May 3, 2007

TEL@York Day 2: Keynote by Corey Goldman

Making Connections: Creating Academic Communities to Enhance Student Success by Corey Goldman
(Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto).

Another stimulating keynote speech, this one on how to build community among undergraduate students, both online and offline. I think there are some really important lessons here for academic libraries as we try to build online communities to try and engage students, to get them to contribute to the common good, to have fun and relax. Perhaps in an environment where not other campus player is stepping up to the plate, maybe the libraries can surge ahead.

The two programs Goldman talked about during the session were the BIOME online learning community for biology students and the FLICK (FLC), First-Year learning groups/study groups program.

The two things that the UofT are trying to improve are student success and student experience, both of which are getting very high priority and funding. Refer to the book Challenging and Supporting First Year Students. Student success involves developing intellectual and academic competence, eventually excellence in 4th yr. Establishing and maintaining relationships, identity development, developing program and career goals, diversity and civic awareness. The purpose of higher ed is knowledge acquisition for growth, preparation for employment, becoming an engaged citizen, meeting employer needs/concerns from interpersonal skills to integrity to knowledge base. What is student experience: enjoyment of courses both content and quality of instruction; satisfaction with grades, that they be reflective of effort; connection to campus community, clubs, teams, programs, etc; supportive campus environment, advising, IT, etc. What is a community: an organism, an ecological unit, interrelated.

The first year bio course, bio150. Highest 2100, currently 1700 in sections of 400 & 1300. Large class, even with tutorials not much opportunity to ask questions. 1998-2002 used message board, 2002-2004 online forum. Noticed that students liked on message board, talked about more than just bio150, liked it and wanted it to carry on with later years and other courses. So, they created BIOME online community: portal, message board, news, seminars, tools, student life. Most popular is chat/discussion rooms. divided by year, with some boards for particular courses. Also a free-form general board. Places to ask about phys, chem, math, ask a prof, ask another student, buy & sell, software is Is it successful? Hugely with great stats for usage. Perhaps losing a bit of usage to Facebook the last year or so. Even students that don't actively post gain a lot of benefit from reading. 1/3 do not use it at all, same number only read, and same are quite active.

Elements of successful online community:

  • target a well defined academic cohort, common experience drives usage
  • emphasis on student-to-student communication, little faculty involvement
  • social presence, general chat, relaxation
  • some rules: academic integrity, respect for other users & profs, very few problems so far, all minor
  • comfort zones, casual discourse
  • even lurkers learn
  • allow for identity & fun, avatars, signitures, humour
  • restrict registration to students, one reg per student
  • have administrators and student moderators
  • listen to and involve students

Disadvantages: addictive, distraction, cliquish, swearing/offensive language, inappropriate subject matter, anonymity, place to complain or brag, moderators abuse privileges. Advantages: advice from upper year students, get help & notes, meet people, relieve stress, "other people just like me", learn about various opportunities, interesting discussions ie venting/discussing VA tech, great for large class, friendship, community, like an extra tutorial. Main successes: supports individual & collaborative learning; build relationships; support for critical moments 24/7; support for f2f meetings. Students want BIOME expanded beyond first year.

Other program Goldman talked about, not as relevant to us here, was the FLICK program to encourage formalized study groups, get students connected & stay connected. Bio students. When applying to school, students indicate if interested. Put in groups of 24 all in same classes, labs, etc. Facilitated by upper year student & faculty advisor. Helps students to succeed in alienating first year, especially commuting students. Meet classmates, build academic skills, 15 sessions from sept - apr. Build strong friendships, lots of social activities, team spirit. Build skills & knowledge like time management, study skills, job search, health advice. Very positive assessment. Learning communities such as this really do enhance learning experience, students want to continue into 2nd year & beyond.

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