Bringing individual learners into a transformative collaborative community
|End of academic year with students and tutors (MA Conference Interpreting - MA Interpreting at London metropolitan University) - celebrating collecting achievements|
Time flies. Our interpreting students are submitting their dissertations and placement reports whilst a new cohort of students is getting ready to start their Master's in Conference Interpreting. It feels wonderful to celebrate the achievements of students who will soon graduate. But at the same time, I always wonder... what will the new cohort of students be like? How will I manage to bring them together into a cohesive group that works collaboratively, learns and grows with each other's help and support? How will I facilitate the understanding that learning with each other, from each other, is conducive to high achievements, much higher than if they had been competing with one another? How will I be able to induce a collaborative mindset that will help them grow into confident professionals able to network and work in teams?
As the summer ends, it is also the end of my dedicated non-teaching time to my research in defining a model of communities of practice for interpreting studies. Most of my time has been dedicated to the coding of interviews of previous students who took part in the Ambassadors' Scheme for Interpreters at university. Some may say that coding is tedious and boring. I say it is a lengthy process, but what a rewarding process when you finally see clear themes emerging. Some of these emerging themes relate to the sense of belonging to a group of peers that share the same interest but also a similar journey whilst they are evolving from being a new student, to being a graduate or a young professional that needs to finds its feet in the market (in this case the competitive interpreting market).
The concept of "togetherness" comes through at all the stages of the students' and graduates' professional development.
As such, I thought I would share with you my experience of using space and time such as the summer period to bring together a group of new students that do not know each other, but a group that will have to come together to study together on the MA Conference Interpreting for the duration of a year and beyond.
Every year, I test more than a hundred candidates who apply to join the Master's programme at university. Unfortunately, I am only able to take on board candidates that demonstrate the right skills, potential and mindset for the course, that is around 30 students.
I guess the first encounter with a candidate during the aptitude test is the starting point of the experience of what teaching and learning on the course will be like. It sets the tone for what the course is.
As I provide feedback and speak with candidates either on line or face to face, I build my virtual group mentally. I encourage connections with previous students on the course, trying to see who this candidate could connect with and benefit from the experience (language combination, age group, working student, confidence building, professional achievement, interests for example).
Regardless of the outcome of the aptitude test, the experience has to be positive, constructive and open. I have been told very often that testing students is time consuming and that it should be automated as much as possible. I agree, it takes time. But what a privilege to listen to aspirations, guide, inform and encounter potential students from all over the world.
Once a student has been accepted on the course, what normally happens?
The student waits for the beginning of the course with excitement first and anxiety as the time comes closer to the beginning of the course.
What will it be like? Will I manage? Will I like it? Will they like me?
This wasted time can be transformed into an opportunity to bring new students together into a space that aims to be reassuring, informative, fun and constructive.
How do I go about it?
Every year, I create an online platform that aims to invite new students to join in. Once members of the platform, students are encouraged to introduce themselves, speak to one another, share concerns and tips for very practical things such as finding accommodation; students who are about to graduate are invited to join the platform too, as well as tutors, and the librarian. So on the platform aimed at new students, a group of participants from different horizons join in and "look after" the new comers. The tutors get to know students and the librarian starts posting information. Synergies between the different groups enable communication, connections and trust.
The platform I have chosen is Google Community (private settings: members are invited to join in.). Why this platform?
- it is very easy to use, no need for complex instructions.
- it is intuitive and works on similar grounds as known platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.
- it is easy to integrate on all devices (App with easy notification).
- labels can be set up in advance and allocated to conversations, allowing thematic search (for example "technology for interpreters", "interpreting practice", "interpreting resources", "discussions", "socialising" , "title of module").
- there is no hierarchy. Everyone has the same rights to post (including video, audio, photo), edit, answer etc..
- no need for university passwords which are not yet set up.
- it remains accessible beyond the boundaries of the course (the beginning and end of studies for example).
This platform is different from the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) the university is asking us to use. The VLE (we use Weblearn/Blackboard) is very useful, but it is for what I call more formal matters (posting assessment, posting homework, accessing resources for example, conversations about specific learning).
