Creating and Assessing Learning in a Digital Classroom Community

Before COVID-19, faculty teaching traditional, face-to-face courses were already grappling with how to connect with students who prefer to communicate and retrieve information through mobile phones and social media. These challenges were magnified when the pandemic compelled colleges and universities to shift their educational delivery to online learning. Now, as many institutions continue remote learning this fall, two questions are particularly urgent: How can we digitally create an engaging community for students, and how can we effectively assess their learning?

Low-income students already beset by socioeconomic challenges and minoritized students affected by longstanding societal pressures will struggle more than most of their peers to persist, complete courses, and earn degrees via distance learning. Many of these students may face additional barriers to success including a lack of technology, lost income or increased work and family responsibilities, or unequal access to healthcare. For urban institutions like mine (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), ensuring the success of these students is both an ethical imperative and integral to accomplishing our mission. Creating a campus climate that addresses today’s unique situation will require creative faculty who are open, approachable, and resourceful as they plan how their content can be delivered to diverse student populations.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a well-respected instrument used by more than 1,600 colleges and universities, identifies five themes of student engagement that can be helpful as faculty plan their digital learning curricula:

  • Academic Challenge: students emphasize analysis and application instead of definitions and memorization.
  • Active and Collaborative Learning: students are engaged through class discussions, group presentations, and experiential learning.
  • Student-Faculty Interactions: students learn to think about and solve problems by interacting with faculty.
  • Enriching Educational Experiences: students have a variety of opportunities to integrate and apply knowledge.
  • Supportive Campus Environment: students are supported by structures that address academic and social issues.

While these themes are essential targets for any institution that wishes to give students a worthwhile education, they are even more important for institutions that serve large numbers of students of color, low-income students, or other students who must surmount barriers to their education even during normal times.

By following NSSE’s themes, institutions can engage students through digital learning communities that help students collaborate as they read and write about complex texts, find and analyze digital resources, and reflect on their learning with peers. Peter Honebein’s seven conditions for constructing knowledge are one possible framework to use when developing effective pedagogical strategies within such an environment. Below, I explore how these seven conditions could be aligned with a sample set of assignments based on Plato’s allegory of the cave, a philosophical thought experiment that examines how prisoners chained in a cave struggle to move beyond their imagined reality (represented by shadows moving on a wall) to see the truth of the world outside the cave.

Condition 1: Provide students with an experience of constructing their own knowledge. Instead of simply reading an assignment for class discussion, students can work together to analyze the text, form an understanding of its narrative and themes, and make connections to other texts and real-world events.

Condition 2. Provide engagement with multiple perspectives. In addition to reading Plato’s original version of the allegory and scholarly interpretations of it, students can watch a YouTube video with a strong visual representation of the allegory. They can follow this up by watching a clip from The Matrix in which the main character must make a conscious choice between becoming aware of reality or deciding not to know.

Condition 3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts. The faculty member can develop a reflective writing prompt using the basic theme of the allegory: the difference between illusion and reality. Students could be asked to reflect about how the allegory of the cave can help them interpret their experience with COVID-19 and racial justice protests. How, for example, could the world before COVID-19 be considered a shadow world, where protection from economic, social, racial, and health disparities was merely illusory?

Conditions 4 and 5: Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process and embed learning in social experiences. This assignment provides a social, collaborative opportunity for students to integrate their own experiences, real-world events, and literary representations with the classical framework of Plato’s cave allegory. Students find meaning in their day-to-day existence and gain practice in transforming abstract ideas into practical insights.

Condition 6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation. Students respond to the prompts through a digital narrative or sequence of blog posts, embedding video clips or news articles to support their arguments. To gain more practice in considering multiple perspectives (condition 2), students must respond to two of their classmates’ posts using multimodal evidence to agree or disagree with the perspectives.

Condition 7. Encourage self-awareness in knowledge construction. The final assignment in the project asks students to reflect on their work and on how they reached their conclusions and connected the allegory of the cave to COVID-19 and other real-world issues.

Faculty can use AAC&U’s Integrative Learning Value Rubric to assess the work that students produce in their digital learning community. VALUE rubrics can be tailored by faculty members to measure how students make connections between theories and real-life situations and between “relevant experience and academic knowledge.” Faculty using the rubrics can gather valuable data on students’ assignments and their responses to classmates’ work in order to see whether students are making connections, synthesizing ideas, and, most importantly, using theoretical concepts to understand experiences outside the classroom.

Unlike the reality constructed by the prisoners inside Plato’s cave, the benefits of this learning community project are not hypothetical. As part of a Predominantly Black Institution Grant from the US Department of Education to improve the retention and graduation rates of minority students enrolled in STEM majors at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus, we piloted a digital learning community similar to the one described above. The project, which asked students to apply the allegory of the cave to the Copernican Revolution, drew on NSSE’s five themes and Honebein’s approach to constructing knowledge. Faculty created an engaging digital community that connected students with their peers and professors through a digital dialogue about theoretical concepts and real-world events. What is more, this approach prepared instructors to assess their students’ ability to apply, analyze, and evaluate information. Of the students who participated in the two-year project, 98 percent were retained in their STEM majors and continued to graduation.

Video Discussion on Building Digital Learning Communities

Gladys Palma de Schrynemakers is interim associate dean for academic affairs/chief academic officer at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

This multimedia series is coordinated by M. David Miller (University of Florida), Tammie Cumming (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Gladys Palma de Schrynemaker (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), and Terrel Rhodes (AAC&U).

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