M25-LTG Winter Meeting – Belonging and Community

On December 6, the M25 Learning & Teaching Group met for a hybrid meeting, with its first in-person contingent since November 2019! The presentations were also streamed for online participation. The afternoon started with lunch for those attending in person at the new Royal College of the Arts campus in Battersea, before kicking off with a welcome from Puiyin Wong (RCA), Sue Harrison (KCL), and Geraldine Foley (City, University of London. Julie Voce, also from City, University of London attended online, along with many others (myself included).

Building Belonging in HE (Sunday Blake, WonkHE)

Watch Building Belonging in HE recording.

The busy afternoon then started with Sunday Blake presenting the main findings from the WonkHE report on student belonging at university. It was interesting to hear that one prompt for this project was the lack of clarity around what “belonging” means in higher education, one of the aims of the project was to determine what this meant to students. The scale of the research was impressive: over 5,000 students participated in surveys across 15 universities. Further, nearly 250 of those students kept in-depth diaries for researchers to analyse to get more qualitative understanding.

Bringing together all these responses, Sunday shared the report’s theory that connection, inclusion, support, and autonomy are the key pillars, all of which should be supported via holistic mental health support. Interestingly, more students (55%) reported a sense of belonging at course level, compared to at university level (39%). Digging into that finding, the report found that best practices at course level included students interacting with others on their course, but that the emphasis from students was not around seeking friendships per se as simply connections. Examples that students reported effectively created this included informal coffee mornings initially set up by staff, then taken over by students. In online spaces, they suggested WhatsApp groups that are created by staff, but then staff leave, and students continue. The groups being created by staff means that students are equally aware of the opportunity, but then students taking them over and staff bowing out ensures they can be effective peer support spaces. Notably, there were differences reported between what mature students wanted versus younger students. Primarily, mature students emphasised wanting to be part of a learning community and improving their academic experience, rather than seeking support networks the way that younger students may more frequently seek. This was a popular discussion theme throughout the rest of the day.

When assessing how inclusion fits into belonging, the report found that inclusion tends to be about accessibility of teaching & learning materials as a default. Students reported significant benefit in having accessible materials without having to go through intensive bureaucratic processes and potentially “other” themselves to request them. Unfortunately, 54% of staff surveyed reported that accessibility does not have a clear standard, and 72% reported a lack of staff knowledge in making materials accessible. The report strongly recommends that staff receive neurodiversity and inclusive design training including how to communicate neurodiversity support to students.

Another aspect of inclusion was wanting course materials to be representative. Perhaps contrary to staff perceptions, the students reported that this was not about having students’ own identities necessarily being represented in the course content. Instead, student concerns were more about academic rigor and employability considerations of not having access to breadth of examples and knowledge. For example,
students are concerned that medical textbooks not including examples of symptoms on different skin colours negatively impacting their ability to succeed after graduation. Students suggested that acknowledging gaps in the curricula was better than ignoring them, for example a module on “world cinema” should consider its title if only some parts of the world are discussed in depth. The report also recommended that staff could ask for students to volunteer new additions to the curricula.

The report also found a correlation in students reporting a sense of belonging and self-perceiving strong academic skills. The report therefore recommends embedding academic skills training throughout university, not via a deficit model. Similarly, the report recommended a variety of assessment styles across the curriculum. It also suggested that institutions help staff consider a “feed-forward” approach for responding to student feedback.

WonkHE is now working on research to think about what factors influence staff feelings of belonging, the biggest threat found so far in the research is job insecurity. This is similarly a survey-based effort, so far with 430 staff responses across institutions.

Student Digital Community (Elisabetta Lando and Rae Bowdler, City, University of London)

Watch Student Digital Community recording.

