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On “Structuredly Unstructured”​ Online Spaces

Jeff Rubenstein
Updated June 4 2020
Jeff Rubenstein
Updated June 4 2020

One of the implications of the need to move instruction activities online in a hurry is the loss of potential unstructured learning and social spaces that the physical dimensions of the campus can offer.  The library, the quad, the student union — these are all places where not just socialization, but also exploration, critique, and learning happen. What’s interesting about these spaces is that they are “structuredly unstructured” — that is, they are not simply places like an individual’s apartment or a coffee shop across town which are, effectively, private spaces.  Even if the space is public, it is only known to a few people, and so is unavailable to anyone not part of a social circle.


For these spaces, meetings can be called (“everyone who wants to discuss more after class, go to the student union at my table”),  people can meet casually, people can discover each other while studying, etc. They represent a range of more or less official or understood ways of collecting for scholastic and para-scholastic activities, which is important to the life of the university.


To the degree that this state of social distancing endures, the more important it will be to re-create some sense of these more “structuredly unstructured” learning spaces.  In fact, even to the degree that we go back to some sense of normal campus life, the presence of these spaces will be useful for a large number of students, and help prepare them for the future work world where these spaces are where most work actually happens.


In the absence of these spaces students (to the degree that they are figuring it out on their own) are defaulting to other collaboration tools such as Google Hangouts/Meet or Microsoft Teams; in some cases they are using a school-provided instance, and in other cases they are using their personal (consumer) tools. The risk here is that we end up only back in the world of private spaces (or spaces that are “by invitation only”).


Further – the lack of officially sponsored spaces makes it difficult to ask students to collaborate on an assignment for credit, in the absence of a place to collaborate. I don’t even want to speculate on the potential legal implications — can a student (who needs to remain anonymous, for instance) be compelled to use a consumer-grade tool to collaborate for purposes of a school assignment? In any case, if we are going to ask students to do something in a course context, we owe them the tools to be able to do so.


There are a number of ways of turning this problem: Giving students the virtual classroom / virtual meeting tools on the university account; creating a discussion board which lists various study spaces for various interests (with dates/times so students know when to join) or which allow students to schedule these spaces in a way which is open to all in their class or in their course of study. (This by the way is something that some of the OPMs, and some of the learning tools on the market, make possible already). For student assignments, recordings of these collaboration sessions (or presentations) can be submitted as artifacts for evaluation.


The essential is that there be some space which is (while not an official class) discoverable and potentially visible to all, where all can participate, which is provided by the university and has its imprimatur, and allows students to do many of the “structuredly unstructured” kinds of things they would do in the physical space that is the campus.

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