Learning together: UNCOVER’s online social hub

Image credit: Chris Montgomery, unsplash, CC0

In this post, Dr Emma Farfan de los Godos, a member of the Usher Network for Covid-19 Evidence Reviews (UNCOVER), reflects on the in-process building of an online social hub for UNCOVER’s research community through funding from the Student Partnership Agreement. She explores the challenges, surprises, and benefits of creating such a resource. This post is part of the Student Partnership Agreement Hot Topic.

‘Delay is preferrable to error’ – Thomas Jefferson

We were thrilled to be awarded funding from the Student Partnership Agreement at the start of 2022 to help the Usher Network for Covid-19 Evidence Reviews (UNCOVER) establish an online community space. UNCOVER is a project where Edinburgh University staff, students, and alumni respond in a timely manner to requests from policymakers for evidence reviews in what has been a challenging time for everyone, and where the pressure on public health policymakers and practitioners has been particularly intense. This online space hopes to facilitate a responsive and informed community for UNCOVER members and maximise the resources within it by providing an asynchronous social and support hub for the team of current and past students and staff, who work together mainly online and across many time zones.

Who are UNCOVER?

UNCOVER is a network of population health researchers and information specialists, established at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, when the founding members realised that there would be a significant need for the kind of skills we have to offer as public health academics and students. UNCOVER has been an example of student-staff co-creation from its very foundation. The social hub project aims not only to support but to improve UNCOVER’s ability to achieve this successfully and inclusively.

Why an online community hub project?

The need for this sort of online community has been identified by the qualitative research conducted by a previous team of UNCOVER students and staff funded by the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme (PTAS) in 2020. In this, many members expressed “gratitude for a sense of community and purpose during a period of great uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. Student participants also spoke about wanting to develop communication and teamwork skills that contribute to their employability. Whilst the primary aim is to facilitate community building to improve retention and output of projects, and increase innovation and satisfaction within the team, the online network is also an opportunity to facilitate peripheral participation in the team. We hope such participation will benefit those who may not be able to fully participate but still want to contribute to the community.

How is it going?

The first step for the project was to assemble the team working on the project, including myself and a current MPH student, Kirsten Duggan, along with a core group of staff who had been identified in the proposal stage to complete the project. Once everyone was up to date, we worked to define the community requirements and identify the stakeholders who would use the platform. Through review of PTAS project data and meetings with community members, we established that community members hoped the online space would:

  • Share results and learning from UNCOVER projects
  • Share up-to-date opportunities to participate in UNCOVER projects
  • Share opportunities to participate in workshops and continued professional development projects linked to UNCOVER’s mission
  • Share information and resources for related to employability
  • Provide opportunities for informal networking and social connections

As we identified the different stakeholders, we realised our choice of platform was key to making this a workable and useful resource. Some users such as alumni or external teams may not have university IT accounts, so visitor access needed to be a feature. We were also very mindful of balancing the needs of new members of the team (who were looking for more information and interaction to feel supported) to those of established members such as staff (who often have a lot of noise in their inboxes to filter already).

We really didn’t want this platform to feel like a burden. We explored four different online platforms (Microsoft Teams/Yammer, Linkedin Groups, Learn discussion boards, and Pebblepad), and built mock up groups in each platform to present to stakeholders. Following this, features such as the accessibility, usability, aesthetics, and feasibility of using a combination of platforms was discussed both within the team and with stakeholders.

Any challenges experienced so far and how did you overcome them?

The main challenge we experienced was finding a platform with all the functionality we required. The ability to filter posts or have different areas (or pages) for the different sorts of stakeholders within UNCOVER and the balance between information provision and community interaction were two of the main areas we could not achieve in the identified platforms. We discussed using a combination of platforms to achieve our aims but felt this didn’t allow for the streamlined, user-friendly experience we were wanting to provide. We then reached out to an digital education expert within the University, Michelle Hart, who has been involved in other UNCOVER projects. Listening to our feedback from the UNCOVER community, she pointed us towards Microsoft Sharepoint as a potential platform. A mock-up of the community was designed on this platform and the functionality of the platform seems to be ideal for our needs.

Another challenge has been sticking to the timescale of the project. Whilst we were potentially ambitious with our proposed project timescale, issues such as appropriate stakeholder engagement and landing on the right platform were felt worthy of taking the time over by the team. There have also been other personal issues around bereavement, childcare, and IT access expiring experienced by team members, which have further delayed the endpoint. Some of these have been learning opportunities that should work to benefit the project outcome. For example, experiencing intermittent University IT access has highlighted some of the issues the alumni and external members of our community encounter.

What’s next?

Whilst the plan had been to have the community complete and handed over in July, summer break and the previously mentioned issues has somewhat delayed this. The project members are keen that the quality of the project is not compromised given the delay, and will continue to work on the following over the coming months:

  • Launching and building engagement in the community
  • Acting as administrator whilst the community grows
  • Gathering feedback and website metrics and making any required tweaks to the platform
  • Finally handing it over to the identified administrator

If you would like to find out more about UNCOVER, please visit our website or follow the USHER Institute on Twitter at @EdinUniUsher.

You can read more about UNCOVER from Nadege Atkins, and listen to a series of short podcast episodes on the Teaching matters podcast.

With thanks to all the UNCOVER participants who have provided input, but with particular thanks to Kirsten Duggan, Michelle Hart, Neneh Rowa-Dewar, and Emilie McSwiggan for their contribution to this project to date.

Emma Farfan De Los Godos

Emma is a paediatrician with an interest in equity, childhood adversity, and global health who graduated from the Masters in Public Health program in the summer of 2022. Based in Copenhagen, she has been a member of the UNCOVER network for 18 months and has worked on projects for Public Health Scotland and the World Health Organisation during this time. She is currently the student/alumni lead on the Student Partnership Agreement project, building an online community for UNCOVER members to further facilitate student-staff co-creation and promote inclusivity throughout the team’s ongoing projects.

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