configured more closely to a dynamic social media model, than to an inert filing system model. We can design digital learning environments that marry up evidence on how students learn through face-to-face interaction with wider developments in the digital landscape that facilitate interactive learning, such as personal WhatsApp groups or the use of Slack in the workplace. The questions that academics ask can stimulate multiple responses simultaneously, with students building on each other’s responses and sharing their own resources in the digital space.

This is, perhaps, a culture change for learning environments that have been structured around the idea of individual development and performance rather than learning through social interaction and sharing, but it’s hardly a culture change for how students are interacting with their world in general. Given that students typically now arrive at university already locked in to a significant online social network (but not necessarily with the cognitive tools at their disposal to convert their networks into learning), it’s an exciting time to develop our understanding of how to harness students’ facility with social media to create dynamic, participatory academic communities.

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