In this Spotlight on Practice Worth Sharing post, Katie Cebula, Paul Kelly, and Deborah Holt, from the Moray House School of Education and Sport, share discussions and approaches that emerged from the ‘Practice Worth Sharing’ Forum on how to foster online, community-building during the Covid-19 crisis. This also forms part of the Spotlight on Remote Teaching series.
The ‘Practice Worth Sharing’ (PWS) forum in the Moray House School of Education and Sport (MHSES) aims to promote discussion and to share information about practice that has worked well for academic/professional services staff, as well as providing opportunities to take a ‘tricky issue’ for discussion.
At present, staff are very aware of the difficult circumstances in which many students are currently working – whether living alone in single person accommodation, waiting in quarantine overseas, or trying to juggle studying with home-schooling children or other caring responsibilities. Whilst student-support guidance is available, we were keen to use the PWS forum to explore the approaches that staff have taken recently to support students’ well-being (at group, course or programme level). This includes actions to build a sense of community and connection during the move to online learning. We also wanted to explore the challenges that had been experienced. Below we highlight some of these discussions.
Four underlying themes
Four themes were highlighted as key, regardless of the particular activities that staff undertook. The first was the importance of ‘knowing your cohort’: the approach you might take with a cohort of students who are keyworkers would be radically different from that taken with a cohort of international students who are now stuck in University accommodation and missing the chance to explore the city of Edinburgh. Some students may wish to spend more time with the staff and students on their programmes just now, other students may have to attend to different priorities!
A second theme was ‘being aware of the existing sense of community’: it was highlighted that on many programmes, a strong sense of ‘community’ already existed, particularly on programmes involving residentials, expeditions or smaller programmes where students took a number of courses together and were used to undertaking groupwork. In contrast, in other, often larger programmes, students may not previously have had such an opportunity to forge strong connections. It was acknowledged that supporting students when strong community already exists, is a different task to trying to establish communities in the current circumstances.
A third theme was about ‘sharing and learning from other staff’ (the raison d’être of PWS!). In particular, we have learned much from colleagues working on online programmes, such as MSc Digital Education, for whom working with online student communities is second nature!
A final theme was ‘supporting students to lead their own online community-building’: it was, of course, considered important not to add to the pressure on students who are busy adjusting to new ways of studying and living. However, we were also clear about our wish to avoid imposing our own ideas about the kinds of ways in which students should come together. Listening to students about the timing of any community-events (e.g. avoiding the evening before an assignment deadline!) and the nature of these events, just seems sensible.
Some approaches to community-development
Staff highlighted a range of different activities. Some of these were continuations of event series from earlier in the academic year, whereas others had been developed specifically in response to hearing about students working at home or feeling isolated. Some examples included:
- Academic activities: short guest lectures; journal club sessions
- Social activities: ‘We love Edinburgh’ quiz night; photo competitions
- Identifying and sharing resources on support and well-being
- Identifying and sharing resources around physical activity
- Identifying and sharing information about student activities out with the School such as ResLife and EUSA Edinburgh University Students’ Virtual Neighbourhood
- Identifying and sharing information to help students stay connected with the City of Edinburgh
Many different channels were used for these activities (Collaborate; Microsoft Teams; Twitter), with the channel selected according to the activity and the cohort. For example, Collaborate was seen as particularly effective with large (100+) cohorts, because of the smaller ‘breakout’ room function. Given the volume of emails at the moment, straightforward scheduling and communication about activities was seen as key (e.g. one MSc programme was running drop-in chat session at the same time each week).
What about the challenges?
During our discussion, we acknowledged that there are a range of challenges in developing course and programme communities online. One was the need to consider staff capacity and wellbeing, particularly when staff themselves may be working under challenging conditions. Another concern was that the students who may feel the most isolated may sometimes find it the most difficult to join a community online; similarly, others may simply not wish to participate in events outwith classes. Being inclusive, but respecting boundaries was seen as key in all these areas.
Where do we go from here?
We are mindful that we are living in an ever-changing situation, and that we may need to continue to work with our student cohorts in online community development over the weeks and months ahead: that we may need to make plans for a marathon, rather than a sprint, in terms of supporting students online. Nevertheless, we ended our session inspired by the ideas that have been tried out on different programmes, and thinking about how we could take these forward on our own particular programmes.
With many thanks to all the MHSES staff who participated in the PWS session, contributing their time and ideas on community building.