What Learners Really Think About Informal Virtual Learning Spaces


Suzanne Dove, Patrice Torcivia Prusko and Jennifer Cutts are all well-known scholars/practitioners in teaching and learning centers and in the world of learning innovation. They met through the HAIL network.

Jenn is the Director of Curriculum and Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Kenan-Flagler Business School at Chapel Hill. Suzanne is Executive Director of the Badavas Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Bentley University. Patrice, whom I have known forever from HAIL, is the Director of Learning Design, Technology and the Media, Teaching and Learning Lab at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Together, they conducted research to understand learner decision-making and behavior vis-à-vis participation in virtual informal learning spaces. Patrice, Jenn and Suzanne agreed to answer my questions about their research.

Q: Tell us about your project: why did you decide to dig into it?

A: Many universities refer to spontaneous, unscripted collisions outside of class as a way to meet and connect with others, exchange ideas, build relationships and community, and build a social network and professional that will last a lifetime. As the COVID-19 pandemic prevented many residential universities from allowing large in-person gatherings, we became interested in the growing number of virtual meeting spaces and technologies that attempted to replicate these in-person interactions, including in part of the student learning experience next to the classroom.

The problem statement we started with is: what makes informal virtual learning spaces meaningful to learners? In a physical setting, interactions can happen naturally and organically by chance (hallways, cafes, etc.). In a virtual environment, what design decisions matter?

We decided that it would be useful to have a framework in which to start exploring this question. The task-to-do framework used in Michael Horn and Bob Moesta’s book, Choose college (2019), was a useful framework for understanding, at the micro level, why students choose to interact and what they really value. Instead of using a survey to ask students what they want, the to-do approach asks people to describe their actual behaviors. Since we know humans often say they want one thing but do another, this is a useful tool for digging deeper.

We therefore asked ourselves: to what extent is the meaning of a virtual space for informal learning determined by the adequacy between the motivations of the learner (his work to be done) and the way in which the virtual space is configured? How can we be intentional and thoughtful when designing virtual interactions?

As the pandemic enters its third year and the possibility of continued localized outbreaks forces universities to plan for a future in which large in-person gatherings will not always be possible, these questions remain relevant. Why do learners choose to engage in spontaneous interactions and other school-wide events? Can we recreate them virtually? If so, how?

Q: What have you learned in your conversations with learners so far?

A: The task-based framework helped us discuss with learners their motivations for engaging in informal learning experiences held virtually during the pandemic: why they did or did not participate, how they felt about the experience, what mattered most to them. Some of the recurring themes we heard included:

  • Learners felt that many virtual events did not meet their needs, did not match what they valued. People we spoke to said they noticed a lot of effort from event organizers to replicate an in-person experience in a virtual modality rather than re-imagining the experience.
  • Adult learners told us that their universities don’t always seem to consider learner convenience when planning events.
  • Students who took an entirely online program at a university that also serves residential learners noted the feeling that “we are treated like second-class citizens.”
  • One of the jobs that many learners talked about when explaining what they are trying to accomplish through their college experience is getting a rewarding job when they graduate. Learners told us that tailored opportunities to network with peers and alumni are important in this regard. A number of people also said they would like to spend more time with faculty and described the value of the faculty mentoring offer.
  • Another task at hand that we noted in some of our conversations with students is the effort to build professional and personal identity while attending college. Undergraduate students told us that they decided to invest time in attending virtual events when they knew it would specifically target their areas of interest (career goals, personal interests, etc.). They were looking for something customized for their own particular needs or goals. And beyond that, it seems that the way they spend their time is a way of reinforcing for themselves what their own values ​​are.
  • All students are more selective about “what I do, when I do it”.

Q: As universities return to more residential experiences and strive to define a new normal, virtual options seem to be diminishing. Do you think virtual options still have a role to play as part of a residential campus experience? What opportunities and challenges do you see?

A: Yes, there is definitely a role. Residential and online learners tell us they want flexibility and options. Starting with an awareness of the different jobs that different learners may try to do, universities can create virtual options with this in mind. A question we’re thinking about now is “Coming out of the pandemic, how can university leaders stay engaged with their learners to better understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and then design virtual spaces that respond to those needs ?

For example, many students value the community of peers they will meet during their program. So, virtual events for admitted students can be a way to create that sense of belonging and community even before students arrive. It also signals a supportive environment for students who might have caregiving duties or financial constraints that make it difficult to visit campus. Here’s another example: some universities struggle to offer niche career events that appeal to small subgroups of students whose interests differ from those of the general learner population.

A virtual event can be a lower cost option for the university to bring alumni or industry speakers into an informal learning space and create an opportunity for a small group of students to explore this career choice. . Many residence students live in spaces that are not geographically close to the center of campus. They may have many obligations outside of their educational program: holding a job or internship, playing a sport, or facing other obstacles that make it difficult to easily access campus events. With fewer and fewer students fitting the mold once considered traditional, virtual options offer a way to increase choice and, where appropriate, increase access for an increasingly diverse set of students. learners to connect and build community with each other.

Some of the imperatives we now see for universities are to take the time to really understand the needs of our learners and what they value; help students, as well as faculty and staff, develop both the mindset and the skills necessary to succeed in either modality; and invest resources accordingly.


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