The VLE and the Google Community fit different purposes. The Google Community (it could be other online platforms) is a semi-formal platform that encourages informal learning whereas the VLE encourages formal learning. In addition, students may later on organise their own WhatsApp group or Facebook group, but this happens later on when the group is already formed. Such platforms are completely informal. Even if students include me in their group, I do not participate. If I see there are questions being asked here, I answer on the Google Community. Students do contact me on WhatsApp for personal messages if they wish. But this is different. As such, I very rarely receive emails from students. I am no longer the exclusive source of information, the whole group is.
What are the few tips to generate energy and momentum on the platform, especially at the onset?
- To start with, the Community is set up by a person, in this case, by me the course leader. As such, it is this person that needs to take ownership of the space and create an open welcoming non threatening space that generates opportunities for everyone to interact when they are ready. If you ask everyone to post... you may loose some students who feel uncomfortable with technology, or posting about themselves.
- Initially, diffuse students' fear of the unknown and anxiety by providing information that matters to them as they are about to embark on their studies and new career. For example accommodation; some students live in London, others arrive from Asia, Africa, Europe or America. The Londoners may have a few tips on renting a room, students may wish to share accommodation, past students may wish to pass on their current accommodation as they leave London to go back to their home country. I usually launch a specific conversation and add a useful link such as accommodation services provided by university.
- Use this time and space to gradually inform students about what they can do to improve their skills. Students have received individual feedback for their aptitude test. They know how to move forward. As such, this year, I have decided to set up some specific tasks students will need to upload on to the Google Drive associated with the course. This gives them a chance to focus their mind on a task that is relevant, useful for them and useful for me when we start the course (for example: preparing a short presentation on the organisation of the political system in their country that they will film and upload - this can be used as teaching materials in the first few weeks of teaching. There is then less pressure on having to learn, prepare and deliver so much work from the teaching and learning perspective).
In addition, it requires them to use collaborative tools such as Google Docs, uploading a recording, using a shared drive, retrieving information on line. Consequently, learning how to use technology will no longer be a burden that comes at the beginning of the course when there is so much to do. In this case, all students and tutors know the technology they use; they have experienced it, they are fully operational. The only technology left to master is the prehistoric VLE!
- Share resources on interpreting related matters. It can start with online dictionaries. It can be followed by an introduction and conversation on resources connected to current affairs, in different languages. Every time someone posts resources, I ask them to explain how they use it and what they do with it. This week, for example, I have selected a video and students will have to produce a short timed summary, reflecting key ideas, producing a mind map or five key words. These short dedicated exercises initiate their inquiry into their learning; students can then be more proactive in the way they explore resources for interpreting practice rather than hopping from one resource to another not knowing where to start.
However, it is important not to overwhelm students with too many resources. Otherwise, panic strikes in. And we are trying to achieve the exact opposite. It is all about building confidence
- Building trust is the aim of the game. I have observed that confident students initially tend to be more active on the platform. Then gradually, the quiet observers move from the background to the foreground. They build the confidence to post, comment, communicate as they see posts can be about anything including socialising. Students who arrive in London tend to inform others of their arrival and meeting for coffee or a pizza happens frequently. As such, students then move away from the virtual wold and meet face to face informally, before the course even starts. By now, it is no longer the unknown. Time allowed students to be introduced gently to a new world of people and studies that then becomes their own world. Trust is the magic glue that brings everyone together to work and support one another in a non threatening collaborative space that they have made theirs.
- As the course starts, the online platform is still used, in class during group work for example. Instead of long group debriefing during group activities, conversations in each group are posted on the Google Community, projected on the screen and shared live as we speak. I tend to use the platform as an extension of the black board. But even the blackboard is often a shared Google doc with a link shared on the Google Community. To start with, students need to get used to it but then, the time invested pays off and students adopt similar strategies to organise their independent group practice.
- Within no time, students pick up skills and a mindset that invites them to share, help, contribute, lead, ask, express ideas, socialise etc... These skills are then transferred to the real world when interpreters need to prepare their assignments with colleagues they have never met before. This has then become second nature. As a result, they are proactive when meeting new colleagues for interpreting assignments and confidently offer to collaborate, share glossaries and resources.
Let's not leave it to chance to get a "nice" group of students this year. Let's lead, inspire and share with our students so that in turn they lead, inspire and share with us and others. What a privilege to teach!