Connectedness in the News

As you know if you read this blog regularly, I follow a number of experts. I try to share their thoughts, insights, and more as we all strive for transformation of higher ed.

This weekend, I started to watch a series of tweets by and around @PhilOnEdTech and his website. As much of a truly objective observer and pundit for ed tech as there is, Phil is not only a super nice guy, but really knowledgeable. He has worked in and around the eLearning space for decades and is not only an expert, but a strategist.

So it is with that lens that I want to augment a conversation which Phil promoted, because it feels incomplete to me. While Phil was not on the panel itself, the article about it (by one of the panelists - Kevin Kelly) was fed through his site.

Before anyone who was at the original panel writes me a nasty-gram, I realize I may not have all the facts. I was not there, only being able to see a recording and reading second hand info through tweets and the aforementioned article (https://philonedtech.com/online-student-community-what-do-they-need-from-us/) and more. But the topic of the panel was community, with a specific nod to connectedness, and since this is the Institute for Inter-Connected Education….

The panel itself included some students, but also Mr. Kelly and Pat James (former Executive Director of the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative).

I will start by saying that nothing in the panel conversation was wrong or misguided. Again, it just felt extremely incomplete to me. But first, let me try to show you an apt analogy.

From time to time, I blog about weight. Something near and dear to my heart, it took me 30 years to find a strategy for weight loss that actually worked. Why? Because much of the advice out there is so short-sighted.

Specifically, let’s talk about calories in / calories out. There are people with some degree of credibility who will swear by the idea that losing (or gaining) weight is just math. You need to expend more calories than you take in and you will be in a deficit. End of story.

But it’s not the end of the story. The book, “The Obesity Code” (Fung, 2018) illustrates through dozens of large-scale studies that focusing only on calories in / calories is incomplete. There are too many other systemic variables that both compete or have the ability to overtake the calories measurement.

Sleep is one. Walker (2019) explains in, “Why We Sleep” that the lack of sleep can specifically cause a person to not lose weight, no matter how many calories come in or go out. Types of calories is another. Fung explains in The Obesity Code that the impact of calories on insulin can have a genuine and even prolonged impact on the body, regardless of the number of calories you eat. In other words, consider this. If 1600 calories is a deficit for a person, imagine that person eating 1600 calories of vegetables, 1600 calories of meat, and 1600 calories of chocolate bars with soda. Studies have been done such as this finding that one group will lose weight, one group will stay the same, and one group will gain weight.

See what I mean? Calories in / calories out is incomplete.

Which brings us back to the panel on community. When talking about community and connectedness, it surprised me that so much of the conversation was around academics, and so little was…well, everything else!

LonelyStudent.jpg

As I have pointed to through dozens of blog posts here, there are countless studies which show that students drop out and / or fail out of school for reasons other than academics. Loneliness comes to mind immediately, seeing a healthy part of the student population leaving because they have not found any “connectedness” at the institution. Note, this is not specific to what they find in class, but in a far more holistic sense.

Yet this panel, much like many, many schools I have encountered over time, expect that community is driven largely, if not entirely through the academic experience. Incomplete!

Think about it. When was the last time you were thrust into a short (8 week, 12 week, or 16 week) project with a group of people, coming out of that experience having made genuine friends who would stick with you for a long time after? Or perhaps thinking about the professor, put it into your terms. Have you ever had a boss for a short time only? Say, 6 months? Is that boss still a close friend and confidant? Probably not.

We put students into classes and expect them to find “community” there, when some classes are just hurdles to actual interest, others are with people they may not like, let alone find commonality with, and some with leaders they do not respect or admire. Why?

For years I have performed a series of workshops for institutions around small group projects. I’ve blogged about it too. Students hate them, professors hate them, and yet the business world wishes their employees knew how to use group projects far, far more effectively. So what is the problem?

There are any number of issues professors struggle to mitigate such as how to assemble groups in the first place, how students manage their projects with transparency and accountability, and how we do (or usually do not) allow for peer assessment while still assessing people authentically. But part of the equation is also sticking people together who have little in common, with no real time to build community so as to overcome the hurdles of incongruence.

Students who are super organized and on time are always seemingly paired with those who procrastinate. Students who care deeply about grades are often paired with students who like the creative part of the project, not caring about the outcome. Students who work at night are often paired with those who have mid-day availability. We take these disparate student types and force them to work in a hyper-shortened timeline, but then we also tell professors to ensure that they build in community at the same time.

And don’t forget, we do this one class at a time. No program that I have ever seen builds group skills over time, seeing scaffolding take place from the first year to the last year. In other words, students never learn in one class about small group organization, about ideal role types in another class, about how to lead vs follow in the next, etc. No, if a professor wants to create a group experience, they must do it in the silo of their single class, because unlike the K-12 experience, there is no legitimate, practical curriculum map in higher ed.

The result? Panels such as this one telling academics how to create community and connectedness for students in a single semester. Should academics augment connectedness work done in a more institutional, holistic way? Of course. But so much emphasis is put on all of this happening in the classroom, it is unrealistic. It is incomplete.

Let me re-tell a story in conclusion.

I had just given a plenary session to a group of Nursing faculty for their Fall convocation. After, I took a seat at the back of the room and watched the rest of the meeting. The Dean stood up and uncovered some easels that were standing off to the side. Each had the name of a professor (in the room) at the top - all of the program’s profs were there. Behind the easels was a table, on which was placed every student in the program, by name and with their nursing ID picture.

The profs were asked to stand up and guess which faculty, from a recent student survey, the students had said “cares” about them as people. Caring, as I have argued, is a factor of connectedness.

I watched, mesmerized as faculty started to try and place students on their boards. (One board was for “None” by the way.) There was definitely a moment of discomfort when the professors realized that well more than half of the students were not on a board, so they started randomly pulling students to add.

Once the task was complete, they sat down and the Dean started to speak again. She noted that only a handful of students were still left on the table and would be transferred to the “none” board. But then she did something else. She turned the “None” board around. It was full of student tags she had placed there earlier based on the surveys. She then brought up a PowerPoint slide with the faculty names as headers, under which were the surveyed students names.

Less than half of the students felt “cared” for by the professors and two profs specifically held 2/3 of those names. Two profs had only a single name underneath.

Unfortunately, with that, the group broke for lunch and I was not able to see the afternoon workshop they held to work through all of that. But I did notice the grumbling of “unfair” and frustration as we walked out of the room.

Look. Asking faculty to help students feel as connected as possible is great. It’s obviously far more powerful once a student is in a program, but even then, I hope you see that it is incomplete. There is simply much, much more to the student experience outside of the classroom that matters.

Students, in order to feel connected, need genuine support. That means finding a person to answer a question quickly and receiving that answer in a reasonable amount of time. (Not a week or a month or never…) To feel connected, a student (or any person for that matter) needs to find something at the institution they care about. That might be a person, but it might not. It could be a cause, an event, or a group / club / organization. Will some students “connect” to their academic program? Of course. Will some not? Of course! But they might connect to the athletics or a philanthropic experience or a culture.

Telling a student to “connect” to academics is incomplete and disingenuous, at best. Yes, it will work some times, just like calories in / calories out will work for some people. But promoting other options and opportunities to connect, find support, see information, build relationships, and more…that is connectedness. But if you are relying solely on your faculty or an academic system (like the LMS) to make that happen…you’re dieting with chocolate and soda pop.

Good luck and good learning.