Digital Sanctuary: New-Fashioned Hospitality, Slack and More

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).

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.

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

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!

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