Filling the Void: Online Community of Practices in Higher Education during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kendra Haines

Author

Kendra A. Haines

Affiliation

Cape Breton University

Email

Cbu21jhh@cbu.ca

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic forced postsecondary institutions across the world to abruptly transition into emergency remote teaching March 2020. Cut off from their on-campus learning communities, many turned to social media to ‘fill the void’. Overnight, faculty were tasked with addressing the challenges of engaging and teaching a student body that is also suddenly online, and teaching in a delivery modality that they had not agreed to at the start of the semester. As campuses across the world closed temporarily to slow the spread of COVID-19, faculty lost their in-person academic communities. The purpose of this literature review is to explore the use of social network sites as an online community of practice amongst faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic regarding pandemic pedagogy.

Keywords

COVID-19, Community of Practice, Online Community of Practice, Social Network Sites, Pandemic Pedagogy, Higher Education, Faculty

Overview

Video resourceFilling the Void: Online Community of Practices in Higher Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic (08:14).

Introduction

“The university is transitioning to provide only essential services as directed by Public Health. Over the next 48 hours, we will be scaling down operations to only those essential to the delivery of courses by alternative methods and business continuity processes. All in-person classes are suspended from March 16-20, 2020. This time is to be used for faculty and staff to prepare for the transition from in-person instruction to “distributed” or “fully online” instruction from March 23, 2020 until further notice.”

This announcement to faculty at an Atlantic Canadian university was echoed at institutions across Canada and around the world as the coronavirus pandemic rendered classroom gatherings unsafe.

During the spring semester of 2020, postsecondary institutions around the world suddenly found themselves in uncharted territory. A novel coronavirus, COVID-19, first identified in China in December 2019 began to rapidly spread across the globe. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The sudden shift to remote teaching and learning in the spring of 2020 was rapid and dramatic. In the following days, as part of a move to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections, postsecondary institutions were shuttered. Dorms closed and students were sent home. Faculty were informed not to return to campus, and in some cases locked out of buildings. Instruction abruptly shifted from in-person to online forcing postsecondary faculty to quickly pivot, learn, and adapt to new-to-them instructional and pedagogical methods. Social media was alight with the frustrations, confusion, and eventual resignation that was to be the new reality of higher education.

Many postsecondary institutions extended spring breaks to allow faculty to prepare for moving their courses online. Most classes were drastically altered as part of the new emergency remote teaching (ERT) reality (Hodges et al., 2020). Colloquially termed pandemic pedagogy (Ebner, 2020) this shift led to the reconsideration and reconceptualization of pedagogical approaches, including the use of current and new technologies and instructional techniques for remote teaching and learning. While this transition was difficult it has forced postsecondary institutions to reconsider what the purpose of teaching and learning is and how courses can be designed and delivered. Even as emergency restrictions are being lifted and campus life returns to ‘normal’, there is a general recognition that pre-pandemic pedagogical practices cannot simply be restored.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced postsecondary institutions across the world to abruptly transition into emergency remote teaching: instructors struggled with the sudden arrangement of online education (Sahu, 2020). Cut off from their on-campus learning communities, many turned to social media to ‘fill the void’. The purpose of this literature review is to explore the use of social network sites as an online community of practice amongst faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic regarding pandemic pedagogy.

Literature Review

Within postsecondary teaching and learning circles, discussions about how to shift pedagogical and instructional modes were occurring, albeit not on campus. Although online class offerings have steadily increased in popularity, there are still many faculty who, prior to the pandemic, have not undertaken online teaching. Overnight, faculty were tasked with addressing the challenges of engaging and teaching a student body that is also suddenly online and facilitating in a delivery mode they had not agreed to at the start of the semester. As campuses closed temporarily to slow the spread of COVID-19, faculty lost their in-person academic communities, essential to “brainstorm ideas, to discuss teaching practices, and to problem solve situations” (Tucker & Quintero-Ares, 2021, para. 1). Navigating through online teaching and learning may be daunting and challenging for faculty especially if it is done without support from their academic institution or departmental community. Faculty facing the new realities of a physically distanced existence turned online to fill the void.

