Building and dwelling in online water education

The Coronavirus pandemic has generated a global and rushed migration online of education activities. This is a first post of a series aiming at reflecting on the long term implications of this process: can we build on these efforts to develop a coherent online education vision and strategy? As digital platforms become the space where we spent most of our time, I will begin with a reflection on two online courses I coordinated last year, inspired by Richard Sennett book “Building and Dwelling. Ethics for the city”.

 “At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never teach through Canvas all the time
But then I spent so many nights reading the help docs for so long
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along
And so I’m back
Students are gone
As all my colleagues try to figure out how they’re gonna get along
I should have kept up with the tech, not skipped that class on course design
If I’d known for just one second I’d be teaching all-online (…)”

Many of laughed at Michael Bruening’s I will Survive, Coronavirus version for teachers going online and shared it with colleagues. Indeed Michael, who is associate professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, found the right words and humor to describe what teachers all around the world – without forgetting students, and their families – have gone through in the past weeks: a massive and rushed migration to online education. To support this transition, tutorials, webinars and chats on how to use different digital platforms mushroomed. If you are still in need of those you can check for instance The Conversation’s 14 simple tips for better online teaching, or the Chronicle of Higher Education’s advises on Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start.

With this post I would like to start a conversation to put all these efforts into a broader perspective, reflecting on what we can learn from this experience towards the development of long term vision and strategies for online education. We cannot estimate when the pandemic will be over, but what seems already clear is that, even when it will be past, we will not go back to normality. This might be indeed a good opportunity for a much needed change of what we used to consider “normal”. Several analysis are already pointing at the fact that Coronavirus holds key lessons on how to fight climate Change. Some of the measures taken now might be converted into structural changes, for instance in terms of reducing international travels and mobility, smaller offices and working from home. More controversial are the processes and the state of exception under which these measures have been imposed. Will this curtailing of democratic procedures and individual freedoms also stay? And which will be the implications for academic life and education? Can we take this opportunity to critically rethink them? And how digital and online modalities of working and teaching – new to most of us – can be part of such endeavor? How can we play with them instead of succumbing to education distancing?

Building and dwelling in online courses

To kick off the debate, I will share my experience in designing and implementing two online courses last year. The first one was the online open course on Science communication skills for water cooperation and diplomacy developed within the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”. The second one was the MOOC Water and climate change in Africa offered by the project AfriAlliance. (Africa-EU Innovation Alliance for water and climate). While working at the latter, I was reading sociologist Richard Sennet’s book Building an dwelling. An ethic for the city. As the title clearly indicates, the book is based on the idea that “the built environment is one thing, how people dwell in it another”. While many would argue that these two –the built and the lived environment – should fit together seamlessly, our everyday experiences confirm that the way cities and spaces are built often does not correspond to the way we would like to live and dwell in these places. Richard Sennett explores how the notion of open can help to address the frictions between the build and the lived environment when planning urban spaces. Last year I thought that the parallel between the urban space and an online course could be intriguing. Now that our social life is mediated by all sort of digital platform, I found this even more relevant and appropriate.

Richard Sennett identifies five open forms that are present in the city. I will discuss how these forms can be translated in five memos for building and dwelling in online open education. These reflections apply in particular to online course that we label as “open”, understanding this label beyond the usual idea of free of charge courses that adopt open access material.

Synchronic

“Lucca” by Michael Kogan

When discussing online education the traditional opposition is between synchronous teaching – when a lecture or a discussion is streamed and students have to be present online at a specific time – and asynchronous, when a lecture – or other education material – is recorded and available online and student can take it at their own preferred time. There is widespread agreement about the fact that the latter is the preferred option, as it allows for more flexibility. This is particularly crucial in these times, when students’ routine has been upset by the quarantine and they might have to share their internet connection and devices with other members of the family, or take care of them. Such asynchronous kind of education is similar to what Richard Sennett calls a synchronic space.

For Sennett, open forms are synchronic, like a square where people can do many different things at a time. The opposite of this idea of synchronism are sequential spaces, like a stadium, a theater or a classroom designed for one specific purpose that attracts the attention of the attendants. Synchronic spaces invites for encounters and casual participation, like for instance a discussion forum in a self-paced MOOC with several hundred participants like the AfriAlliance one: course participants entered the forum at different times and exchanged with other people that were also randomly present around the same time. However, when planning online courses most of the time we think about sequential spaces, like a classroom, not synchronic ones.

