Galvanizing family and community action in support of children's schooling
By Yenda Prado UC Irvine PhD candidate, EdM. Harvard Graduate School of Education, BA Stanford @PradoYenda
Pandemic learning pods – intentional groupings of small cohorts of children for the purposes of socialization, education, and play – have garnered a great deal of debate. Presented as simultaneously being both an innovative and clever solution for families faced with remote learning in the COVID era - as well as a potentially problematic practice perpetuating existing educational inequities - opinions have varied depending on who is doing the podding and how the podding is being done.
This debate has been predicated on the notion that pods are a phenomenon largely centered on the behaviors of affluent, often white, suburban families in well-resourced neighborhoods. In this narrative, pods are positioned as exacerbating opportunity and resource hoarding, potentially draining public school resources, and exacerbating existing equity gaps. The positioning of pods as vehicles for inequity, while certainly a reality under specific contexts, centers one narrative at the expense of another: quite a number of these pods are being formed by historically marginalized, working class, families of color seeking innovative solutions for our children in the tradition of community organizing and parent co-op models. Learning pods are also being considered by many middle and upper class families of color as well as community-centered organizations.
Many families considering learning pods hail from under-resourced or historically marginalized communities that have a rich history of collective community organizing and resource sharing – including my own. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s ancestral farming community in the remote valleys of western Mexico: despite a relative lack of monetary wealth, inequities related to educational disparities were mitigated by collective action. My grandmother coordinated with local families to teach English to small groups of children in exchange for other tangibles including errands, light housekeeping, and companionship. The local mothers organized and took turns voluntarily providing catechism lessons to the children. These collective efforts were supported by the broader civic community. Multiple such examples, in the U.S. and abroad, of collective familial and community organization abound and predate the dominant conceptualization of learning pods.
In times of emergency and crisis, families and communities revert to collective means of survival. This instinct in part explains the current re-imagined interest in learning pods across a diverse swath of families and communities. That the onus to mitigate the potential equity gaps arising from entrepreneurial solutions, such as formation of learning pods, is being placed on individual, potentially marginalized, families in crisis is akin to blaming the victim for the flood. Systemic issues require systemic solutions and our energies are better spent considering how familial and community-centered solutions can be taken up and supported at scale by systems that have the power to mitigate systemic inequity. Towards this endeavor, organizations and employers at the local, state, and federal level, should be supporting parents in their endeavors to ensure their children’s educations by bringing innovative solutions to scale for all families.
To date, there have been several burgeoning attempts to scale the concept of learning pods at low or no cost in underserved communities. Recreation facilities, libraries, and community centers, in partnership with San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families, are aiming to serve over 6,000 school children across learning hubs stationed throughout the city. Brown University Education Professor Matthew Kraft has conceptualized the creation of a federally funded TutorCorps program, modelled after AmeriCorps, to address learning gaps resulting from school closures. In addition to districts partnering with universities to bring concepts like learning pods to scale, schools can also partner at the local level with their PTAs and local community resource centers to bring customized solutions and supports to families. California has a vast opportunity to bring these kinds of ideas to scale, for example, by partnering with district and county organizations via its 23 California State Universities, as well as the University of California system. At UC Irvine, our Community Education Fellows initiative investigates how we can equitably take innovative educational efforts – such as learning pods – and partner with schools to make them accessible to a broad range of families. We connect UCI CalTeach undergraduate students with families across our partner schools in under-resourced communities. This collaboration includes the Orange County Educational Advancement Network and local partners to implement equitable and community-driven approaches to taking alternative education options to scale. Our goal is to engage in equity work by using community-driven approaches to bring alternative developments and solutions – such as learning pods – to scale for families from underserved communities. Learning pods – when done in certain ways and contexts – can be a form of equity work that supports families and schools. When under-resourced, marginalized, working class, single parent households join forces to undertake community schooling endeavors – there is a real opportunity to proactively address inequities and for seemingly inequitable solutions to become equitable. This is especially true when organizations partner with families to offer support and infrastructure for organizing learning communities.Solutions to systemic inequities need to take root in the very systems that perpetuate those inequities. When families, particularly those that have been marginalized, come together in times of crisis to address their children’s needs – that becomes equity work. It is incumbent on all us to support their efforts by developing systemic solutions at scale to the current educational challenges. In doing so, we can honor the kinds of collective organizing carried out by my abuela and help ensure that all children have these opportunities now and in the future.
Students often find online learning more challenging than face-to-face courses due to the need for stronger self-directed learning skills and greater difficulties in enabling effective interpersonal interactions. How can online courses be designed and implemented in a way to better address these challenges? The Online Course Quality Rubric developed by the Online Learning Research Center aims to provide a systematic and descriptive benchmark for researchers and practitioners who are striving to develop a culture of high-quality college-level online courses.
This rubric differentiates itself from others as it identifies the unique challenges associated with learning in a virtual environment and provides details and examples of how to optimize the design features and instructional practices to ease the challenges in a more deeply-reflective fashion than is required by a yes/no checklist.
The full version of the rubric provides an overall description of the quality expectations and concrete examples. The abridged version only includes quality expectations to make it easier for the course instructor or evaluators to go through all the elements quickly.