Our second presentation featured Elisabetta Lando (City, University of London) presenting an evaluation of staff and students’ experiences of using Teams sites to support learning and teaching that she conducted with Rae Bowdler (City, University of London). They conducted this evaluation with ten staff members and twelve students across different schools of City about their experience of using Teams.
From student focus groups, Elisabetta and Rae found out some themes. First, students reported that Teams in a module works well when staff have good organisation and skills in using the capabilities of the technology. Students appreciated the ability to communicate easily with lecturers, both via chat and via calls (when invited by the lecturer). Teams was additionally seen as beneficial for students because of how it enabled students to work in groups and collaborate via channels and chats. However, existing challenges around cameras on/off in meetings and the implications for engagement in live sessions remained.

From this work, Elisabetta and Rae recommend helping students collaborate on Teams via chats and channels instead of non-university alternatives like WhatsApp, as Teams is more professional and secure. They also suggested building positive feedback from students on working together, creating guidance for students on how to create their own spaces on Teams, and ensuring staff know how to use all the features in Teams. They are already building a community of practice for staff throughout the university on using Teams to continue to expand this work.

Bake off and bingo!

Following this presentation, in-person attendees participated in the first ever in-person #EdTechBakeOff and a networking & learning technology bingo. Meanwhile, those of us online were led by Julie Voce in trying to complete the bingo with online attendees.

I am pleased to report that we nearly got there! If you were a webmaster in the old days of the internet, or currently work in library services, or still use Mahara, let us know! We have made the bingo cards available via a Creative Commons licence for anyone else who would like to use them.

Congratulations to Bake Off winner Emma Bayne from the Royal College of Art.

Blended & Hybrid Student Community (Puiyin Wong, Royal College of Art)

Watch Blended & Hybrid Student Community recording.

After being stuffed with cake and interrogating peoples’ history of using various educational technologies, we heard a presentation on building intercultural student communities with the aid of technologies from Puiyin Wong (Royal College of Art). For this research, Puiyin looked at 23 students across 15 countries and 9 ethnicities and 5 staff across 4 countries to determine how cultural backgrounds impact student community formation. She found that 43% of students reported a good experience with building a sense of community via blended learning. However, 56% reported that peer engagement was harder with distance learning. Key findings from student feedback on hybrid learning: 43% found it hard to engage with students from other cultures when everyone is in different modes of attendance. 56% thought that hybrid “created a two-tier system” and 72% thought that it was easy for in person students to ignore online students. Puiyin aimed to make her presentation interactive, with a Padlet for people to engage with ideas and discussion questions.

Community Building for Learning Technologists in the Conservatoire Sector (Evan Dickerson, Guildhall School of Music & Drama)

Watch Community Building for Learning Technologists in the Conservatoire Sector recording.

The penultimate presentation focused on community building for learning technologists in the conservatoire sector by Evan Dickerson (Guildhall). He outlined how there was a lack of community amongst conservatoire educational technologists, despite there being some people working in this area. He then detailed the initial steps to create a community, which were received quite positively. We look forward to seeing how this specialist community continues to grow!

Transferring interactive academic skills to an online learning experience (Sian Lund & Juli MacArthur, Royal College of Art)

Watch Transferring interactive academic skills to an online learning experience recording.

Finally, we heard from Sian Lund and Juli MacArthur, both at Royal College of Art, about their experience transferring interactive academic skills to an online learning experience. They explained how they used Talis and Padlet in four- and eight-week pre-sessional summer courses to support the English language skills for 150+ students coming into postgraduate degrees. Sian and Juli discussed how Padlet was used as a micro-blog type activity for students. Although this is not the most common Padlet use case, students found it easy to learn and use, it looked more modern and professional compared to built-in Moodle versions, and it was easy for students to write in and read from. Students then engaged in the learning process of reading and assessing English language sources via Talis to develop skills interactively. They reported these two uses of educational technology being quite successful in improving skills and popular with students.

The day then concluded with a pub visit for those attending in person. Looking forward to the next M25 session!

Miranda Melcher, Educational Technologist, City, University of London
Julie Voce, Head of Digital Education, City, University of London

Find out more about the M25-LTG Member Group and get involved.

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