The main risk of synchronic can be fragmentation. But “fragmentation can also be engaging, obliging people to use their eyes and ears, to move around, to be physically alert” (p. 208). Being both stimulating and disorienting at the same time, fragmentation can help us practicing how to deal with complexity. To do so, Sennett adds that synchronic spaces need to be marked in some way to provide some orientation. Who do we invite in our digital squares? Do we want to cater online the same type of students that usually enroll in our traditional MSc programs, or do we have in mind a different target? For instance NGOs practitioners working on the field and with little time to study and reflect on their work.

Thinking about synchronic spaces when designing our online course implies taking into account the plurality of the students we might encounter as well as the fragmentation of their professional life and daily routines.

Punctuated

“Egypt” by Ana Branca

Sennett argues that it is possible to give a space a character by punctuating it just as one would do with a piece of writing. An object like an obelisk can play the function of an exclamation mark! A crossroad, a roundabout or a corner can be considered a semicolon: you feel the need for a half stop to check out what is going around. A quote mark, like a bench, conveying the idea that “this is a nice space, there is something you can look at while having some rest”.

In order to provide the orientation needed to cope with fragmentation typical of synchronous spaces, also our online education environment have to be punctuated with such markers.A marker can been a pinned post in a forum, or a tag to be added to its posts. This is a sort of mini-obelisk that we used in our online course. But how would you design a bench in yours? Thinking about online courses as punctuated spaces means acknowledging that design and aesthetics of the interface we use matters!

Porous

“SpongeNetwork” by Tracy Candish

A building, like a sponge, is porous when there is an open flow between the inside and the outside, yet the structure retains the shape of its functions and form. Porosity is about the interaction between our online education environment and the rest of the web. How shall we plan porosity without losing the structure and form of our courses or without losing our students at all? There are small tactics, like opening hyperlinks in a new tab, and more strategic ones, inviting for back and forth with specific website.In the course on Science Communication Skills we invited some journalists who work with us in the project to give feedback to the press release that the students had to write as assignment. As assignment in the AfriAlliance MOOC, we invited the students to browse AfriAlliance website in search for material and ideas to develop a call for action on water and climate change in Africa. Later the best calls were also featured in two blog posts on the project website.

Being porous, in online education implies planning a flow in two directions: from the online course to the rest of the web, or to social media, and back…otherwise the course will not be porous, but rather leaking!

Incomplete

“Elemental” by Alejandro Alavena

Sennett observes that in almost every settlement in which migrants have squatted or settled, people become their own architects: they build their own houses piece by piece over time, as their fortune allowed. This is not only true for poor settlers, as we all tend to shape the spaces where we live according to our tastes and the evolution of our families. The main difference is in the degree of having to deal with incomplete forms. In online education, it is a question of tinkering with your own course, realising that – just as face to face course – it will be never completed: there is always some text to be adjusted, an example to be added, a lecture to be reviewed or an assignment to be tuned.

In online education students can be easily involved in this process, as there are multiple ways to digitally record their feedback. They can also become the architects of their own digital learning spaces. For instance in AfriAlliance MOOC, several students shared additional material or readings in the forum, while others switched to languages other than English to communicate more easily among themselves. The challenge is to ensure that the process is not disruptive, that transformation does not end up in deformation. One lesson I learnt is that in order to deal with incompleteness, online courses should be easily repairable. We tend to associate online courses to video lectures. However, video is a rather closed and difficult medium to repair: editing videos takes time, and unless it is carefully designed, a video lecture can be hardly used as a block in a course other than the one it was originally embedded in. Remembering that open online courses are always incomplete implies designing learning spaces that can be easily repaired.

Multiple

As there is not just one blueprint for the open city, there is not one single model for online open education. Open spaces are multiple. Richard Sennett illustrates this point through the idea of “seed-planning”. For instance, when commissioning libraries for several poor districts of the city of Medellin, the planners specified the maximum costs and the minimum standards, leaving to individual communities and architects to determine how each library would look like. The results was very different structures used in different ways and at different times. Similarly, being open in online education implies planning, coordinating, experimenting and nurturing diversity and plurality.

In the next weeks we will be spending most of our time on several digital platforms, experimenting different forms of online teaching, exams, thesis defenses and even graduation parties! I am looking forward to read my colleagues’ accounts and reflections on the variety and multiplicity of such practices to better understand together how to build and dwell in online water education.

Featured image by Tim Gouw on Unsplash


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of IHE Delft. He works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. Emanuele hosts the podcasts "The sources of the Nile" https://nilewaterlab.org/podcast-the-sources-of-the-nile/ and Water Alternatives Podcast http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/wat

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