How to grow Peer Support, community and belonging for online students?

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In this extra post, Shian Holt reflects not only on the ‘how’ to build Peer Support online but also the ‘why’. Arguing that fostering belonging for online students is key to helping them develop agency and confidence in their own knowlege-production. Shian Holt is the Assistant Director Student Support, Disability and Learning Support Service.

Online degree programmes come in all shapes and sizes at The University of Edinburgh. There are some commonalities, but our programmes of study range from less than one year to 10 years with both full and part time options. Students are often geographically spread, studying in different time zones with a diversity of motivation for study; from students on professional development/vocational programmes to others passionate about a subject who want to deepen their knowledge.

Within this environment, colleagues can feel challenged by how to facilitate and develop peer support for online students. Despite the learning from the pandemic and a transition towards digital first for teaching and learning, we continue to lack confidence on not only the how to grow Peer Support and community, but the why: why is it important; why should we dedicate staff resource to developing and facilitating Peer Support, especially without physical meeting spaces and catering, because ‘everyone loves pizza…’ right?

The University’s transformation in Student Support seeks to drive up the quality of student experience and places community building and belonging as central to its success. Peer Support allows students the agency to be active participants in their support and without it, we cannot facilitate the Student Partnership↗️.

In evaluation and monitoring survey data, the student voice clearly communicates a desire to get to know other students on their programme, and academics teaching the subject. In the December 2022 Student Pulse Survey, students placed an importance on creating a sense of belonging↗️, making clear that there is more work to be done in encouraging and fostering this. This provides the why. Why it is so important that we prioritise student community building, especially for online students, despite what appears to be a more challenging environment to deliver community to the one we are used to on campus?

Students have a lot to offer, and by placing a value on developing peer support and bringing students together, they can share their knowledge, collaborate and make connections. This is especially important as students report increased feelings of isolation and lower confidence when studying remotely either online, or when they have left campus to write up their dissertation.

Positively, we are already experts! In Schools and Deaneries delivering online degree programmes there is existing activity relevant to peer support and community building, so this is not about reinventing the wheel, but recognising our existing expertise and community building activities. For example, colleagues in Moray House School of Education and Sport and the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies have designed evidence-led peer support programmes, developed over several years which are embedded in the student experience.

For online students, there are some interesting patterns in student engagement that map onto in-person. All students, regardless of their physical location, engage more actively during early semester, where they pay attention to activities where there are opportunities to get to know other students and staff teaching on their course. Students are also focused on what the purpose of the activity, and prioritise their time according to an understanding about what they will achieve by attending. In particular, students are more engaged in activities that relate directly to their programme of study, so paying attention to ensuring that activities are relevant to the subject will improve student engagement.

With this in mind, it is important to focus on key transitions in the academic cycle e.g., the start of each semester, transitions to different study levels, pre honours to honours, from undergraduate to postgraduate taught study and so on. The needs of our students change again in preparation for their dissertation, particularly as student wellbeing can be effected, when there are less opportunities to meet up. This also applies to research students.

In addition to this, there are degree programmes where the student cohort are dispersed e.g. year abroad, placements, summer break etc. When they return, it is important for these students that we recognise the transition and organise activity for them to come together. For part-time online students, who may be pausing and restarting their studies over a period of time, these are particularly important opportunities to connect.

Peer support is key to student sense of belonging and we have a responsibility to ensure that students regardless of their location have opportunities to connect outside of the classroom. These students participated in the Moray House School of Education and Sport’s, Postgraduate Taught Buddies peer support programme↗️:

“She gave me a positive response, maybe this kind of mental support is more important to me, so I feel comfortable writing this, Otherwise, I’ll always be nervous.

You’ll be concerned and worried about everything if you’re writing your dissertation by yourself. Having a friend who can speak with me, on the other hand, greatly reduces my anxiety. We keep in touch, and we cheer and encourage one another, which helps ease the stress.”

There is excellent best practice, advice and guidance offered by a network of colleagues at the university, for further resources;

Photograph of author 1 Dr Pauline FergusonShian Holt

Shian Holt is the Assistant Director Student Support, Disability and Learning Support Service. With 10 years in higher education, Shian Holt has been developing and delivering strategic support and services for students. Shian is a qualified coach and has 20+ years’ experience of working in complex environments, Commercial and Third Sector, including project delivery and line management.

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