Education and online communities in the season of isolation

Education and online communities in the season of isolation

It’s quite the understatement to say that this year has been a unique challenge – but there are clear challenges still to come, and it seems exceptionally important for us as teaching professionals to assess the strengths of online teaching and understand the weaknesses.

It has been really encouraging watching people embrace the technology both at Solent and throughout the education sector and seeing a unique culture that it is forming. In degrees that are technology focussed, and catering to cohorts that are comfortable socialising online there need be no issue in ensuring that education during this uncertainty is excellent. What is important however is establishing and acknowledging what is left behind when our lives are moved online.

I am far from an advocate of overly proximal social contact (I’m clearly an introvert), even I can acknowledge a need to maintain a community within a student body. The issue of social distancing naturally creates isolation, anxiety, and stress among the students. Coupled with a population in which mental health issues are becoming more prevalent, this is an important element that cannot be left behind in the transfer of physical to online spaces. Particularly vulnerable are foreign students that are away from family and support networks, that usually have social structures to rely on during the term. Friends are important – as it turns out!

A student in the Discord server being smart.

In anticipation of this, I am a strong believer in online communities for learning (much of my recent HEA Fellowship application was about this). Not only does an institution need to provide learning resources, but foster learning environments online. We also need to acknowledge that this cannot be weaker copies of normal social interactions but needs to lean into what is really strong about online interactions – media, sounds, beautiful text, code, memes!, video games! This is the strength of the internet and the culture it has created.

“It’s like the best mashup of email, teamspeak, zoom and facebook – You’ve got the text comms, the private calls, the shared channels, the video/screen sharing, and of course the memes”

A student in my Discord server

To leverage this, I tried to employ the use of Discord in my Covid-19-proofed online teaching provision. Perfect for community creation, it allows rich media interactions, video chat, and permanent text chat. In contrast to many of the tools in use, it is available any time rather than specific “meetings” and so allows consistent and continuous chat. It also allows some nice features, such as screen sharing that supports the use of OBS (Open Broadcast Software) to allow webcam sharing and specific stream curation. This has allowed us to build a community in which we’ve been socialising and organising games to play as well as the daily classes.

Students have reacted positively to the use of the tool. Due to the fact that many of them use Discord socially already, they are very comfortable and happy with it. They also enjoy the clean interface, and well-coded apps for mobile, desktop, and browser. Since it’s free and requires no necessary installs, it’s extremely accessible to people with poor connections or lower power equipment. One student even mentioned that they feel more confident to use voice, as they use it often socially already. They also claimed to have less audio issues with the software.

At the height of the discord server, I had 124 members and a fairly lively and bustling chat. As the year is drawing to a close it has settled a little, but the chances are that it will serve as a social hub in the coming year.

“The ability to use voice and text channels is great. Used in conjunction with it’s screen sharing and/or something like Google Draw makes it fantastic for learning.”

A student in my Discord server

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