Social Networking Sites: Creating Connections

Social networking sites (SNS) have been found to be a purposeful virtual platform for instructors to seek out additional professional development (Carpenter & Krutka, 2015; Lantz-Anderson et al., 2018; Luo, Freeman & Stefaniak, 2020; Trust et al., 2020) and to connect with fellow instructors. Twenty-four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, literature, although limited, is emerging on the use of online communities during a global pandemic. SNS played a significant role in bringing faculty together as a community to discuss their frustrations with the new ERT reality, to ask questions, share ideas in transforming traditional instruction to ERT, to grieve the loss of their on-campus community, and celebrate the successes (Aguilar et al., 2021; Chen, 2021; Dam, 2022; Greenhow et al., 2021; Gregory, 2020; Schwartzman, 2021; Trust et al., 2020). These online communities provided a means for faculty to maintain socio-emotional connection (Kanekar & Sharma, 2020; Davies, 2021) and opportunities to build relationships, develop networks, which can reduce feelings of professional, and personal isolation.

Online Community of Practice

Community of practices (CoP) are “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002, p.4). Community of Practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) is based on Bandura’s (1976) Social Learning theory. A community of practice describes the informal communities that are created by people to share their knowledge, ideas and practices in a common domain or topic. In the context of higher education, faculty in the same academic department can be considered a CoP in that they share the same interest and passions. They may meet regularly, formally, or informally, or exchange emails and messages on internal sites such as a departmental Microsoft Teams site. These meetings enable faculty to share their experience and knowledge and may lead them to discuss and achieve solutions to issues. Therefore, “a community of practice can drive strategy, generate new lines of business, solve problems, promote the spread of best practices, develop people’s professional skills, and help companies recruit and retain talent” (Wenger & Snyder 2000, 139).

Some CoPs meet in-person while others are connected primarily by virtual means (social networking, email, message boards, etc.). These CoPs are known as an online community of practice (oCoP). An oCoP is a platform that “attracts professionals operating in a specific knowledge domain, who share a common problem, interest, or topic” (Bolisani et al., 2020, p.72). Participants in an oCoP, much like in a CoP share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems. This is apparent in the free-flow discourse in posts and threads that took place across SNS throughout the pandemic. It is important to note, CoPs whether face-to-face or virtual, are not new in education. However, online CoPs have been revitalized during the pandemic, as a response to Covid-19 challenges imposed on faculty (Bolisani et al., 2020).

From the earliest days of the pandemic, oCoPs assumed a critical role on faculty’s response to the pandemic. Within hours of the announcement of campus closures social media groups were created to provide a virtual community for faculty who were physically cut off from their campus community (Schwartzman, 2020). SNS on Facebook, Twitter, Discord and Reddit quickly became oCoP hubs where faculty members could gather to discuss and debate pedagogical strategies, ask questions about technology tools and their use for teaching, obtain guidance on how to deal with student mental health issues, and to receive emotional and professional support (Dam, 2022; Trust et al. 2020; Ulla & Perales, 2021). Collaborative spaces open to community building and informal learning have shown positive results for faculty support (Tucker & Quintero-Ares, 2021) and provide faculty with an opportunity to “reinvent themselves as educators [by] experimenting, reflecting, discussing, and assessing” (Sturko & Gregson, 2009, p.36) their pedagogical praxis. The above mentioned informal social spaces, created learning opportunities that were essential to brainstorm ideas, discuss pedagogy, problem-solve issues, and develop positive relationships with colleagues to seek and offer feedback. While in general the support provided was positive, there were many recorded instances of gaslighting and marginalization of concerns.

Themes in the Literature

While research has examined the relationship between professional development and the benefits of informally developed online teaching CoPs (see also: Coutinho & Lisboa, 2013;  Gerken, Beausaert & Segers; 2016;  Gray, 2005; King, 2011; Lantz-Andersson, Lundin, & Selwyn, 2018)  limited research has examined the impact of SNS as oCoPs for postsecondary educators during a global pandemic (Dam, 2022; Davies, 2021; Reed & Dunn; 2022; Schwartzman, 2020; Trust et al., 2020; Tuffnell, 2021; Tucker & Quintero-Ares, 2021). Faculty communities can be effective mechanisms for navigating change, during a time of crisis. Given the online nature of social media groups they can bring together isolated faculty who may be the only person with a given interest at their institution or those who have cut off from their in-person academic community due to COVID-19 restrictions.

