Suzanne Dove, Patrice Torcivia Prusko and Jennifer Cutts are all well-known scholars/practitioners in the world of CTLs (Centres of Teaching and Learning) and learning innovation. They met through the HAIL network.

Jenn is the Director of Curriculum and Innovation at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Suzanne is Executive Director of the Badavas Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Bentley University. Patrice, whom I have known forever through HAIL, is the Director of the Design, Technology and Media, Teaching and Learning Lab at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Together, they conducted research to understand learner decision-making and behavior vis-à-vis participation in virtual informal learning spaces. Patrice, Jenn and Suzanne agreed to answer my questions about their research.

Q1. Tell us about your project: why did you three decide to dig into it?

Many universities refer to spontaneous, unscripted collisions outside of class as a way to meet and connect with others, exchange ideas, build relationships and community, and build a social network and professional that will last a lifetime. Like

the COVID-19 pandemic prevented many residential universities from allowing large in-person gatherings, we were interested in the growing number of virtual meeting spaces and technologies that attempted to replicate these in-person interactions, including in the part of the student learning experience next to the classroom.

The problem statement we started with is: what makes informal virtual learning spaces meaningful to learners? In a physical setting, interactions can happen naturally and organically by chance (hallways, cafes, etc.). In a virtual environment, what design decisions matter?

We decided that it would be useful to have a framework in which to start exploring this question. The “Jobs to be Done” framework used in Michael Horn and Bob Moesta’s book Choosing a College (2019) was a useful framework for understanding, at the micro level, why students choose to interact and what they value really. Instead of using a survey to ask students what they want, the Jobs To Be Done approach asks people to describe their actual behaviors. Since we know humans often say they want one thing but do another, this is a useful tool for digging deeper.

We therefore asked ourselves: to what extent is the “meaning” of an informal virtual learning space determined by the “match” between the motivations of the learner (their “Job To Be Done”) and the how virtual space is configured? How can we be intentional and thoughtful when designing virtual interactions?

As the pandemic enters its third year and the possibility of continued localized outbreaks forces universities to plan for a future in which large in-person gatherings will not always be possible, these questions remain relevant. To do what

do learners choose to participate in spontaneous interactions and other school-wide events? Can we recreate them virtually? If so, how?

Q2. What have you learned in your conversations with learners so far?

The Jobs To Be Done framework helped us discuss with learners their motivations for engaging in informal learning experiences held virtually during the pandemic: why they did or did not participate, how they felt about the experience, what mattered most to them. Some of the recurring themes we heard included:

  • Learners felt that many virtual events did not meet their needs, did not match what they valued. People we spoke to said they noticed a lot of effort from event organizers to replicate an in-person experience in a virtual modality rather than re-imagining the experience.
  • Adult learners told us that their universities don’t always seem to consider learner convenience when planning events.
  • Students taking an entirely online program at a university that also serves residential learners noted the feeling that “we are treated like second-class citizens.”
  • One of the “jobs” that many learners talked about when explaining what they are trying to accomplish through their college experience is getting a rewarding job when they graduate. Learners told us that tailored opportunities to network with peers and alumni are important in this regard. A number of people also said they would like to spend more time with faculty and described the value of the faculty mentoring offer.
  • Another “work to do” that we noted in some of our conversations with students is the effort to build a professional and personal identity while attending college. Undergraduate students told us that they decided to invest time in attending virtual events when they knew it would specifically target their areas of interest (career goals, personal interests, etc.). They were looking for something customized for their own particular needs or goals. And beyond that, it seems that the way they spend their time is a way of reinforcing for themselves what their own values ​​are.
  • All students are more selective about “what I do, when I do it”.

Q3. As universities return to more residential experiences and strive to define a new normal, virtual options seem to be diminishing. Do you think virtual options still have a role to play as part of a residential campus experience? What opportunities and challenges do you see?

Yes, there is definitely a role. Residential and online learners tell us they want flexibility and options. Starting with an awareness of the different “jobs” that different learners may try to do, universities can create virtual options with this in mind. One question we’re thinking about now is, “Coming out of the pandemic, how can university leaders stay engaged with their learners to better understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and then design virtual spaces that meet these needs?

For example, many students value the community of peers they will meet during their program. So, virtual events for admitted students can be a way to create that sense of belonging and community even before students arrive. It also signals a supportive environment for students who might have caregiving duties or financial constraints that make it difficult to visit campus. Here’s another example: some universities struggle to offer niche career events that appeal to small subgroups of students whose interests differ from those of the general learner population.

A virtual event can be a lower cost option for the university to bring alumni or industry speakers into an informal learning space and create an opportunity for a small group of students to explore this career choice. . Many residence students live in spaces that are not geographically close to the center of campus. They may have many obligations outside of their educational program: holding a job or internship, playing a sport, or facing other obstacles that make it difficult to easily access campus events. With fewer and fewer students fitting the mold that was once considered “mainstream”, virtual options offer a way to increase choice and, where appropriate, increase access for an increasingly more diverse learners to connect and build community with each other.

Some of the imperatives we see now for universities are to take the time to really understand our learners’ needs and what they value, to help students, as well as faculty and staff, to develop both the mindset and skills to be successful in either modality and to invest resources accordingly.

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