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How virtual communities can amplify traditional learning

Teachers have learned a lot this year, including the power of virtual communities to meet students' needs
By Narine Hall, PhD., Founder and CEO, InSpace
July 19th, 2021

Teachers have learned a lot this year, including the power of virtual communities to meet students' needs

Our country learned a lot in 2020, when the pandemic brought sudden, fundamental changes to the way we live, work, and go to school. Teachers learned new lessons as we taught classes, and one of the most enduring lessons for us was that traditional video conferencing programs are a poor substitute for the in-person experience.

Holding class on Zoom or GoToMeeting feels more like broadcasting than teaching, as educators essentially deliver monologues to a semi-engaged audience. There is no personalization, no flexibility and little collaboration. Most importantly, there is no sense of community that often forms in the classroom.

Getting back to in-person teaching this fall will be gratifying, but it will feel different after the year we just lived through. Because as many teachers were dreading videoconferencing in 2020, many were also grasping the potential for new technologies to amplify and enhance the learning experience.

We are the teachers who want to see new technology platforms combined with on-site learning to make education more effective.

Even as we happily say goodbye to Microsoft Teams and Zoom (which may work wonderfully well for the business world, but not for teaching), teachers want to embrace new technologies. Here are the most important ways technology can be applied to higher education to make learning more social, flexible, and meaningful:

Virtual office hours

If you talk to teachers about the year that was, you will hear a litany of complaints. But one thing no one complains about is the virtualization of the professor-student one-on-one interaction, otherwise known as virtual office hours. In normal times, office hours can be hectic and lonely for a professor. Many use it as a time to catch up on grading or other work. Students have their reasons for not showing up, whether it’s privacy in shared office spaces or the inconvenience of walking across campus to wait in line with other students to see the professor.

Offering virtual hours—with a virtual waiting room, a study room, a relaxation room, and a private one-on-one meeting room—created a sea change for many professors’ office hours. Students showed up in droves. They worked together in virtual study rooms, often answering their own questions by collaborating with their peers. They had no distractions, no privacy concerns and full decision-making power on how they wanted to take advantage of office hours. Professors will likely want to keep this going.

Virtual communities and asynchronous chat

Strangely, during the forced social distancing of the pandemic, there was for some students a sudden boom in social learning. This is because some teachers used technology that enables the creation of virtual communities around every course.

A virtual community—like virtual office hours—involves the use of many different rooms where different kinds of learning and collaboration take place. One room might be devoted to the lecture or the coursework, while another functions as a casual drop-in space where a student can wander in at any time to see if classmates are putting their heads together on the coursework.

In the brick-and-mortar world, students need to ask each other for contact information, and schedule study sessions, which can be awkward. In virtual spaces, students can simply bump into each other, and decide to work together. One of the most important ingredients to making these virtual communities work is a chat function that lets students continue their conversations in whatever virtual environments they go to. Chat should be either synchronous or asynchronous, giving students the freedom to respond whenever it suits them. And chat should exist inside of learning management systems so that students don’t need to switch platforms just to communicate.

Increased flexibility campus-wide

Professors and students loved the flexibility that came with virtual office hours, and this same flexibility can be applied to other offices on campus. Students have intermittent business in the registrar’s office, the admissions office, tutors’ and teachers’ assistants’ offices and other offices. Getting questions answered and business done generally involves making appointments and walking across campus.

With the same concept that professors use for virtual office hours, these other offices can create virtual environments that are essentially “digital twins” of their actual offices, introducing the kind of flexibility that higher education has never known before. Some matters will always need to be handled in person. But a wide range of student concerns can be successfully addressed in a virtual environment, and with the same asynchronous chat functions. Students are already used to this style of chat from social media platforms and are used to digital environments from the explosion in consumer technology. As time goes on, they will increasingly want these digital capabilities from their school experience.

Not all teachers were disappointed with technology as the year 2020 forced us to transition our vocation to software programs that were designed for the business community. Some of us were grasping—and even building—new technologies that can amplify and enrich the in-person experience.

Professors should be demanding that our education system makes use of some of the exciting edtech platforms that exist today, because it’s just a matter of time until our students are demanding it.

About the Author:

Dr. Narine Hall is the co-founder and CEO of InSpace Proximity Inc. InSpace is a video conferencing platform built by educators for educators that brings collaboration and engagement to virtual meetings. Dr. Hall is an educator, expert in machine learning, data-driven entrepreneur, author and Champlain professor who has dedicated her career to improving the way people and machines learn. Her career has evolved in the intersection of tech industry and academia.