Delving into the Digital Campus: Learning – and Growing – in Community

By Kethmi Egodage, Design Researcher  

A photo of Kethmi, with a dark blue background. She's looking to the camera with long dark and red hair.

This blog post is the final post in the Delving into the Digital Campus series in collaboration with the Digital Community & Connectedness Project. It’s aimed at understanding how students find and make connections in digital spaces. Each post is a written reflection from our Design Researchers, sharing how the insights from their project has resonated with them in their own lived experiences. This post will discuss how the shift to online learning has impacted students, instructors, staff, and our design researcher’s own experiences at UofT.  

An illustration of a laptop

Zoom School. That’s a buzzword students have been using to describe the transition to online learning. With a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes and assignments, it’s no surprise that professors and students are overwhelmed and confused. Despite the best efforts made to continue providing a high standard of education, the question still remains: how do students feel about their community in the shift from in-person to online classes?  

Our Digital Community and Connectedness Team took on this question as a subtheme while discovering insights about student loneliness and isolation during this pandemic. Along with my own personal experiences, we found, not surprisingly, that students were often feeling disconnected and unmotivated more than ever before with online learning.  

An icon of a microphone

Along with feeling disconnected, students expressed concerns with the increasingly passive nature of online learning. They explained that the lack of engaged learning led them to feel tired and discouraged. Students also expressed their thoughts on how their online classes could be more engaging, as well as ways to empower students to further build upon their resilience during the pandemic. As we delved into both our data and our own experiences, it became clear to our team that empowerment was linked with student engagement and community.  

Students who feel understood and represented also feel empowered 

In my classes, I found that the professors that allowed higher levels of flexibility on assignments and projects enabled students to better balance their personal lives with their academics. With “Zoom School” being held inside the homes of each student, many found online school to be overwhelming. In a few of my classes, whenever professors allowed us to pick between assessment methods (a take home exam vs. a written paper analysis, for example) many of my classmates, including myself, felt as if we were being empathized with. Some professors even begun administering polls to get our opinions on the test formats and lecture deliveries, in addition to having feedback surveys open throughout the duration of the semester.  

An illustration of a ear and a conversation bubble

Having these opportunities to not only voice our opinions, but also to see our suggestions actually be implemented, made us feel more heard. And because we could see our professors trying to understand our stress by being as accommodating as they could, we felt the desire to be more accountable for our work and class participation. The conenction ebtween empathy, community building, and empowerment resonated in our research project as well. Thus, creating a community where there was mutual empathy and understanding allowed for better engagement.  

The importance of including everyone 

While the main focus of the Digital Community and Connectedness Project has been on highlighting student voices, it is just as important to address the reality that professors, teaching assistants, and other staff have their own hurdles of facilitating online schooling. While students have been struggling with finding community and managing their schooling, I’ve also noticed that professors have struggled with the isolation that comes with online lecturing, and the lack of opportunities to engage with their students.  

Two individuals collaborating together

This pandemic-induced situation is not an isolated experience; we’re all trying to make the best of it, and we’re all bound to make mistakes and fumble at the start. This is why it’s so important to build a community based on mutual understanding. Building empathy can help us understand the needs of people who experience online classrooms and digital communities each and every day. 

We can create opportunities to share feedback, to listen to the other side’s opinions, and to experiment with different models of education. Within this new reality that we are now experiencing, and how things will continue to shift and evolve over the coming months, we can start having conversations that highlight ways to make the best of the situation. And one way to start is by empowering everyone’s voices! 

If you would like to learn more about our insights from this project, please feel free to check out our full report of key findings, take aways, and design principles aimed at supporting community builders at UofT!  You can also take a look at our previous Delving into the Digital posts written by our other design researchers! 

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