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Suzanne Dove, Patrice Torcivia Prusko and Jennifer Cutts are all well-known scholar/practitioners in the centers for teaching and learning and learning innovation worlds. They met through the HAIL network.

Jenn is the director of curriculum and innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Suzanne is executive director of the Badavas Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Bentley University. Patrice, whom I’ve known forever through HAIL, is the director of learning design, technology and the Media, Teaching and Learning Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Together, they have been doing research to understand learners’ 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.

Q: Tell us about your project: Why did you three decide to dig into this?

A: Many universities point to the spontaneous, unscripted collisions outside of class as a way to meet and connect with others, exchange ideas, form relationships and build community, and create a social and professional network that will last a lifetime. As 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 those in-person interactions, including as part of students’ learning experience adjacent to the classroom.

The problem statement we started with is, what makes virtual informal learning spaces meaningful for learners? In a physical setting, interactions can occur naturally and organically by happenstance (hallways, cafes, etc.). In a virtual setting, what are the design decisions that count?

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

So we wondered: To what extent is the meaningfulness of an informal virtual learning space determined by the fit between the learner’s motivations (their job to be done) and the way the virtual space is set up? 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 requires universities to plan for a future in which large in-person gatherings may not always be possible, these questions continue to be relevant. Why do learners choose to engage in spontaneous interactions and other schoolwide events? Can these be recreated virtually? If so, how?

Q: What have you learned in your conversations with learners so far?

A: The jobs to be done framework did help us talk with learners about their motivations for engaging in informal learning experiences held virtually during the pandemic: why they did or didn’t participate, how they felt about the experience, what mattered most to them. Some of the recurring themes we heard included:

  • A feeling by learners that a lot of virtual events didn’t meet their needs, didn’t match what they valued. People we spoke with commented that they noticed a lot of effort by event organizers to replicate an in-person experience in a virtual modality rather than reimagining the experience.
  • Adult learners told us that their universities didn’t always seem to consider learner convenience when scheduling events.
  • Students who were attending a fully online program at a university that also serves residential learners noted a feeling that “we’re treated as second-class citizens.”
  • One of the jobs many learners talked about in explaining what they are trying to accomplish with their university experience is to get 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 mentorship faculty offer.
  • Another job to be done we picked up on 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 (professional goals, personal interests, etc.) They were looking for something customized to their own particular needs or goals. And beyond that, it seemed that how they spend their time is a way of reinforcing for themselves what their own values are.
  • All students are being more selective about “what I do, when I do it.”

Q: As universities move back into more residential experiences and work to define a new normal, virtual options seem to be diminishing. Do you think there is still a role for virtual options as part of a residential campus experience? What opportunities and challenges do you see?

A: Yes, there is definitely a role. We hear from residential and online learners that they want flexibility and options. By starting with an awareness of the different jobs that different learners may be trying to accomplish, universities can create virtual options with that in mind. A question we’re thinking about now is “Coming out of the pandemic, how can university leaders stay engaged with their learners to get a better understanding of what they are trying to accomplish and then design virtual spaces that meet those 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 build this sense of belonging and community even before students arrive. This also signals a supportive environment for students who might have care duties or financial constraints that make a campus visit challenging. 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 broader learner population.

A virtual event can be a lower-cost option for the university to bring alumni or industry speakers to an informal learning space and create an opportunity for a small group of students to explore this career choice. Many residential students live in spaces that are not geographically near the center of campus. They may have extensive obligations outside of their educational program: holding a job or internship, playing a sport, or facing other barriers that make it challenging to easily access events on campus. With fewer and fewer students fitting the mold that used to be thought of as traditional, virtual options provide a way to increase choice and, where applicable, increase access for an increasingly diverse set of learners to connect and build community with one another.

Some of the imperatives we see for universities now are to take the time to really understand the needs of our learners and what they value; to help students, as well as faculty and staff, build both the mind-set and skill sets in order to be successful in either modality; and to invest resources accordingly.

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