The webinars and group discussions around this topic got me thinking about how I would like to create effective online/blended learning. One of my group members introduced me to a new word: mechanisms (thanks Ziad!). As I understand it, mechanisms are the big-picture strategies which we use to achieve our goal. For some reason, as the discussions progressed, the mechanism that most interested me was to provide safe spaces for students to collaborate with one another: asking questions, providing answers and solving problems together.
Creating safe spaces in online classes can be more challenging. On the surface, misunderstandings are arguably more common (perhaps because of the lack of non-verbal cues) which could potentially lead to conflict. Deeper down, students may feel less connected, making it harder for them to build trust and form bonds with one another. Many factors make it more difficult to establish a sense of community in online classes, especially with large classes. Yet, I believe that it is critical for educators to create such safe spaces online.
When students feel safe…
- They are more likely to participate in class discussions, ask questions, and express their opinions (Bongey and Goff 2017). This is particularly important in blended learning environments, where students may not have as many opportunities for face-to-face interaction with their teachers and peers. Safe spaces help students to feel more connected to the learning process and to each other.
- They are more likely to experiment, take on challenges, and take risks (Ladwig and Eilers 2017). This is particularly important for developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and to develop their confidence and to become more resilient in the face of failure.
- They are more likely to feel a sense of belonging in their classroom or online learning community (Schleicher 2018). As we explored last week, a Community of Inquiry can positively impact students’ motivation to learn and to achieve. It can even build relationships that will last beyond the four walls and four years of the university classroom.
Currently, I’m exploring different processes (another new word for me… thanks again, Ziad!) for successfully creating a safe space for students in blended learning environments. A few ideas that were discussed in my group and that came up from the webinars particularly resonated with me, and I intend to try them out in future.
The first process: I would like to be intentional in providing opportunities for students to build relationships. This could take the form of icebreaker activities, collaborative projects, and small-group discussions. Importantly (and rather self evidently now that I think of it), the students need to have enough time to engage in these activities. They also need to be low-stakes enough that students feel less pressure and more free to be themselves.
The next process is to set clear expectations for behaviour and communication, both online and in person, e.g. having guidelines for respectful dialogue, constructive feedback, and inclusive language – basically to be nice to one another! This could do two things: (1) stimulate engagement from students who may be initially unwilling, and (2) prevent future problems. My personal behaviour can also be an example for establishing norms, such as encouraging students to share their thoughts and ideas, and to listen to others with an open mind.
Third: I will endeavour to provide feedback and support that is constructive and encouraging. By recognizing students’ strengths and celebrating their successes, I can help to build their confidence and to foster a growth mindset that encourages experimentation and risk-taking.
Bongey, S. A., & Goff, E. (2017). Creating a Safe Space for Online Discussion in Higher Education. Journal of Education and Practice, 8(12), 38-46.
Ladwig, C., & Eilers, K. (2017). Creating Safe Spaces for Critical Thinking: A Qualitative Analysis of Student Feedback on a Team-Based, Interdisciplinary Learning Intervention. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 17(4), 16-33.
Schleicher, A. (2018). Educating learners for their future, not our past. ECNU Review of Education, 1(1), 58-75.