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Thinking about learning communities, transformational learning, and online course design

By Joe Hannah

The problem of earning students’ trust, and truly inspiring them toward a life of learning and service, is central to my sense of purpose as a teacher. As more teaching moves into the online environment, and with my limited experience, I am just beginning to imagine using exclusively online formats to foster self-revelation, human interaction, and personal growth. These are transformational activities that I try to nurture and that I consider pivotal in students’ exploration of unfamiliar ways of thinking and knowing.

Full disclosure: I have a combination of resistance and curiosity to online teaching and learning. It was precisely this resistance and curiosity that led me to choose the “hybrid” format when I jumped into online course design through Technology Teaching Fellows (TTF). I was not ready to teach a fully online course; I could not yet envision how online learning communities could be created in such a ways as to encourage transformational learning. Therefore, I decided to hedge my bets and create a “hybrid” version of my “Mapping Global Health” course. In the hybrid format, I hoped I could retain enough face-to-face time so the students and I could interact together, in real-space, to wrestle with the skills and concepts central to the learning objectives of the course. I did not feel ready, either by disposition or teaching skill, to rely solely on online experiences to build the kinds of relationships with students that are conducive to transformational learning

To illustrate the kind of transformational teaching I strive for, let me tell you about a success story: “Brad,” a former student, dropped by my office last week. He had been in my class on Global Development about 4 years ago and now was on his way to an interview for admission into the Masters of Education program here at the UW. Brad had been traveling and teaching English overseas, seeing the world and working on his teaching skills. I was honored that he took a few moments on his way to his interview to say “hi.”

Brad reminded me of a challenge I gave to the class on the last day of the course: I had asked, “What can you do in your life to make the world a little better for your being here?” He said he has answered the question for himself by deciding to be a high school teacher, and he is now pursuing his dream.

I tell this story because, as you might imagine, it was a moving moment for me. What more can a teacher wish for than to help a student understand the world in new and different ways – enough so that he or she identifies and commits to a life goal? These moments, rare and wonderful, are what I strive to create as a teacher.

As we all know, these moments are not made in a single lecture, with a single question. The challenge I presented to my students was only possible because of weeks of working and learning together, building trust and sharing difficult questions, overcoming issues and wrestling with ideas, in a fluid two-way interaction between me and the students. So, back to my question, can this kind of trust and transformation be inspired through purely online teaching?

I honestly do not know the answer. As I finish up the quarter and my first hybrid class, I have seen some glimpses of how this can be done. I have seen honest, deep engagement with the course material and with difficult issues. I also see where I can do more to make the online learning experience richer. I am still working through my own responses to teaching my first hybrid course, and I am waiting for additional feedback from the students in the course evaluations. Although I have first impressions, as I work through all the data I gathered during the course I will have a better understanding of what did and did not go as planned.

As I said, I am just beginning to imagine how to create learning communities online that will foster the kinds of transformational learning for my students that will last for a lifetime. This is a journey of professional development that I am looking forward to continuing.


About the author

Joe Hannah is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Geography at UW. He has taught a variety of courses (ranging from GIS to food studies to political geography to development studies to qualitative methods…) for the Geography Department, Political Science and the Jackson School, as well as for Seattle University and UW Bothell. He received his PhD in 2005 from UW Geography, and has a masters in Asian Studies from Cornell. Through his checkered career he has worked in refugee asylum and resettlement, computer programming, and telecommunications data management. He likes teaching best. His research interests are in critical cartography, history of mapping, and pedagogy.