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Humanizing Higher Education Through Group Chats

In the era of remote learning, student group chats should be encouraged—not regarded with suspicion and punished. They carry many benefits for both faculty and students, promoting peer learning and providing a source of community in times of great isolation and beyond.

Authored by Maya Barak* & Zeena Whayeb**

This article was republished in the Zine About Students as Partners

A Whole New (Online) World

In the spring of 2020, faculty and students across the country transitioned to remote learning. Our campus—the University of Michigan-Dearborn, which historically serves many commuter, first-gen, transfer, and working class students—was no different. Professors scrambled to move classes online. Students scrambled to keep pace with changes in course content and assignments. Collectively, we puzzled over the distinctions between terms like “async,” “hybrid,” and “hyflex.” For many, this was the first time participating in an online class as either student or teacher.

Collectively, we tried to do our best and maintain a sense of “normalcy” while adapting to new frontiers in higher education. Still, remote learning was accompanied by numerous challenges. The pandemic exacerbated inequities both on and off campus, including issues of access to technology, family care responsibilities, financial stressors, housing instability, and matters of mental health and wellbeing.

A deep sense of isolation emerged, especially for first-year and transfer students, who make up more than half of our incoming students each year. Connections among students and between students and faculty diminished. People disappeared behind Canvas, email, and Zoom. In some cases, they disappeared altogether. A number of students came to the realization that remote learning, which generally requires strict self-discipline, might not be for them.

The abrupt move to remote learning also halted campus activities and disrupted social connections. The chance to build relationships and form a sense of belonging was stripped away. Students became lonely and unmotivated. Many felt abandoned by their peers, their professors, and the University. Ever innovative and resilient, students began turning to group chats on platforms such as Discord and Whatsapp for a sense of community, guidance, and support. All that was needed was one student to take the initiative and send out a link inviting classmates to join the group and, usually, most did.

Group chats gave students an opportunity to utilize peer-learning practices, turning to others to clarify lecture notes and assignment instructions. They formed study groups and met via Zoom to prepare for upcoming quizzes and exams, working through difficult concepts and examples together. Groups also helped students work independently while holding one another accountable. They reminded each other about upcoming due dates and exams. The realization that some had already started on their work often gave others a surge of motivation to begin.

Beyond academic support, group chats afforded students a comfortable environment within which they could connect as more than students, but as whole people. Advice was offered. Anxieties over the pandemic and about Learning Management System (LMS) glitches were shared, followed by comforting words, commiseration, and encouragement. Friendships blossomed. Games were played. In short, communities took root and were nourished. It should come as no surprise that group chats quickly became an integral part of student life in this new online world.

Group Chats Under Fire

As remote learning continued through the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 semesters, concerns over academic integrity increased. In particular, student group chats were targeted on the basis of being criminogenic, or a source of student cheating. Real and alleged accounts of “cheating rings” emerged, causing administrators, faculty, and students to panic. Professors began discouraging the use of group chats. Students were thought to be guilty by association—just being a member of a group chat was cause for suspicion. Meanwhile, being part of a group where a student shared an exam question or answer—whether or not it was solicited—resulted in severe academic misconduct sanctions for all.

Many professors assumed that the primary factors preventing students from cheating were surveillance and control, both of which appeared to be lessened or lost entirely in the remote learning environment. For instance, there were no professors or proctors present to catch cheating during online exams (at least not without online proctoring services, which have been flagged as ableist, racist, and sexist, among other concerns, and which our campus rejected). Moreover, taking exams on their computers or other devices, students were said to be just one chat, click, or google search away from the answers. Left to their own devices (pun intended), students would be free to cheat as they pleased.

And, who wouldn’t cheat under such circumstances if it could boost their grade? Arguably, most people. Indeed, criminologists explain that our decisions to engage in deviant behavior, like cheating, are much more complicated than a simple cost-benefit analysis or whether or not we’re being watched. Such framings of deviance rest upon assumptions that people are self-interested rational actors who are deterred from engaging in deviance if and only if potential costs outweigh potential benefits. They draw upon discourses and narratives that locate the causes of deviance within the individual (i.e. the problem lies with the “offender” as opposed to cultural or structural factors that may lead to offending).

Ultimately, of course, this is an empirical question. Ease of cheating and risk of being caught are certainly factors that may influence student decisions to engage in academic misconduct. Still, it is worth stressing that students who do engage in academic misconduct are not necessarily “bad actors,” but are often people who have made bad choices in the face of challenging circumstances.

As it turns out, a number of individual and peer group factors (e.g. age, family, financial background, friend groups and social participation, gender, GPA, personal goals, self-control) influence academic misconduct. So, too, do structural conditions, constraints, and the stresses of daily life (and pandemic life). For instance, we know that the way faculty set up assignments and courses can encourage or discourage academic misconduct. We know that the pressure to achieve good grades (sometimes exacerbated by family) and general stress influences academic misconduct. Lack of time due to family demands, social activities, and work responsibilities also impact academic misconduct.

Group Chats as Peer Learning

But, what about group chats? Don’t they facilitate cheating? In some cases they may, but there is nothing inherently wrong with students talking over apps. Students talking to other students about courses and exams—yes, even via apps—is not new. Students have always talked to one another in the halls or during class, sometimes sharing notes or meeting up for study groups. In fact, we often encourage this type of peer engagement (e.g. classroom breakout discussions, peer review activities, team projects). Sometimes we even develop peer learning spaces that are explicitly off-limits to faculty, such as student-led Supplemental Instruction (SI) study sessions, as part of our pedagogical practice.

An ample body of research documents the benefits of peer learning. The SI model of peer learning, for example, emphasizes student collaboration and leadership in reviewing lecture material. Using various activities, student SI leaders facilitate discussions for those enrolled in a given course. Sessions are used to check for comprehension and enhance understanding of key course concepts. Student-led study sessions like these boost engagement and retention of information. This is especially important in the remote learning context, where synchronous discussions are often challenging—or nonexistent—and the dehumanizing effects of technology leave many students feeling disengaged from their classes and peers.

Faculty are prohibited from attending SI sessions on our campus. They are also prohibited from requesting information about session attendees. The anonymous nature of these sessions fosters an environment wherein students can engage freely and confidently with course material without fear of judgement from professors. Exchanges with other students in SI sessions, as in group chats, builds a coequal academic relationship not often found between students and professors in traditional classroom models.

Peer interaction is an integral part of students’ education and long-term success. When we went remote in March 2020, this interaction just moved online along with everything (and everyone) else. Group chats are a crucial adaptation to the remote learning environment and challenging realities of the pandemic. They have the potential to facilitate learning, foster collaboration and trust among students and faculty, and humanize higher education in the face of a growing digital divide. This is, perhaps, more important now than ever before as we continue on a collective journey toward establishing the “new normal” in a hopefully not-so-distant post-pandemic future.

We need more—not fewer—group chats in higher education. Group chats to engage students, with or without professors. Group chats to help students lean on and learn from one another. Group chats to foster meaningful student and faculty presence and a sense of belonging, of feeling and truly being part of a community.

Group chats aren’t going away anytime soon. We can fear them. We can punish them. Or, we can explore the possibilities.

Featured photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash. [Image description: color photo of a person, from shoulders to waist, wearing a white sweater, standing against a grey background, and holding a cellphone with both hands, arms bent at the elbow]

*Maya Barak is an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Affiliate Faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. You can find out more about her on her author page.

**Zeena Whayeb is a Senior majoring in Psychology and is a Supplemental Instruction Leader at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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