Sunday, November 8, 2020

The spaces in between - the intangibles of education

Even when a course is well designed with committed, inspiring teachers and plenty of support to students, there are some students who simply don't connect. While some are inspired, others lose interest and drop out. Some students simply can't find their motivation, maybe due to relationship problems, worries about family, finance or health. You can't please all the people all of the time but sometimes it's hard to work out what is missing. The keys to successful course completion are often connected with intangible factors such as mood, confidence, resilience, empathy, intuition, security and trust. These are very personal and hard to address but they have a greater influence over education than we might think. 

Tony Bates discusses this in a new post, The importance of ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. Sometimes a teacher gets a gut feeling that something is wrong or that a particular student is not fully engaged, even if there are few, if any, outward signs. The ability to recognise these feelings and react accordingly is crucially human; an element that cannot be replicated in the realm of artificial intelligence and analytics.

... I believe that we need to respect the ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. They draw on a uniquely human ability to recognise something that is not defined but recognised as important. Intangible knowledge indeed may turn out to be the singularity that separates humans from artificial intelligence. Thus the ability of teachers to recognise important ‘intangibles’ may be the main reason to keep them employed as such in a highly automated future.

These intangibles are part of the concept of social presence described in the community of inquiry model (Garrison 20112). Social presence covers factors that contribute to creating a sense of community in a course with trust, respect and open communication enabling collaboration. Without these elements, even the most carefully designed course and enthusiastic and competent teachers will have problems engaging the students. A further element in the community of inquiry model is that of emotional presence (see Cleveland-Innes & Campbell 2012) where a student's emotions towards a certain type of teaching, course design, teachers and fellow students play a major part in determining the student's ability to fully engage in the learning process.

These intangibles are also a major factor in the current discussions of hybrid and distance education in the wake of covid-19. Even when the online courses are well designed and the video meetings involve plenty of group work and student engagement, something is missing. This is even clearer in the hybrid teaching currently being employed at many institutions where some students are in the classroom with the teacher and others are connected via Zoom. The online students get the same content as their campus colleagues and are involved in group work, but once the meeting is over they are alone, whilst the campus students can continue discussing and interacting afterwards. This reveals the importance of the social spaces between lessons where students form their identity both as a student and as part of an institution. Without these meetings it is impossible to feel any sense of belonging to a community and developing loyalty. The online students who lack these opportunities will feel disconnected and more inclined to drop out. We lack a digital campus that offers students safe spaces to socialise and discuss across subject and faculty boundaries. 

Feelings of isolation and a lack of social interaction that can lead to health issues and drop-out are reported in a recent UK student survey, described in an article in Wonkhe, Anti-social learning – the costs of Covid restrictions on students. An interesting feature here is that the majority of students are satisfied with the quality of the online teaching but are suffering from the lack of social interaction between classes. The issue is not so much with online teaching but the spaces in between. Increased feelings of isolation and inadequacy lead to lower levels of motivation, lack of confidence and disengagement with the learning process. 

Meanwhile those happy with online teaching praise the individual support they get from academic staff or interaction with peers. Even where students do express being unhappy with online teaching, they often contextualise that as problematic because they have moved unnecessarily to the local area to experience it, rather than the online teaching itself being of poor quality. The findings remind us how important the social aspects of learning are – and how difficult they have been to experience for many students so far this term.

Many courses have extremely tight schedules where an enormous amount of content needs to be covered with a limited amount of time. Extra time for socialisation activities is hard to find but without it there will be the danger that many students will suffer as the pandemic crisis continues to unfold. How can we offer students more digital spaces for interaction and relaxation that in turn will increase their feeling of belonging and create a university identity? 


Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292.

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge/Falmer.

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