Getting to know people at the start of an online course

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You are a teacher, standing in a physical body in a physical classroom. It’s 8:55am on the first day of a new course. Your adult students shuffle in, take out their pens and paper and sit quietly; some of them make small talk as they wait for the first lesson to begin. You sit on a desk near the computer waiting for the clock to hit 9, and count roughly twenty students. As the clock reaches 9, the curtain goes up and you give a brief welcome talk.

In that first lesson, you’re faced with these twenty students who don’t know each other. It’s a given that you want them to socialise and start to bond as a group, and for the most part, students are with you on this: they also want to get to know each other. But it’s right here that you hit a tension.

Part of the teacher-student relationship is that the teacher gives the students activities. On that first day, the students are sitting there waiting to be given an activity, and the teacher naturally wants to respond to that expectation. This creates the living nightmare known as the Getting To Know You activity.

Maybe it’s because I’m English, but I have always found these things excruciating. I still remember my first drama lesson in year 7, where we had to describe ourselves with an adjective that had the same first letter as our first name (for example Funny Fred, or Cheerful Charlie). I winced inside as people went round the circle describing themselves. I didn’t want to describe myself as Nice Nick, because that seemed kind of lame. I certainly wasn’t Nasty. I think I went with Nifty in the end, but was profoundly unsatisfied with this as a description of my personality.

Years later, I would use all sorts of getting to know you activities in ESL first lessons. Find Someone Who, The A-Z of Me, The Rizla Game. You could put the students in groups, make them mingle ambassador’s reception style, or have everyone in a circle speaking to the group. It was usually fairly awkward, but there was a good pedagogical justification for it: you want the students to practise speaking English, and this gave them a good reason to do so. The fact that it helped the students to socialise was more of a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone thing.

So take a different situation. You’ve got a class of twenty students, all adult and not studying a language. In this situation, a getting to know you activity is excruciating for the precise reason that it assumes we don’t know how to socialise on our own. I often feel vaguely patronised and insulted when I’m given a getting to know you activity in the form of a game. I’m an adult now; this isn’t a year 7 drama lesson. I’ll get to know the other students like I would anywhere else – chatting in between class time, in the canteen, in the pub. I like going round the room hearing brief introductions from people (name, job, where they’re from), but please, don’t make me stick a post-it note on my forehead and mingle on the first day of a course.

Online

So that’s that problem solved… until we go online.

Socialising online is at least as complex as socialising in person. In some ways, it’s a lot weirder because it’s a much more consciously controlled process. Take your appearance, for example. We categorise people by how they look, so in a way, appearances are the first stage of socialising. By the time you look at a person’s face and clothes, you’ve already started deciding whether you want to talk to them or not. But in a forum or on Twitter, you don’t see people as they are. You see a little square avatar that they have consciously chosen to represent themselves.

Secondly, getting to know people online often takes place in writing. This is vastly different to the experience of getting to know someone in speech, for the simple reason that your words are recorded. I wonder how you would feel if you were having a pint with your new course members, and as you sat at the table everyone put their dictaphones on the table. You see six red LED lights staring at you from between the glasses as you casually tell everyone where you grew up and went to school. That’s what introducing yourself on an online forum is like. You can take part, but you know your words could come back to haunt you. As a result, you’re more cautious, guarded – and maybe more thoughtful – about what you say. Oftentimes in academia, this is a good thing. We want people to be thoughtful about how they express their ideas, and it’s useful for us when people’s ideas have been recorded. The only trouble is, this sort of recorded discourse is a real pain in the ass when you want to get to know someone informally.

Thirdly, it’s now common for online interactions between two people to be public. This is a really bizarre change to our conversations when you stop and look at it. It’s commonplace for me now to read a conversation between two people I barely know on Facebook or Twitter. It would be weird for me to step in and join the conversation, but I can see the exchanges happening right there in front of me. It’s like a kind of mundane theatre with its own form of self-censorship. Anything private is off limits, even though it’s really one person talking to another. How do you bond with someone when you’re on a stage? If you want to discuss anything remotely taboo, or – heaven forbid – talk about someone else, you have to go underground into the world of Direct Messages or Chat.

So how should online courses deal with initial socialisation between students? I’d like to suggest three ideas.

(1) The first step of socialisation in real life is appearances. This is replicated online with our ubiquitous profile pages. In an online course, I think profile pages should be encouraged, almost to the point of them being obligatory. They flesh out an online persona and turn it into a human, and they help us get to know each other.

(2) The provider of the course should give students a virtual pub/cafe. You want the students to have a social space online analogous to the student union bar; a place where they can meet with other students but where discussing academic matters is strictly optional. A problem when doing this online is getting the scale right. It’s hard to get to know anyone when you’re in a forum with 200 participants.

(3) Students need to have a space where they can talk off the record. Ideally, this would be a video/voice chat, which is generally assumed to be ephemeral and unrecorded (Edward Snowden leaks notwithstanding). On a side note, isn’t it interesting that Google chose to call their video-conferencing software “Hangouts”; i.e. they use the language of socialising, as opposed to the more business-like talk of “conference calls”. But then, mixing work with beanbags and groovy furniture is a big thing for the tech giants.

So there we go. I think course providers have a responsibility to help students get to know each other, just as universities have a responsibility to provide social spaces on campus. The more difficult question is how much the faculty should be expected to take part in the socialising itself.

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