Forging connections in these times

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Sunset WA

Wow! What extraordinary times we are in.

Like millions of people during this COVID-19 crisis, I have been on the steepest learning curve in navigating new ways of communicating with my students and colleagues. I am a teacher. A hands on, in-your-face facilitator of learning spaces. And I have always struggled with facilitating online learning spaces. It feels too remote, too impersonal, too disconnected. Through being connected to my learners in physical space and time, I know that I can fix just about any issue: if we’re all in it together, face-to-face, I can work to draw people into a little community of learning. I now ALWAYS begin my groups, no matter the length of the course (even for a one day session), with processes designed to reveal and forge connections. As reflected in my thesis (in-progress), this building of intrapersonal and interpersonal connections has always been paramount for me:

I’ve heard the saying ’Begin as you aim to continue’… often used like a fist on the table in the corridors of VET… ‘We will establish the rules that will guide your participation!’ Our intention was exactly this—to introduce the tone that would guide our learning spaces, our studies together. As has always been the case in my twenty years of teaching in the VET sector, we began at the beginning, however, not with a fist on the table. We began with connecting people and ideas and opening hearts to new perspectives on self, on learning and on teaching. Our rationale and methodology was grounded in a pedagogy of open-hearted collaboration and inquiry-based, transformative learning. We talked about the collaborative nature of the learning and assessment pathway and the ways in which teachers’ collegial participation could support each other and the group as a whole in succeeding; and our hope that sustainable communities of practice might develop through this collaboration beyond the course, and across the organisation. We encouraged teachers to connect both to each other through an open-hearted approach, and to themselves and their strengths to identify the contribution they could make to the learning space for the period that they would be studying together. Not a pedagogy of instruction and compliance so typical of VET, but a pedagogy of possibility.

I still facilitate teacher professional learning in vocational education and training (VET), and over the last 6 years this has been complemented with pre-service teachers’ learning in higher education. Within these contexts particularly, international borders are crossed, bringing associated challenges related to exploring, critiquing and embracing diverse ways of seeing and engaging in the world of learning and teaching. In physical classrooms where people come together in the pursuit of these new knowledges, I am comfortable in cultivating collaborative, open-hearted, inquiry-based pedagogies to support and optimise the process of social learning and critical inquiry. Sharing stories of one’s learning and knowing is central to the emergence of individual and collective knowing.

In these current times however, where all communication with our learners and colleagues is electronic in response to the social isolation required of COVID-19,  I find myself without the ease and comfort I have associated with personal physical proximity in my learning and teaching spaces. How does one optimally cultivate collaborative, critical inquiry in online spaces without the social, physical proximity of being face-to-face?

The most pressing issue for me during these times has been figuring out the logistics and technicalities of bringing together activities and processes designed to promote optimal engagement with the learning required of each space. I’m using both Adobe Connect and Zoom in various contexts, and am fortunate to be working with brilliant chief examiners ultimately responsible for meeting learning outcomes. Even though I’m quite sure my workload has doubled through this, I’m incredibly grateful for my own new learning as I collaborate remotely with my wonderful colleagues. 

Navigating online learning in such complex circumstances, while so absorbed by the logistical and technical challenges over the last months (including of course the ever-present challenge to our online connectivity from a system that struggles to cope with such massive global demands) has been—as for all involved in online teaching—exhausting. The students are all very understanding of the rapid learning curve we are all facing, and we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat, familiarising ourselves with the platforms and with new ways of learning together. The collaborative, open-hearted spaces of shared stories and knowing that have been central to my face-to-face learning spaces are slowly finding their way back as I find a greater sense of ease in this new environment, and I am now beginning to feel an awakening sense of community and connection in my online learning spaces. 

Forging connections in these times has been tough, and so many are facing enormous additional challenges as the impact of COVID-19 changes our world. Even through these tough times however, I see that it has been an incredibly uniting time. We are all in this together as a global community, and we are working towards the collective achievement of a shared vision. I am hopeful that we can hold onto this sense of community as we emerge into new ways of being – whenever that is, and whatever it looks like.

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