Nga Than

This blog post uses the ideas “community of practice” and “emotional energies” to explore the challenges that students in Data Mining, a graduate methods course at Hunter College, faced when the class suddenly switched to online instruction mid-semester because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. First, using the idea community of practice, I argue that the abrupt move to virtual learning made it difficult for students to build and sustain a community of learners with whom they could informally exchange ideas, bounce ideas against each other, and inspire each other. Second, conceptualizing that going to an in-person class is a ritualistic experience where students share emotional energies (Collins 2004), I observed that the online environment––as it happened in spring 2020 semester––did not foster emotional bonds between students and instructor, nor between students themselves. Additionally, my students were undergoing stress, anxiety and loss caused by the pandemic. Based on students’ reflections and my experience as instructor, I argued that both a community of practice and emotional connections were taken away because of the abrupt move to virtual instruction as we experienced during the second half of the spring semester, which made virtual learning difficult for both students and instructor.

The course that I taught in the spring semester of 2020 was Data Mining at Hunter College. It was a graduate methods course that prepared social science students with computational skills to conduct research. The class had 15 students, the majority of whom were master’s students, and the rest were honors undergraduate students. Since the class was computational, it presupposed that students had basic digital skills. The class was designed to maximize accessibility and flexibility for students. We used the R-programming language, a free open-source software that is widely used in scientific computing communities. Students had semester-long access to DataCamp, an educational platform, where they learned, practiced, and honed their data science skills. I also used Github to introduce the idea of reproducibility and that students are embedded in the larger data science community and other scientific communities. Furthermore, instead of using emails as our main communication tool, we used Slack to facilitate informal exchanges. Students could take advantage of this platform to send each other messages on different Slack channels and in private messages. Finally, two textbooks were available online for free, which ensured that students had access to learning materials anywhere. All taken together, the course should have presented few issues when transitioned to virtual instruction because of the usage of open-source software and free textbooks. However, I learned soon after the first two weeks of teaching virtually via Zoom that availability of learning materials and flexible scheduling did not guarantee a smooth transition.

First, my students were taken out of their normal learning environment. Social scientists use the concept “community of practice” to refer to an informal community where people exchange information and knowledge (Lave & Wenger 1991). This community was more difficult to establish when the class transitioned online mid-semester. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, students could talk with each other in person and have face-to-face interactions with other students inside and outside of classroom. After COVID-19, they communicated with each other via Zoom, Slack, or emails––our alternative platforms to maintain and build a community. Community building still occurs when the conditions are present. But, for virtual learning, this means that professors must provide students with platforms that allow informal conversations among each other and encourage students to engage in these interactions. These platforms allow some forms of community building but, in my experience in this spring, did not compare to the community of practice that can form off-line.

In terms of emotional interactions between different community members, before COVID-19, I could interact simultaneously with 15 students at once and get a feel from the group. After COVID-19, I could only interact with, at most, a few at a time. When I would ask if students were able to follow my lecture or to work on problems during the lab section, some would say yes, but most would not respond. It was frustrating to engage with students in these moments of unresponsiveness during a Zoom lecture. Sometimes I felt that I was talking to a screen. From an instructor’s point of view, Zoom flattens the teaching and learning experience to information and knowledge transmission. In this regard, Zoom did not really allow organic community formation and deepening of knowledge through social interactions.

My students and I had many communication tools at our disposal. But, based on student feedback, I found that these tools were not sufficient for an engaging and effective learning experience. Within the first couple of weeks of recalibration, my students had no trouble using Zoom, raising hands, and participating in classroom discussions. At the end of the semester, after a 20-minute workshop that introduced them to Screen-O-Matic, a screencast platform, they were able to create pre-recorded videos to present their research in class. Throughout the transition online, my students were willing to learn new tools and were able to use new digital tools to their advantage; one student wrote in her final reflection that her group “went on at least one Zoom call” to obtain data for the final paper, and “that was fun to do.” However, not all students took advantage of the different platforms available to them. Another student found it difficult to form a research group in an online setting “because of the online format of the class.” They went on to say, “in having physical classes, you are able to know who a reliable group member and communication is much easier.” Learning how to use digital communication tools such as Zoom and Slack to collaborate and create knowledge within the framework of a class was a new experience for most students. Some had cognitive overload when learning too many new tools in a short period of time, let alone taking advantage of them.

Online teaching and learning made visible the issues of community building and emotional connections between students and instructors that are fundamental to an effective learning environment. I was lucky to have taught a class, whose textbooks, software, and educational platforms were available for free to students, which made the transition online less challenging during difficult times.

As CUNY continues virtual instruction for the fall 2020 semester, I believe that we still have a lot of work to do to take full advantage of online education. As a community, we have started various initiatives such as the Cross-CUNY Online Teaching Essentials Workshop to prepare professors to embrace digital technologies and design virtual classroom experiences that allow for students’ creativity and engagement. During the summer, I spent time learning more about virtual pedagogy, virtual community, and digital tools for knowledge creation; I feel more prepared to embrace the many possibilities that the virtual environment can offer. For example, in Sociology of the Gig Economy that I am teaching this Fall, I plan to take advantage of the virtual environment to bring in speakers from California and Germany to engage with my students about the questions how gig workers are affected by COVID-19, and what the post-COVID world of work might look like. The virtual online platform allows for open pedagogy and different forms of engagement, which I was not aware of because of a lack of time to prepare fo this transition during the spring semester. With the new semester, we have had half of a year learning from our pedagogical experiences as a community, and I remain hopeful that we will be able to create unique learning experiences and creative pedagogical projects, which these unprecedented times and circumstances have brought about.

References

Collins, R. (2014). Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Contributors

Nga Than

Nga Than is a PhD student in sociology at City University of New York – The Graduate Center. Her research interests are in social media, computational social science, international migration, and sociology. As a mixed-methods scholar, she has conduct...

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