I went to Melbourne on the weekend. Partly to see my husband off – he flew out to San Diego for a few days – but also to meet some new students and catch up with older ones (that is, students who have been studying for some time).
I enjoy meeting new students and catching up with older ones. And they like it too. Studying, as these students do, online, can feel very isolating. Even though there are a gazillion ways to connect with others, it seems that we are socialised into thinking that formal education happens in rooms where people gather and converse – or at least listen. When you’re at home, and the washing machine is whirring madly in the laundry and the three year old is quiet so you know he’s up to something, and the dog just won’t stop barking, and the neighbour is mowing his lawn as slowly as he possibly can, it’s hard to feel like a uni student. Particularly when you never ‘go’ to uni. Uni is on your computer. You listen to a lecture, read some readings, respond to some questions. Does it even feel like learning? Where’s the active discussion, the debates around a particular stance on an issue, questioning others about their views? Where’s the catching up for a cuppa after class or sitting in the sun and talking about your understanding of the assignment task?
It isn’t the same when you’re online. When online happens at home, in the same space as the domestic chores, on the same table that is cleared at meal times so the family can eat together, on the same computer that your high school aged daughter needs to do her homework. You might not hear the voices of your classmates, or even the voice of your tutor. You read information on the screen and then go away to think about it, to determine how that information fits with your existing values and beliefs, or why it might not. You walk the dog and the three year falls asleep in the pram. You write a response, throw something out into the ether, wondering/hoping that someone will take notice, will read it, will respond. You want to feel validated and as if your voice has been heard, or at least you want to know that someone has read your thoughts.
Going to Melbourne helps students feel a little less isolated. They meet others in person, they hear other students’ voices, they see how they’re dressed and their mannerisms. They see me speaking, rather than just hearing me speaking. They develop a sense of connection with each other, with teaching staff, with the Faculty. They become more engaged. They know we care.
Supporting student learning is about empowerment. Teaching is about empowerment. Empowerment needs to be supported and valued – by staff and students.
If you’re a student and an opportunity presents itself to you to meet with others, please make the most of it. Encourage others to do the same. Building a community of learners takes time and effort and commitment and energy. It’s worth doing.