Creating connections: Supporting the social side of online learning

With lockdown restrictions affecting campuses across the world, 2020 has shone a spotlight on online and blended learning techniques. However, education is about more than the transfer of knowledge. Social interactions are an important part of the student experience, vital for providing support and developing skills such as team working. We asked staff, graduates and our students’ association how they help to create digital learning communities.

Dr Iain Morrison, Dean of Students

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the ways higher education operates, with many universities having to adapt quickly to an environment where learning and teaching delivery is predominately online. Pedagogical skills have had to be rapidly developed, online infrastructure invested in and student expectations managed.

Less visible have been the rapid changes in the ways professional services are being delivered to ensure processes work smoothly for students and their support needs are met.

All universities are now moving into the online space to support their students and, at the University of the Highlands and Islands, we are finding ourselves the subject of multiple requests from colleagues elsewhere keen to learn from our experiences. Although nothing could have prepared us for the recent challenges, we have found that we possess significant strengths.

Based in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, our partnership of 13 colleges and research institutions covers the largest geographical area of any campus-based university or college in the UK. We have the largest student population in Scotland, with nearly 37,000 students studying with us each year. Our blended learning approach combines video conferencing, online technologies, real time support from lecturers and local staff and face-to-face teaching.

Although we have the advantage of world-class technology, the focus is not on the technology itself, but how we use it to support our students and to create a sense of belonging and opportunity during this challenging period.

Emma Robson, Activities Manager, Highlands and Islands Students’ Association

The Highlands and Islands Students’ Association had to adapt quickly to the ‘new world’ during a crucial time for both new and returning students.

Clubs and societies started to use social media and communication platforms in place of physical meet ups and arranged social events such as quizzes for their members. Students also set up new ways to recruit members, taking part in induction programmes at local colleges to ensure engagement is as high as possible.

HISA student reps coordinated virtual tours of campuses and local areas across the Highlands and Islands and organised online social events like ‘dungeons and dragons’ which proved very popular. There have also been student competitions, including a treasure hunt in Lerwick to encourage students to individually find their way around their new town! Many other campuses also hosted events, such as live DJ sets, music bingo and virtual drop-in sessions with senior management.

Throughout lockdown, HISA has put on a range of events which are open to all students, including ‘cuppa and chat’ sessions to allow students to get to know people from different campuses. We also arranged a ‘HISA-lympics’ for students to keep fit.

We introduced an online freshers’ programme this year too. The event included a quiz hosted by Mark Labbett from ITV’s ‘The Chase’. Our students took on Fife students and, naturally, our students won! We also had a music event which celebrated women in traditional music across the university partnership which reached almost ten thousand viewers. Our most popular freshers’ event was a comedy night with four comedians, including headliner Iain Stirling. It was a fantastic comedy exclusive for Highlands and Islands students!

Anna-Wendy Stevenson, BA (Hons) Applied Music Programme Leader

Our applied music programme has pioneered delivering creative online residentials to students since 2014, allowing participation from even the most remote locations. As a result, despite the current restrictions due to Coronavirus, our students could meet as usual this September through a virtual residency.

We are living in a time where community has never been so important. The value of community for collaboration and learning underpins the curriculum design and delivery of our applied music degree.

Our face to face residencies are rites of passage and reflect many aspects of the professional music world, from long, intense days full of learning, to working with musicians of different backgrounds and expertise. Shifting to fully online as a result of COVID, we consciously retained the intensity of schedule and expectations, engaging students in collaborative tasks which are often creatively and academically challenging. 

We begun our academic year by focusing on our programme values and ethics, discussing themes of ‘community’, ‘collaboration over competition’ and ‘belonging’. We created a range of in-course support groups, both in and across year groups, through a study buddy system and by spreading students who are confident with technology throughout groups. Bringing the university’s creative writing degree into our residency allowed students to meet with peers on another programme. Engaging with external organisations such as the Scottish Music Industry Association and XpoNorth to shape opportunities for response and resilience has also been a key factor. 

Video conference presentations with simultaneous chat functions have enabled more discursive and meaningful interactions between students and staff. We have found there is stronger attention and investment as part of the evolving discussion process. One second year student explained: “I feel noticed, encouraged and valued.”

To develop performance skills, musicians need to isolate and practice for hours on end. Yet rarely is the performative side a solo venture – it usually relies on intensive collaboration. To facilitate this, we create opportunities for social engagement such as ‘a chat and a tune’ on Friday lunchtimes and an ‘applied music bake-off’ which went global on social media. We have also organised evening events such as ‘desert island discs’ which encourages staff to share their musical inspirations, experiences and life stories.

This holistic approach to support collaboration, community and wellbeing both in curriculum and in social spaces has been incredibly successful. Contrary to staff and student concerns, engagement in the online environment was actually been higher and more sustained during the online residency week than the equivalent face to face activity. New friendships have been forged from Spain to Shetland through a carefully curated community of practice which values collaboration over competition.

Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, PGDE (Primary) graduate

There were lots of opportunities to build relationships with fellow students on the PGDE (primary) course, both online and in person. At the start of the year, we met at Badaguish Outdoor Centre for a three-day residency where we collaborated with students from across the university partnership. We met our classmates for the first time and formed seminar groups which would meet online during the course.

Being online helped massively with the social elements of student life. We used chat groups to keep in contact with our classmates and seminar groups for document sharing and collaborative work. The benefits of using online chats for advice, reassurance and support cannot be understated. There was always somebody available who had experienced the same problem or asked the same question before. An issue from a student in Inverness could potentially be resolved in just a few minutes by a network of students from as far away as Shetland or the Borders.

Our online collaboration increased greatly when classes went online during lockdown. Classes and meetings were held in virtual classrooms and assessments were submitted online too. We also adapted to socialising in this way. Where we would have met up in person before, we used online facilities to host informal chats. We even held a ‘spring break’ party where some of us wore fancy dress on the last day of term!

Now our class has graduated, we still keep in touch via WhatsApp groups. It’s fantastic to hear how everyone is getting on and to have a network of new teachers around the country we can call on for advice throughout our careers.

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