Last month, UTS hosted its first FFYE online forum in Zoom with 80 registrants gathering to discuss ways of thriving in the COVID-19 T&L environment. The event was hosted by Kathy Egea FFYE coordinator (IML) and faculty FFYTE coordinators from FASS, FTDi and Business. Presenters included these academics, L&T IML, Counselling and UPASS student panel with UPASS coordinator. 

The forum was split into three parts:

  1. The concept of thriving in COVID-19  times.
  2. Student experiences and perceptions of thriving in COVID-19 condition.
  3. Sharing thriving practices in COVID-19 conditions.

Academic perspectives

After a brief introduction, Tyler Key (FTDi FFYTE coordinator) kicked off the forum by discussing the meaning of thriving, as well as the UTS mental health and wellbeing project that he is currently coordinating with SSU and Equity for building a healthy University culture around the following key principles:

  • Building compassionate teaching, learning and research communities.
  • Developing a sense of belonging, socialisation within the UTS context.
  • Fostering a sense of agency and engagement.

Nick Managas (FASS FFYTE coordinator) then unpacked some of the emotions and reactions that people are currently experiencing in COVID-19 as they move through the fear, learning and growth zones. Having spent 10 years living in Spain, Nick was experiencing a lot of anxiety from concern about his friends and family and had to modify some of his behaviours to manage his stress, such as limiting his news consumption.

A lively group discussion followed in smaller breakout rooms around how participants are currently supporting themselves in COVID-19 and moving through the three zones. The responses were fed into an interactive real-time Mentimeter poll ran by Simone Faulkner (Business FFYTE coordinator) who reflected on the common ideas as they emerged.  Needless to say, ways of coping, well-being, social isolation, connection, stress and time-management were all big themes that came up again and again. Walking, yoga, meditation, routines, cooking and spending time in nature were all popular remedies.

Many academics have used the time to experiment with new strategies, tools and techniques to improve their work practice and student engagement. Some of the things identified were:

  • The need to carefully plan and scaffold learning.
  • The importance of student and teacher presence.
  • Being mindful of extended screen times.
  • Ways to support students who are struggling (e.g., pairing them up with a study buddy).

Student perspectives

Student wellbeing was covered by Kathy Egea, drawing on the literature on essentials in student wellbeing (National Project-Enhancing Student Wellbeing.) Kathy highlighted the ways we can design the student learning environment to include:

  • autonomous motivation;
  • a sense of belonging;
  • positive relationships;
  • experiences of autonomy; and
  • feelings of competence.

David Taplin (UTS student counsellor) also spoke about students who are doing well and those who are not, and drew on the ideas behind Wellbeing Essentials, as well as how UTS has improved their response times to student requests during this peak period. From the students’ perspectives, Georgina BarrattSee (UPass coordinator) led a panel with her team of three students: Joyce (Business), Justin (Science) and Jason (Engineering) who unpacked some of the challenging issues they are experiencing:

  • Finding normalcy in their lives.
  • Trying to work out what is work and leisure.
  • Finding the motivation to go to class without the usual incentives.
  • Maintaining a positive mindset and managing expectations.

As well as the thriving strategies they are adopting:

  • Developing good study habits and routines.
  • Taking breaks.
  • Setting goals.

Feedback for staff included:

  • Being an accessible presence (students and academics).
  • Being empathetic and understanding (students and academics).
  • Having clear groupwork guides.
  • Setting classroom expectations.
  • Using icebreakers.

Alisa Percy (L&T IML) offered guidelines and support with references to our recently developed remote teaching toolkit resources, including Joseph Yeo’s (ALL IML) groupwork resources, while Kathy Egea identified ways to support students in an online teaching and learning environment:

  1. Know students’ needs: understand their diverse circumstances.
  2. Be aware of practical challenges: e.g. bandwidth, access.
  3. Facilitate student connections.
  4. Provide opportunities for Q&As.
  5. Check-in with students: online learning can be lonely and isolating.
  6. Promote support services.
  7. Your impact is enormous: it’s the small (human) actions that count.

 Source: Supporting student wellbeing during COVID-19: Tips from regional and remote Australia (NCSEHE)

Future focused

To wrap up, participants watched an inspiring video presentation by Katherine Newton (a tutor in both FASS and Business) on how she is travelling four weeks on. Katherine reflected on how she and her students are more engaged than they expected, and possibly even more involved in their subjects. It is a great example of how both she and her students are ‘thriving’.

Despite the challenges of managing large groups online, this year’s participants were a highly engaged group who racked up a lengthy chat scroll with lots of useful lived experience tips to help students and academics thrive. Some of these included:

  • Using Zoom and breakout groups for student engagement.
  • Access and equity: 
    • some casual academics not having the internet capacity (or computers) they need for the role of online tutor – some faculties provide tutor with additional support but not all.
    • students are able to apply for data and computers with the UTS Student Support Package (many now use their mobile phones).
  • Importance of emails/or other ways to communicate with students to keep in touch and check-in; students currently need this; many used Tyler’s survey on student wellbeing. 
  • Use of weekly drop-ins via Teams and booked into calendars.

As we all learn to not just cope but thrive in this rapidly evolving space, it’s great to know we have each other’s backs and are a part of a larger community at UTS that hosts events like these to give us the time and space to check-in with one another and grow together. Don’t miss out on the next FFYE event scheduled for late June.

A big THANKS for organising yesterday’s FYE Forum. It was different and it was great. I loved your comment at the end about the young lecturer Katherine. It’s true, she saw the challenges of online teaching and learning (including her own learning!!) as a great way to thrive and grow and was enthusiastic about it. That’s one of several things I’ll take away from yesterday to energise my teaching.

– FASS Academic

Get involved

Tyler Key (FTDi) is working with the Equity and Diversity Unit and looking for interest from academics to be involved in the next stage of development for the UTS Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy. If interested, please fill in this form.

Cover photo by Singkham from Pexels

  • Very useful information. Thanks very much. Happy to help in any way with resources etc. Or to speak to students needing pastoral support.
    Joanna Thyer. UTS Multi-Faith Chaplaincy Coordinator.

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