With little time to plan for a transition to ERT and limited on-campus supports, instructors sought out pedagogical tips through social media channels (Trust et al., 2020; Tucker & Quintero-Ares, 2021). Participating faculty soon donned the additional ‘hats’ of subject matter experts, instructional designers, and educational technologists sharing their knowledge. Groups on Facebook (Meta, 2022) such as Higher Ed in the Pandemic, Higher Ed Learning Collective, STEM Faculty Blundering Through Remote Teaching in a Pandemic, and Pandemic Pedagogy were created. Hashtags of #RemoteLearningChat, #PandemicPedagogy, #PedagogyInAPandemic, #COVEdStories, and #CoronavirusSyllabus united the academic twitterverse. Faculty wary of Facebook and Twitter (2022) found refuge in postsecondary communities in Discord (n.d.), Reddit (2022) and Slack (2022). SNS not only provided faculty an avenue to hold conversations about how the current pandemic crisis was influencing their pedagogy and to share experiences of remote, digital, and adapted instructional methods and approaches but, perhaps for the first time, helped form a global professional learning community. Almost two years later, these communities continue to offer pedagogical, professional, and personal support.

Pedagogical Support

OCoPs quickly became a central point for faculty who were struggling pedagogically in the transition to online learning limping towards the semester finish-line. Faculty turned to these communities to obtain pedagogical support and advice from faculty who previously taught online or were actively teaching online prior to the switch to ERT (Tucker & Quintero-Ares, 2021). OCoPs served as a “learning space where [faculty] can contribute knowledge and learn from each other [affording] them with knowledge and skills for professional development, especially in times of health crisis, like the COVID19 pandemic” (Ulla & Perales, 2021 p.8) and to provide solutions for instructional obstacles faced by faculty. Pedagogical support posts varied from discussions about teaching modalities (synchronous, asynchronous and hybrid), creation of teaching materials suitable for online teaching and learning, sequencing, re-sequencing, and pacing learning to ensure students are not overwhelmed, uploading materials to an LMS, designing authentic (formative) assessments, to strategies to build rapport with students online.

Remote Teaching Modality

One of the biggest challenges discussed within the SNSs was the shifting in-person courses to remote instruction, which can consist of synchronous, asynchronous, or a blend of both forms of online instruction (Chen, 2021; Sahu, 2020). The merits of synchronous, asynchronous, and hybrid learning were highly debated with faculty voicing concerns that online learning mandated an entirely new approach – even though online learning has been occurring for the last thirty years – to the pedagogical process, requiring knowledge, skills, and other competencies they have no experience with and concerns about keeping the same level of rigor.

For the majority of faculty, this might be their first time employing online education as the primary mode of instruction and may face difficulties in creating and facilitating an engaging, positive, and supportive online learning community for their students. OCoP members posted their thoughts and experiences teaching in synchronous and asynchronous modalities sharing what has worked, what has not worked, and the best practices being suggested by their institutions. Synchronous learning was often harshly criticized (Damn, 2020; Schwartzman, 2020) highlighting systemic inequities between students: those who had the available technology and space to learn and those who did not. Faculty had to consider whether students had access to equipment, software, and other tools needed to complete remote learning and assignments as many students were now cut off from campus computer labs.

Academic Integrity

The issue of academic integrity is not a new to online learning (see: Gibbons, Mize & Rogers, 2002; Fielden & Joyce, 2008; Kleinman, 2006; Jones Roberts & Hai-Jew, 2009; Lanier, 2007; Lee-Post & Hapke, 2017). Faculty raised questions and concerns about how to deter, or limit the ability of, students from cheating on quizzes and tests online. Many faculty shared their experienced dealing with student academic integrity (Gregory, 2020) as cautionary tales for other members. Debates on the use of online proctoring services such as Respondus (2022) and TurnitIn (2022)  created division amongst oCoP participants. Eaton (2020) comments, “in terms of academic integrity, there is a robust body of literature to show that contrary to popular myths, there is actually less academic misconduct in online courses compared with face-to-face delivery” (p. 81). Even though research indicates there is less academic misconduct, faculty were on high alert running assignments through textual analysis systems to ensure plagiarism or paper mill buying was not occurring. Some faculty went as far as joining sites such as Course Hero (2022) and Chegg (2022) to search for uploaded course content.

In her analysis of the Facebook group Pandemic Pedagogy, Gregory (2020) found faculty took two approaches to dealing with incidents of academic integrity: follow standard institutional procedures or use the incident to educate students as to the norms of higher education. Educators shared “stories of how they chose to educate rather than punish… others shared how students misunderstood the nature of plagiarism” (p.21). Gregory (2020) found that faculty members had to “get softer” (p. 21) on incidents of plagiarism as it was becoming apparent students lacked education regarding the nature of plagiarism and how to avoid it. Many faculty resorted to having students submit their essays through Turnitin, which would then generate a similarity report. Students then had to revise their submission and fix all issues for credit (Gregory, 2020). Using Turnitin, and similar textual similarity comparison tools does not negate the need for direct instruction from the instructor on plagiarism, what it is and how to properly cite and paraphrase resources.

