Prior to beginning the distance PhD program in English at Old Dominion, I had taken a few classes in online education and the facilitation of distance education for adult learners, and I had taught my own distance and hybrid classes. From those experiences, I learned that social presence was considered vital to distance education. Instructors usually strive to create spaces that will create shared experiences and collaboration between students. These spaces attempt to decrease social distance and help students to see one another as "real." Palloff and Pratt (2007) explain that this social presence is vital to student satisfaction in distance education. While I believed social presence was probably important, the tips for fostering such presence that I’d come across simply recommended things like introductory discussion boards for sharing personal notes (hobbies, background, etc.) along with an avatar to represent oneself. I have always struggled to make such activities authentic with my own students. They always feel similar to introductions on the first day of class even in person: everyone does them, but who remembers them? I wasn’t sure how much I thought social presence would really come to play in my learning at Old Dominion—after all, we’re graduate students here. I felt a bit like a contestant on some reality TV show as I began this program with an “I didn’t come here to make friends” mantra in mind. However, it soon began to become important in ways I had not expected and through activities not facilitated through our professors.
One way this manifested itself took place toward the end of my first year in the program. It all started with a simple picture. Megan Mize posted a picture (left) to Facebook and tagged four of her peers in it, along with herself. Her comment that accompanied the picture said, “Danielle, Cheri, Sarah, and I enjoy a nice batch of milkshakes (in my head). As…usual, Mark photobombs in the background, all blurry and with a fedora.” The setting of the discussion that followed this comment, however, was not in Megan’s head. Instead, Danielle, and Sarah replied to the post by adopting the personas of the individuals that have been tagged as in the pictures. Their discussion was typical of old photos that make an appearance on Facebook—they commented on their appearances and behavior in the picture. They, for those moments, became the people in the pictures and we reminisced together.
This first picture was posted in April of 2011, nine months after each of us tagged in Megan’s picture began the doctoral program. Over the remainder of the year, 27 more pictures followed that first afternoon of milkshakes. Through the posts of multiple students, we captured moments celebrating the end of term, singing around a bonfire, competing in some friendly cosmic bowling, flying kites together, etc. The times we captured revealed key moments in the development of a community. They represented occasions wherein strong bonds would begin to form and relationships would grow stronger.
Of course…they never happened. These bonding moments occurred before our group ever met in person—they happened to strangers and we only pretended to be a part of these moments. While we didn’t have access to memories from actual events, we established connections to one another while we responded to these images that chronicled our faux memories. An average of seven replies accompanied each image, with one post getting as many as twenty comments.
When this 2010 cohort first met for the first time in person at the 2011 Summer Doctoral Institute, we were able to start off where our Facebook memories left off. It felt, to me, like I was getting to see good friends for the first time in a long time—not for the first time ever. While I attended my other degree programs in person, I can honestly say that I have felt a stronger connection to my doctoral cohort than I did to the folks with whom I completed my prior degrees—even when I actually lived with other English majors! I have seen those of us from very different research interests come together and collaborate on multiple different projects. We continue to be incredibly supportive of one another as we move through varied stages of the program. Certainly we cannot say that the faux memories are the definitive social move that made our bonds form. Many other factors certainly contributed—personality of the cohort being a major influencer, I believe.
However, I do believe more happened by way of these faux memories than any of us recognized at the time. The experiences from this doctoral cohort seem to imply that community bonds can be built without traditional bonding experiences. The benefit of these nontraditional exercises is that they provide fertile ground for further engagement and cooperation that may not be possible without the bonds formed through the experiences.
Interestingly, we are not the first to use random images to foster bonds between those without access to common memories. TimeSlips, a program for dementia patients, also uses a collection of images of strangers to build bonds between patients and their loved ones. While the folks in these programs may not have access to the common memories they once held dear, they can benefit from the bonds that reminiscing provides through fabricating stories, collectively, with those they love. This program aims to improve the quality of life of dementia patients and serves to increase the engagement and communication levels of these patients with the staff with whom they work.
Perhaps to those outsiders viewing our Facebook feed—our “real” friends, our families, etc.—it looked as though we had lost our minds. We were grownups—academic, grownups—playing pretend. However, the question remains: if reminiscing upon faux memories does increase social presence within a community, can we tap into this potential for instruction? Could an exercise be developed that can program this engagement (successfully) into a geographically scattered cohort—or must such things develop organically?
Palloff, R. M.& Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.