Trajectories in Turmoil: A Case Study of Engineering Students' Reactions to Disruptions in Their Community of Practice

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Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics


Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to universities when instruction had to shift entirely online. Universities were quick to survey their students about those challenges, and education researchers are now focused on building more effective online experiences based on student feedback. About the case: The loss of in-person instruction was difficult for engineering students in practice-based courses as they lost the courses' hands-on aspect, which is essential for reinforcing theoretical concepts. They also lost the support provided through daily interactions with their peers and instructors. Situating the case: Students in a required four-course practice-based mechanical engineering sequence shared their perspectives via reflective portfolio essays on how shifting to online instruction affected their ability to participate in their learning communities and negotiate meaningful learning experiences. Methods/approach: Through thematic analysis of the reflective essays, we applied the lens of communities of practice to put the students' responses into context. Results/discussion: The students' concerns varied depending on their position in the course sequence and the course; however, most students felt that the loss of in-person interaction was most detrimental and disruptive in the transition to online instruction and yielded communication and teaming issues. Implications and conclusions: Five implications arose from the results of this study, including recognizing the unique challenges of online learning in practice-based courses, instructing students in virtual communication tools, exercising empathy, being mindful of cognitive load, and researching self-directed learners in online environments. In addition, faculty should consider the importance of students' communities of practice and build opportunities to maintain and strengthen the bonds of those communities within their courses, both online and face to face. They should also add more opportunities for virtual interaction early in the curriculum to build digital communication skills, which will undoubtedly be required in their careers.

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IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication