Category: Academic Community

Digital Sanctuary: New-Fashioned Hospitality, Slack and More

Starbucks machine on first floor of Hurley Convergence Center, UMW.
Nothing says “welcome!” like a Starbucks machine.

The past couple of days at Digital Pedagogy Lab have me thinking about the confluence of hospitality (a point of southern pride at UA, and perhaps also here in Fredericksburg, Virginia) and the new-to-me-concept of digital sanctuary (introduced by Amy Collier; more below!)

Hospitality clearly means something here at University of Mary Washington.  Beautiful architecture, brick sidewalks and fountains delight the eye; covered walkways provide shelter on rainy days; librarians adorn their outward-facing windows with declarations of “we will help!”  The Hurley Convergence Center offers all kinds of space for gathering and building community (not to mention a Starbucks machine on the first floor).

Large golf cart with a sign that says "Digicart."
The Digicart awaits.


We at DigPedLab have been treated to a hot lunch every day in the student center cafeteria (even with school out of session!). A “Digicart” is ready to drive us when we need assistance, ensuring that no-one should struggle to be part of this group.  We have been offered pronoun buttons–they/them/theirs; she/her/hers; he/him/his–that help us not only signal easily about our preferred pronouns, but even more fundamentally hold space for any and all to be welcome and comfortable in their own personhood.

Pronoun buttons

Great care is taken at this event to respect the dignity of every person and I find that it actively models what we could aim to do not only in the face to face classroom, but in digital spaces as well.

Yesterday, we explored what Amy Collier terms “digital sanctuary“.  A central question was this: how do we create safe spaces online for our students?  For instance, to what extent do we honor their digital and/or internet privacy in the classroom, and to what extent does our institution have policies (beyond FERPA) that protect their privacy?

I found myself wondering how much of the information associated with the Google mail platform given to students as their official university email is held private, and how much is tracked by Google.  (The same question holds for my own children, who have each been given an official public school email account also hosted by Google.) Do students have the opportunity (or the knowledge) to opt out of any of Google’s tracking?  Are they aware of Google’s privacy and opt-out policies?  I am only just learning about these, having gone in search of them.

Here’s another line of questioning: how do we create safe online communities for our students? To the extent that an online class includes discussion and community formation, what ground rules or moderation can help establish civil and appropriate discourse?  And even more, is it possible for an online academic community to offer the depth of interconnection that leads to real human sharing of experience, thoughts and feelings around course subject matter?  In other words, can we find ways to offer a rich and meaningful interpersonal experience online that also embodies the values of personal safety, freedom to agency and embracing/acknowledgment of complexity that we would aim to foster in a face to face seminar?

The Innovation Team is beginning to push in this direction although we are admittedly still learning as we go.  Working with Sonya Dunkin (Director of Student Services in our college), we initiated in fall 2016 a Slack group to serve students students entering distance degree programs at UA.  They begin using Slack during their orientation course. We chose Slack for several reasons: first, it is a closed, private forum; second, with its position outside the LMS our students can access it easily regardless of their current state of enrollment (especially important given that distance students do not always enroll in courses every semester, yet retain their matriculation and their identity as distance students); third, the channels feature allows us to sort and direct certain kinds of conversation.

We wanted Slack to be that place where students knew they could just come be with other students like them; to use an architectural image from today’s discussion around a blog post/keynote by Mike Caulfield, Slack might be the hearth or the living room of their online experience!  As we launched, we quickly realized (sometimes dynamic design — recognize, adapt and respond [RAR] — is where it’s at!) that we would have to help them develop comfort in using it, and have them use it enough to recognize it as the locus of their online academic community.

To that end, we created assignments within the orientation course that taught Slack functions incrementally, and that prompted students to use Slack for a couple of strategic peer discussions.  In the first, they simply introduce themselves and say hello to their peers.  In the second, they share and respond to one another’s stated educational goals and priorities after going through a guided self-reflective process to identify these.

I have to admit I was rather amazed at first, and continue to be amazed, at the earnestness and vulnerability I see as our beginning distance students respond to one another along the lines of these prompts. The qualities of openness and humanity in their responses tell me that they very much desire a connection to academic community and to The University of Alabama, and that they wish to share something real and (appropriately) personal with their classmates.  Innovation Team and Student Services watch and moderate the discussion (answering questions that arise) although in a year there has been no need to offer correction or redirection.

Once students complete the orientation, they join a general channel for continuing distance students.  The conversation there, unprompted, often centers around folks making connections with others in the same degree programs, conversation and questions about the start of term, etc.  That is the newest channel added, and we look forward to seeing how it evolves.

I think our use of Slack is a step in the direction of digital sanctuary and I hope we can find more opportunities and means to stretch ourselves further along this trajectory for the benefit of our online students.  I would love to hear your ideas!




We Unconferenced, Now What?

On February 3, 2017, faculty and staff from 14 different colleges and over 25 divisions or academic units gathered for the first, annual University of Alabama Online Learning Innovation Summit.  Several participants remarked that this was the first time they had come together at UA to discuss online learning with such a diversity of disciplines and perspectives.

After a plenary session around online teaching, with a look at the projects of this year’s Innovation Scholars and Mentors, we broke into small group discussions around fostering academic community, communicating effectively with students, creating useful videos, using ThingLink, and user-generated media.

In the keynote by John Seely Brown, we were invited to consider for 21st-century learners the role of play and imagination, the importance of tinkering to stimulate lifelong learning, blended epistemologies in which learners create both content and context, and participatory knowledge strategies.

We heard from some of you after OLIS that you felt more encouraged to offer students a framework within which they can “tinker” or “play” to find more depth of knowledge, and that you were inspired to look for ways to allow students to participate more deeply in class activities.  One participant remarked, “I already focus on imagination and play in my courses, but I will do so even more and will guide students to reflect on how flexible thinking will help their future success.”

We’re providing you the OLIS Survey Results so you can learn how the unconference was experienced and what new ideas have emerged.  For an “in the moment” read, take a look at #olis2017 live tweeting, as well as the photo stream.

We look forward to exploring with you the potential outcomes (teaching ideas? tools? initiatives?) of OLIS and hope you will not only join us next year, but bring even more of your colleagues!  In the meantime, we would love to hear from you about how you are moving forward with exploration and implementation of new tools and ideas in your teaching.


What Innovation Looks Like

On January 26, 2017, eight Innovation Scholars and three Innovation Mentors were honored by the College of Continuing Studies (CCS) for their forward-thinking proposals to bring innovation to online teaching and learning.  Not long after, they served on a panel at the opening plenary session of the Online Learning Innovation Summit (#olis2017), jointly hosted by CCS, The College of Arts and Sciences, and UA Libraries.

The 2017 Innovation Scholars have proposed a range of projects aimed at increasing student engagement, building academic community and exploring emerging technologies in their online courses, and will work with the Innovation Team throughout the year to bring these projects to fruition. Innovation Mentors, recognized for the innovations they have already brought to their online courses, will be available to the online teaching community through posts on this blog, and in a fall workshop.  You can learn more about their projects here.  Subscribe to this blog for updates as their projects progress!

One of the greatest outcomes thus far has been the community that is forming around innovation in teaching, with all of its questions and possibilities. With two recent opportunities to come together, the Innovation Scholars and Mentors have not only shared their own projects, but have begun to explore ways in which ideas from one could be applicable to another–in other words, their ideas have the potential for multiple applications, and innovation is as contagious as we might have hoped!

Click here or on any of the reception photos below to see the full gallery. Photos taken at OLIS will be available soon. (If you would like higher-resolution versions of any of these photos, please contact the Innovation Team!)