Saturday, April 2, 2022

Some students just want to learn alone - when community becomes an inconvenience

Photo by Suganth on Unsplash

Most people learn well in groups or communities where ideas are discussed and new insights emerge in a collaborative process. We get energy and inspiration from others and develop in a supportive environment where there are common goals and a shared interest. However, there are a lot of people who find such collaboration daunting and prefer to study alone. The same applies to the workplace where the ability to work from home during the pandemic has led to a divide between those who enjoy the social interaction of the office and those who prefer the peace and quiet of the home office. Many studies of student experience during the pandemic show that the hardest part was the lack of social contact and sense of community. This is probably the main reason students chose to study on campus - the friendships, contacts and social events that come from that common experience. Online students, however, have a different perspective on their studies. They already have their social contacts and networks established where they live and see little benefit from all but the most necessary interaction with fellow students. 

This discussion is put into perspective by David White in a fascinating post, Belonging is inconvenient. When discussing student needs universities often assume that all students behave as campus students, what he calls a residential assumption

As we develop, or expand, our fully online provision it’s important not to fall into the trap of designing with ‘residential assumptions’. What I mean by this is that we can assume that online students will want what our residential students demand (or what they missed when things moved online). Part of that is the need for community and belonging.

We need to accept that there are many students who do not need the sense of community and are happy to learn on their own. Those who are combining study and work do so to get qualifications for their professional development and therefore want to learn what they need, get the certificate and move on. For them all the process of forming a community and working in groups is extremely time-consuming and offers little practical reward, in short they see belonging as an inconvenience. White discusses three modes of learning shown in the diagram below: independent learning, communal learning and networked learning. Independent learners are those who prefer to go it alone and see group work as a burden and distraction though there are some who do enjoy the experience given time to adjust. At the other end of this spectrum are the networked learners who already have their own personal learning networks and use them rather than imposed groupings in a given course.

These modes are of course very fluid but show that we are dealing with a diverse group when we offer an online course, especially the hybrid mode so often discussed today. Mixing campus and online students sounds like a good idea but they have very diverse perceptions and preferences about the course and how they learn. White suggests that we need to focus more on inclusion rather and offering a variety of ways to engage with the course.

We need to design on the basis that there are multiple authentic modes of learning for multiple communities of students. Not all of these require belonging and community but where they do we need to acknowledge that it’s hard work, time consuming, and that access-to-a-building or being-in-a-cohort is not a proxy for membership-of-a-community.