Finding community is a vulnerable, difficult experience—especially as a student. It requires not only feeling comfortable with your peers, but also trusting them enough to be able to ask questions and learn without fear of judgment.
I’ve been lucky—I found my first community during freshman year of undergrad. Sitting in the common room at 2 a.m., panicking together with fellow students the night before an exam, we forged lasting bonds.
Whether it’s the shared feelings of impending doom about a test, or the sense of collective relief once it’s over, there’s something magical about learning with a community. That’s also why the isolation sparked by the pandemic has been so devastating for learners.
Authentic student community was already challenging to build pre-pandemic. Now, after two years of COVID-driven instability, it’s even harder to find.
With student disengagement and mental health problems on the rise, edtech solutions are trying to help rebuild that student connection. At this year’s ASU GSV Summit, an annual gathering of edtech investors and companies, scaling learning communities arose as a major theme.
But is it actually possible to scale something as intimate as community? And, if so, what seems to be working?
I was able to talk to a handful of edtech leaders during the event to try to get some answers.
Sharing Frustrations and Successes
One of the most powerful ways to build communities between students is through collective problem-solving. Persisting through a difficult assignment is not only much more enjoyable with others, but the process also naturally allows for peer-to-peer learning to happen. Having someone else to vent with, as well as to celebrate with, makes the learning journey so much more valuable and fun.
Organizations like Flatiron School and Stack Overflow make particularly good use of this strategy. Focused on helping software developers build out their skill sets, these businesses facilitate collective learning through group problem-solving and community feedback. “It’s also just [having] people to vent with,” said Kate Cassino, CEO of Flatiron School. “How are you making your way through?”
Feeling Seen, Heard, and Connected
Businesses that target one particular type of learner, like software engineers, naturally have some level of shared identity between users. But how do organizations that support a wide range of students make sure that each of these students feel seen and heard?
Tools that encourage more personalized peer-to-peer connection may be one answer. Handshake, an early career exploration platform for college students, uses student-to-student messaging to help users reach out to others like them on the platform.
“One of the things that we really recognize is that, on the path to finding opportunities, you often need to have relationships,” said Christine Cruzvergara, chief education officer at Handshake. “We want to make Handshake a place where students who don’t already have connections…can come to Handshake to build [them].”
Ruben Harris, chief executive officer of Career Karma, a career navigation and mentorship platform, highlighted just how powerful audio rooms can be as a tool to drive meaningful conversation and community. “I can just organize everybody together, and they’ll give you the sauce that you’d never be able to find,” he said. “Someone that comes from an underestimated background that already broke in [to the tech industry] can give you insight.”
A core part of building a genuine learning community is mentorship, particularly from mentors that share similar backgrounds, passions and goals as the mentee. Strong mentorship not only lets the mentee learn from her mentor’s experiences, but also helps both the mentor and the mentee feel less isolated.
Audrey Wisch, co-founder and CEO of Curious Cardinals, captured the importance of individualized mentorship well. “We’re focusing on the one-on-one,” she said. “That’s where you find the greatest connections and that is where we feel, at least right now, the most value is optimized from our mentors.”
As my discussions at ASU GSV came to a close, I had one final observation. Given all the coffee chats and panels about strengthening student community and engagement, there seemed to be a significant lack of students and teachers actually at the conference.
There are incredible edtech solutions being created today to help reconnect students with each other—and with their love of learning. I have no doubt that tech will continue to play an impactful role in education; let’s just not forget the voices of students while building out those solutions.