Online Learning Circles

Last night, I joined my first online learning circle. It was hosted by Sebastien Vigneau of BosLab, a Boston-area nonprofit organization that supports community-based biology programs. The topic at hand was coronavirus, and we were going to be working through FutureLearn’s online course COVID-19: Tackling the Novel Coronavirus, developed by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. I learned a lot and I had a great time, so I wanted to share my experiences for others who are considering bringing their learning circles online in the coming weeks/months/(hopefully not years…).

Signing up

Sebastian created his learning circle on our website just like he would for an in-person learning circle, and he advertised it through P2PU, MeetUp, and the BosLab community. He chose to include the link to the online meeting room directly in the sign up page. However, if you don’t want to do this, you could simply write that the learning circle will be happening online and then send participants the link directly through your dashboard before the first meeting.

Getting started

I received a very helpful message from Sebastien a few hours before the learning circle began, pointing out the various tools that we’d be using for the learning circle. He asked that in order to prepare for our meeting that we:

  • Read the full event description on MeetUp.
  • Sign up for the online course on FutureLearn.
  • Ensure that we can open the learning circle’s shared notes document on Etherpad.
  • Test our connection to the video conference room on Jitsi.

After doing this, I joined the meeting at 6PM, and there everybody was!

My co-learners and me.

The learning circle

Sebastien implemented a great approach for facilitating the learning circle. We spent a few minutes exploring Jitsi – we learned how to mute ourselves, raise our hands, share our screens, blur our backgrounds, and change the view layout. After this, Sebastien shared his screen and walked us through the Etherpad, which served as both a lightweight curriculum and a collaborative workspace for the learning circle.

I tried matching my text highlight color with the color of my t-shirt so that people knew who I was.

Even though we had already introduced ourselves in the Jitsi, Sebastien had us all introduce ourselves again on the Etherpad and say hi to one another in the breakout rooms that he had also set up. It seemed a little redundant at first to introduce ourselves again and practice moving between meeting rooms, but this was actually a great way to ensure that everybody knew how to use the tools. I think that the 10 minutes we took to do this ended up saving a lot of time later in the learning circle. By 6:20, everybody was comfortable jumping between video calls, muting themselves appropriately, and contributing to a shared notes doc — that was quite an achievement in and of itself!

After this, we started working through the course. The format was as follows: we would all mute ourselves and read/watch a section of the online course for 10-15 minutes by ourselves, and then join our small breakout group to discuss what we had just read and watched, before going back to the main room to do a group activity. We went through that cycle three times. Sebastien stayed in the main room the whole time, muting everybody but himself, and so even though we couldn’t see him in our breakout room, we could hear him in our other browser tab and he would tell us when to come back to the main room. It reminded me a lot of participating in an Unhangout.

Breakout Group #2 was #1 in my heart.

Sebastien adapted group activities from MIT OpenCourseWare and from his experience participating in P2PU’s annual gathering in Boston last year. We did some virtual beach ball discussions and wrote collaborative definitions of terms like “serological tests”. As the two hours progressed, I was frankly surprised by how much I was learning given how much fun I was having. I got a crash course in biology, learning about the distinctions between RNA and DNA viruses and the implications for testing, and also had some great open-ended discussions that went well beyond the course materials. For example, we spent a long time discussing ways how the virus can spread via droplets and aerosols, and some of the political and economic reasons why the U.S. has emphasized droplet-based prevention in the first month of the pandemic.

At the end, we agreed to work through some of the course material on our own before next Tuesday’s meeting. Whether or not people should do work between learning circles is always a possible point of friction within a group, and I thought that Sebastien framed this really well. He said that a learning circle is what you make of it, and therefore we should dig into the course material if we have the time. That being said, he promised that we’d reference a few modules of the course during the next meeting so that if somebody didn’t have time to look at the course, they’d still be able to participate in the group discussions.

What made me so excited about Sebastian’s learning circle was how replicable it was. Not only are learning circles, Jitsi, and Etherpad all free and open source software tools, but all the work that Sebastien put in to the course could be easily adapted for other groups who want to meet online to discuss COVID-19. So if you want to try this out:

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