Modifying Expectations and Student Compassion

A great deal of conversation occurred regarding modifying expectations. Opinions about revising academic expectations and taking the students’ learning environment and mental state into consideration (Dam, 2020; Schwartzman, 2020) was a topic area often discussed in OCoP. Faculty members shared their strategies on how they were reducing course load through simplifying, consolidating, or eliminating assignments, adjusting submission dates (Chen, 2021; Dam, 2022; Schwartzman, 2020) and providing ‘grace’ to ease the burden on their students who were also thrust into a learning environment they did not sign up for.

Interconnected with the theme of modifying expectations, is student compassion. Student compassion, across the literature, describes how educators expressed and addressed concern for student well-being – including mental health – during the pandemic (Carey et al., 2020; Dam, 2022). Many instructors noted how overwhelmed their students were feeling with the sudden shift to online learning (Dam, 2022; Davies, 2021; Schwartzman, 2021). Posters often expressed “concern for their students or advised others about how to look out for them” (Davies, 2021, p. 7). The theme of pedagogy of care (Rose & Adams, 2014) became a central concern amongst faculty as they navigated how to best address the socio-emotional needs of their students who were now learning remotely, often isolated from their peers and learning community.

Disruption to Academic Work

SNS became a safe haven for faculty to discuss their struggles keeping up with the performative requirements of being a ‘good academic’. Davies (2021) examined the use of memetic media as a commentary on how faculty perceived “the ways in which contemporary academic life is performed, particularly in the ways that these performances combine multiple facets of life, knowledge production, and work” (p. 4). Davies (2021) found academic tweeters tweeted about their struggles with keeping balance between teaching, research and service, the emotional toll of remote learning, finding the motivation to write, feelings of despair and demoralization and feeling unsupported by their institutions, and adapting to the new normal of not only remote teaching and the demands of remote teaching, but also juggling the demands of homeschooling. With professors having even less time to pursue and maintain their research activities due to increased teaching loads and service expectations related to the pandemic, many were risk for falling even further behind in their career advancement, especially women who are mothers.

Conclusions

During a pandemic, community is vital to combat professional isolation during significant changes in course delivery. Learning communities create a comfortable environment to brainstorm goals, discuss barriers, and learn new digital tools to support their teaching (Baran, 2016; Hutchison & Woodward, 2018). The formation of OCoPs on SNS were prompted by a pandemic. The current pandemic revealed even in times of crisis, faculty desire to connect and learn as part of a community. OCoPs lessened faculty anxieties and concerns about moving to online classes, helped them deal with issues, listen to their stories, and share their experiences in online teaching. OCoPs allowed faculty to get support from their peers and remain connected to a wider academic community. OCoPs encouraged social connectedness between faculty members (Bolisani et al., 2020; Carey et al., 2020; Dam, 2022) Faculty who joined SNS groups, not only provided each other with academic related support, but also social support through encouragement, sharing their frustrations and successes, and building a community of connected academics (Greenhow, Askari & Brandon, 2020). Within these groups, stories about personal COVID-19 experiences, mental health, self-care advice, countless academic related pandemic pedagogy memes, concerns about their academic futures, and even if they wanted to continue to pursue an academic career were shared.

The pivot from traditional classroom teaching to online teaching has had a profound effect on postsecondary education and on instruction. As COVID-19 precautions rolled out across campuses, faculty were required to drastically change their teaching strategies and to critically question not only their personal beliefs on pedagogy, but also institutional beliefs. Faculty were cut off from their in-person learning communities left to navigate their reflection of current practices alone. For many, the past twenty-four months have been a time of great instructional upheaval and growth. What has become clear in the discourse is the pandemic has required faculty to consider online pedagogy as a new alternative to in-person facilitation, if not the new normal.

This literature review was conducted to investigate the role of faculty oCoP in the context of online teaching during the COVID19 pandemic, it has its own limitations. The context of the literature review examined currently available publications related to oCoP, SNS, and higher education fauclty experiences. As postsecondary education is still experiencing ERT due to COVID-19, limited research was available to examine the impact of online CoPs and SNS for postsecondary faculty members during a global pandemic in comparison to k-12. It is expected further research will be produced examining the role of oCoP and SNS as postsecondary institutions transition back to on-campus learning.

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