We had a conversation with Dr. Tendai Charles about the strategies he uses to promote and foster a sense of belonging, inclusion, and engagement in his postgraduate education courses at the British University in Dubai (BUiD). Thanks to professors like Dr. Charles, BUiD has emerged as a leader in accessibility and inclusive education in the Middle East, having been an early adopter of Blackboard Ally and the Middle East regional winner of the inaugural 2020 Blackboard Fix Your Content Day challenge.
Inclusive pedagogy emphasizes community as a conduit to belonging, but fostering a feeling of community in distance learning contexts can be a challenge. How do you approach the challenge of creating community in your online courses?
To foster a sense of belonging when learning at a distance, it is critical to structure opportunities both for me to build rapport with my students and for my students to build rapport with each other. In a face-to-face classroom, social interactions occur organically in conversations before and after class and during breaks. These kinds of informal interactions, however, are largely absent in online courses.
A lack of dialogue among students may be compounded by the faculty’s tendency to lecture when teaching online, and community cannot thrive in monologue. To generate dialogue through collaboration, I’ve implemented “team-based learning” (TBL) in my courses. On the first day of the course, students are placed in groups of four and exchange contact information. I take advantage of the “groups” function in Blackboard Learn with the Ultra experience to provide spaces within the course to collaborate with their group members for the term’s duration.
TBL’s underlying principles are that assignments should promote both learning and team development, and students should receive frequent and immediate feedback. How do you organize your course activities and assessments in accordance with these principles?
Each week, I provide students with a different team-based activity, which can be conducted either synchronously or asynchronously, depending on the assignment. For example, in one of my courses, groups must create a video exploring a learning theory and present it to the class. Each team has access to their own Blackboard Collaborate room for synchronous discussion of their topic and planning of their video, as well as a shared Google document for asynchronous note-taking and task delegation. Each group member records their segment individually, and then each piece is edited together into a single video that is uploaded and shared with the rest of the class.
Because both Blackboard Collaborate and Google Docs allow me to view a record of the interactions, I am able to authentically assess the process and provide formative feedback to the group. This allows me to ensure everyone in the group participates and that group dynamics are inclusive of all members. It also gives me an opportunity to learn about my individual students and deepen my rapport with them.
At the same time, some forms of participation and collaboration may not be totally visible to me in the Blackboard Collaborate recording and the revision history of the Google Doc. Designing for interdependence in group work implies that the final product cannot be completed without each member’s direct contribution. While I do not assign grades to group work, I can assess the final video submission both in how well the video explains the concept from my perspective as the instructor of the course and how effectively the video teaches the concept to other students in the class. This opportunity for peer-to-peer learning expands the connections of the class community from individuals within the group to individuals across groups.
The group video activity is also reminiscent of classroom “jigsaw” activities, where groups are assigned a part of a lesson and then asked to teach their section to other class members. Like with TBL, “jigsaw” activities have also been demonstrated to foster a sense of belonging because each member of the group plays an essential role not just within the group, but in the overall learning and advancement of the community. Can you think of any examples from your teaching where sharing new perspectives contributed to new understandings between peers?
Interactions with diverse group members can serve to challenge stereotypes and uncover hidden biases. Recently, one of my male students admitted to me that he had held the belief that women were better teachers than men, but were inferior leaders to men. However, his interactions with his group and the contributions of one particular woman in his group revealed to him that women were more than capable of being equally effective leaders. These are the kinds of hidden or unexpected learning opportunities that emerge through the guided social interactions of TBL, and they serve as powerful moments for bringing a community together through a shared sense of belonging and understanding.