During lockdown there has been a lot written around online learning, and I think it would be a fair characterisation to say that the “great pivot” of 2020 was primarily a tsunami of “content push”. This is not a criticism, the response to emergency remote teaching was amazing, and every week we capture new stories from academics and senior managers of people who have done good things to engage students.
In the research that Donna Lanclos and I have done, interviewing academics, we have found that online content is not problematic, but many report they struggle to find a way to engage students. This was not something that was reported back in 2018 during a similar research project around teaching practices.
Also in our current research we have found that “social connectivity” is a problem for some staff, with many reporting feeling isolated and distant from their colleagues. This, as well as impacting on their well being, also impacts things such as creativity.
So, unsurprisingly, when we are supporting people in their practice we have often been asked things like how do you get an online community engaging. Well if you have a group of people who are online, but they are not engaging, I think the first thing you should ask is “is this a community”. And when we are in a pandemic, and you want to find a way to connect and engage with people, “starting a community” might not be the best idea. Communities take time and energy, and at the end of all of that time and energy you still may not have a community!.
This week I am delivering two webinars – one on “remote working in an emergency or location independent working?” and one on “social connectivity during lockdown”. Both webinars are looking at some of the key aspects of what we have learnt about ourselves during a time when it is harder to connect with people.
And, in both there have been questions about engaging as a community, especially for those people who are struggling and feeling isolated. I don’t have answers. I have been “location independent working” for nearly 20 years. I had to develop a mindset and skill set.
The skill set is reasonably easy, skills to use the tools that we associate with online, the ability to work at a distance from others, to collaborate and communicate. These are the key skills to working remotely. They are not hard.
The mindset is more complex. I needed to develop a working pattern that was productive. I needed to ensure that I was visible and approachable online. But the most important one, for me, is the ability and behaviours around developing a network. Not a community, that wouldn’t work for what I needed, I needed a network of people to engage with as individuals.
Building that network is hard, it requires care and attention, and you need to be proactive. When I started working at sector level over 20 years ago I had very little knowledge about how the sector worked or who anyone was. I needed people, contacts, so I would schedule 30 minutes here or an hour there with people who were working on similar issues with me, at first they were part of my organisation, but as my network expanded so did the contacts from outside the organisation. Over time that network becomes a living organism, it interacts with you in different ways. And you can call on it when you need help, or ideas, or just when you are sat stuck. It’s for those times when you are in a building with others and you feel the need for a different perspective and you go to the kitchen or coffee space and see who is there, even if it is just to say hi to someone different.
During the lockdown the time I have put into that network has paid dividends, the occasional DM here, Skype chat, Teams call, or going to #EduCoffee, have all helped keep me productive during the pandemic, but more importantly they have helped my well being and mental health. The building of that network is also how I acquired the networking skills and confidence, and developed the digital skills to stay in touch with people.
A lot of attention and resources is given to “community” and it is important, but the more relevant thing, and the important thing to get across to both staff and students is to talk about networks and building them, and modelling them to those you work with. You can’t predict or force the creation of a community, those tend to be more visible in hindsight, or handed to you. People don’t always have agency around what community they belong to either, but they can have agency in the formation of at least parts of their networks.
Social connectivity, online engagement, remote working are all personal journeys, they all need to emerge through the contexts of the individual. For me the most effective tool I have is the network around me, and it’s also the one that’s taken the greatest investment.