ETAP DocS is a community of around 70 Ph.D. students and alumni who are distributed across the U.S. and overseas. Due to our spread, a lot of what we do is online. This choice to work online is predominantly a practical one- the recognition that, most often, we cannot meet in the same physical location at the same time.
Many of us find working online attractive because it offers flexibility to form personal connections and access learning from diverse and distributed settings. In recent years, ETAP DocS’ social-media platforms, website, and more recently usages of Zoom have allowed us to connect alongside the many other things going on in our lives. This increased connection and sense of community has led to the inception and development of several ETAP DocS programs, events, and workshops. Organised by our members for our members, this includes the Sunday Writing Sessions, the Mentors Program, the Peer Research Lab, the Research Skills and ETAP Doctorial Milestones workshops, and the end-of-year celebrations. I believe the growth in our online presence and communication has been, in part, a response to the social circumstances of being a diverse and distributed group, our shared enthusiasm to connect with each other using technology, and as I have heard non-executive board members, a shared sense in value of ETAP DocS and what it aims to achieve.
Despite advances in the types of online spaces and activities we have created, there is a recurring question our community faces when organising its work- ‘what is the optimal time and date for our online synchronous workshops, events, and program meet-ups’. This is a question I have asked in the past but I believe it is an unproductive question to ask. This is not only because of the diversity of our community but also because of the diversity and intersectional experiences of the individuals within our community. On reflection, I think this tension persists for us and many other online distributed learning communities due to reliance and perhaps comfort in synchronicity. This in turn appears to limit opportunities for our members to engage and support each other when pursuing the Ph.D because, despite being now online, not everyone can be in the same place at the same time.
Online synchronous activity currently makes up a large part of ETAP DocS’ activity. However, it could be argued that we have relatively low levels of attendance at such synchronous events. In a community of approximately 70 people, the attendance for most synchronous events in the last two years typically ranges from 1 to 15 people. Milestones events that target the formal Ph.D. program assessments sometimes draw in larger crowds of up to and over 20 people. Between the focal synchronous sessions, there is some communication between the community online via our social media, as well as some personal 1:1 contact in which people reach out to one another with questions, but most of the activity in the social spaces online is posts promoting synchronous events. I believe the low level of attendance at events and levels of engagement between sessions is not because of a limited sense of community or disengagement but from our draw to synchronicity, even though we all know it conflicts with rather than compliments other aspects of our lives.
In this short piece, I suggest that we need to reframe and adapt how we (the ETAP DocS community) use our most common mode of communication- the synchronous workshops, events, and program meet-ups. I am interested in starting a discussion about how we might invert the role of the traditional synchronous sessions, shifting them to something that plays a more supplementary rather than the main role. I am not suggesting we remove our synchronous work but instead position it more clearly within longer conversations about ongoing- often private- class assignments, research, and milestone work. I do not have any concrete alternatives or certain prescriptions in mind, rather this article is meant to act as an opportunity to reflect on our experience so far and to help us design new ways of working collaboratively. In doing so, I first offer some ideas for possible reasons behind the tensions we currently face. I then pose some questions on how we might reposition synchronicity within longer-term trajectories of shared personal and professional development. A key to future design might be to begin by exploring existing and perhaps new online working/ learning spaces, and then gradually shifting the weight from the synchronous sessions to ongoing shared workspaces. First, though, I offer some reflections on what I see as two tensions.
The first tension has already been outlined quite extensively above and thus will be short. The tension comes from trying to get a diverse and distributed group of people in the same place at the same time. After trying to address this issue in a number of ways over the last two years- such as by trying different days and times for synchronous events, using hybrid options that combine on- and offline spaces, and hosting weekly sessions for our programs on different days over the semester, it seems quite clear that this is a very difficult challenge to address and the result of synchronicity is clear. As long as we continue to use synchronous methods, there will be people who can’t attend and thus will have limited access to any related potential benefits of our collective work. This is a fact of our diverse community and something we are accountable for if this prioritising of synchronicity continues to take place.
A second related tension comes from the way we use the various technologies we have at hand. On reflection, it seems that our current ways of working with new technologies are closely tied to our past experiences of working in person, and our notions of how we might best learn together synchronously. This position might also come from the comfort and ease of immediate face-to-face communication, and because of the additional time and effort taken to learn new methods to work asynchronously using new online platforms. With the exception of some uses of Padlet and Youtube before and after events, we rarely capitalise on new possibilities to collaborate online. Related to this, I feel that prescriptive, task-based approaches that are sometimes used when working asynchronously in graduate classes- such as ‘post three times on blackboard’- may have framed alternative ways of working online as formulaic and impersonal. Although connected learning and accountability can provide some educational benefits, these types of approaches could have dampened our enthusiasm to make the shift toward exciting new directions.
Synchronicity whether online or offline privileges more concrete notions of time and place. Consequently, the medium of the social space might have changed but the participation format, structure and possible ways to learn together remain. Thus, an area for future reflection might be for us to think about how we loosen ties with our old ways of working, and appropriate technology in a way to support new ways of working.
As a single member of our community, I am aware of the limitations in my perspectives and my understanding of the needs, interests, and lives of ETAP DocS members. Therefore, rather than suggesting we tear up the old model entirely and suggest a new concrete plan, I am interested to continue the discussion started here as we enter the new semester. To get us going, I end with some questions that I hope might guide us toward a new and more inclusive, interactive future. Cheers for reading.
Some questions to guide possible next steps:
1. How can we create opportunities to better understand the learning journeys and personal journeys of our community? And how can this inform the design of what we do in ETAP DocS?
2. How can we progressively invert the focus of the synchronous work we currently do to allow for longer-term connections and collaboration regarding our classwork, research, and ETAP department milestones?
3. How can our current use of online platforms and workshops inform new long-term ways of working that move in agreement, and not in conflict, with other aspects of our personal and professional lives?
4. What learning principles (ways of working) could guide our collaboration when using online platforms in new ‘long-term’ and interactive ways?
5. What online platforms could support the operationalisation of the agreed-upon learning principles, needs and interests of our community?
Written by Tom Underwood (firstname.lastname@example.org)