By Sharla Berry, PhD Assistant Professor of Education Leadership – California Lutheran University @Sharla_Berry
We are pleased to have Sharla Berry, PhD, Assistant Professor of Education Leadership at California Lutheran University author our blog today. Dr. Berry’s research explores how students and faculty define and experience community in online courses and programs. She also examines the interpersonal, academic, extracurricular and technical factors that support and undermine online learning communities. In today’s blog she highlights some of the core findings of this research, and its implications for researchers and practitioners. The highlighted findings are drawn from two qualitative case studies. In the first case study, she draws on interviews with 20 students in one fully online doctoral program, as well as video and message board data from six courses (Berry, 2017). In the second study, she interviewed 13 faculty who taught in the same online doctoral program (Berry, 2018, 2019). In this post, she focuses on the tools and strategies that support community in online programs in higher education.
Finding 1: Faculty Can Employ a Range of Student-Centered Strategies to Cultivate Community Online
In a case study of one online doctoral program at the University of the West (pseudonym), students described their community as an interactive and supportive social group. They developed feelings of membership, belonging, and trust, which they associated with increased student engagement and retention (Berry, 2017). This community was fostered in large part by instructors’ ability to cultivate social presence in the classroom. To establish social presence, students must feel supported in sharing elements of their “real lives” in the online classroom, including elements of their academic, professional and personal identities (Garrison, 2011). Faculty cultivated social presence by using a wide-range of student-centered teaching strategies (Berry, 2017b). At the start of the semester, faculty would post warm and welcoming content to the course message board. In these posts, they would preview the course and also share information about their personal background and interests. Some faculty would even share photographs of themselves engaged in hobbies and encourage students to do the same. Activities like this helped students build rapport with faculty and with each other (Berry, 2017b). Once the semester was underway, the instructors used a portion of class time to allow students to share personal and professional updates. While some faculty were reluctant at first to cede class time in this way, students said that having some time to share personal accomplishments and work-related challenges helped them cultivate feelings of community (Berry, 2017b, 2019). Students noted that in an online class, you lose the opportunity for “water cooler discussions” that occur when people are in physical proximity. Therefore, it was important for faculty to be intentional about creating opportunities for “small talk” in the classroom.
Finding 2: The Format of Online Delivery Impacts Students’ Experiences
A core finding of my work has been that synchronous (compared to asynchronous) learning has a unique impact on students’ sense of community in an online program (Berry, 2017; 2019b). Several students had participated in distance learning in the 1990s and early 2000’s. They noted that asynchronous communication did not provide them with the same level of engagement and interactivity as synchronous communication. Further, all of the students in the study indicated that synchronous video played a key role in how they were able to connect with each other. Students were required to turn their cameras on during the synchronous meetings. Using a “gallery view”, students could see all of their peers and their instructor simultaneously. As a result of this increased presence (and accountability), students were more likely to be focused on the class than they would have been if their cameras were off. Using video also provided students with an opportunity to build community by learning about the lives of their peers. By seeing photographs, figurines and personal affects in the background, students were able to find similarities between peers and touchpoints for conversation (Berry, 2017b). In this way, synchronous video prompted more intimate interactions between students. These findings suggest that practitioners should consider opportunities for synchronous communication, including the use of video, when it is equally accessible to all students (Berry, 2019).
Finding 3: Faculty Need Support for Cultivating Online Learning Communities
In a case study of 13 faculty, I found that there was a wide range of faculty preparedness with regard to online teaching (Berry, 2018). Using the TPACK framework (Koehler and Mishra 2009), I found that some faculty had limited technical knowledge about how to operate a learning management system (LMS). These faculty benefited from targeted professional development that allowed them to tinker with the LMS (Berry, 2018). Other faculty, including early-adopters and self-taught technologists, desired professional development that focused on online pedagogy, which includes “deep knowledge about the processes and practices or methods of teaching and learning’’ (Koehler and Mishra, 2009, p. 4). It is here that institutional offerings were limited. Weekly faculty meetings formed a temporary substitute, as faculty used the time to discuss challenges associated with facilitating specific content online. However, faculty were unsure of different strategies to cultivate and assess deep learning in fully-online environments (Berry, 2018). There is a need for research and practitioner guides that address online pedagogy.
In this post, I have offered important considerations for teaching and learning online. Faculty may need to employ different teaching strategies and tools than they would in face-to-face classrooms. Drawing on my research, I have argued that online teaching can promote community through student-centered strategies. As practitioners make decisions about how to deliver online courses, this research urges them to consider the affordances of synchronous video. Finally, I found that faculty need professional development that is targeted toward their skill level, interest, and content area. Just as students find personalized teaching beneficial, faculty need personalized professional development to build online teaching capacity. This piece, and the related studies, provide starting points for researchers and practitioners who seek to promote a sense of community in online courses and programs.
Berry, S. (2017). Exploring community in an online doctoral program: A digital case study (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California).
Berry, S. (2018). Professional development for online faculty: instructors’ perspectives on cultivating technical, pedagogical and content knowledge in a distance program. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-018-9194- 0(0123456789
Berry, S. (2019). The Role of Video and Text Chat in a Virtual Classroom: How Technology Impacts Community. In Educational Technology and Resources for Synchronous Learning in Higher Education (pp. 173-187). IGI Global.
Berry, S. (2019b). Teaching to connect: Community-building strategies for the virtual classroom. Online Learning, 23(1), 164-183. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i1.1425
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.