Dialogue has been at the heart of learning since Plato’s academy was founded in the 4th century BC.
For centuries it has pushed students in higher education to go the extra mile, provoked them into seeing things in new ways and forced them to defend their own ideas.
However, the traditional forms of student dialogue have been profoundly disrupted by the digital revolution. In the same way that WhatsApp and Instagram message threads have now become part of everyday life for millions, student-to-student dialogue is increasingly taking place online rather than face-to-face.
These newly formed online communities create many possibilities for enhanced learning through online collaboration, but such digital platforms come with their own challenges.
Academics know how difficult it can be to connect with people face-to-face, so understand that creating an environment online where the shared horizons of students and educators can come together is even tougher.
Online learning can often descend into a sea of anxieties and frustrations, such as “Why has she not responded to my message?” “He is not pulling his weight here!” “Why has the approval not come through yet?” “How can they say that to me?” You are less likely to gain the understanding that sustains work in common when working at a distance from each other, and this needs to be recognised.
Managing these communities is also hard because you don’t have the benefit of eye contact, tone of voice and body language.Therefore, students – as well as lecturers – must notice and play close attention to nuances in how ideas are phrased and to consider in advance how a fellow student or tutor may react.
It is our responsibility as higher education professionals to recognise these difficulties.
We need to help find solutions by encouraging more collaboration and by creating a working and learning environment that nurtures teamwork, partnerships and cooperation.
However, we need to foster communities where students have a shared understanding and appreciation that they are from different places and with different backgrounds, while still feeling connected to each other. For instance, it makes a significant difference if one student personally invites another to contribute to a discussion. Welcoming and frank exchanges are imperative in promoting true collaboration.
Higher education institutions also need to reflect on the learning infrastructure that is in place and question whether it is fulfilling the needs of a collaborative environment.
Educators should be asking themselves: does the structure of the online forum for discussion actually provoke discussions that are both extended and diverse? How well is the platform for social media working – and to what extent does it integrate with the learning that is going on?
One concrete way that the University of Liverpool seeks to ensure this environment is in place is by requiring online students to make a series of follow-on postings in its online discussion forums and to have a facilitator modelling the desired postings. Working together can reach a higher plane when perspectives come together from students and staff based around the world, and a diversity of thought can thrive in the classroom.
The advantage is most apparent when a team of students work together on a common problem, whether it be computer science students responding collaboratively to a simulated breach in cyber security or education students investigating the leadership models that sustain effective change.
Within online-only programmes, collaboration is often specifically engineered within the learning environment, making it particularly beneficial to students. They are required to work together on assignments and to critique one another’s work. An online environment also makes it possible – each and every day – for students to interact and share knowledge and expertise with their peers from around the world.
For example, students studying public health can compare experiences of working within different global healthcare settings in order to devise responses that work in situations around the world.
This discussion and collaboration about issues that impact on various regions can add to the value of the learning.
Supportive infrastructure, diverse perspectives, and the individual commitments and expertise of learners – all of these need to come together if higher education is to respond to grand challenges that require extensive collaboration.
Peter Kahn is the director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Liverpool, where he is also the director of studies for the university’s online professional doctorate in higher education.