If we have learnt anything from this pandemic and the shift to remote learning, it is the importance of connection and care even in the context of physical distancing. In the Zoom room, we lose those critical moments of spontaneous connection that remind us that we are not alone – and this is true for both students and staff.  In our recent First and Further Year Experience (FFYE) Forum, facilitated by Kathy Egea (FFYE Coordinator) and Alisa Percy (Senior Lecturer, IML), and attended by over 100 participants (mostly academics, some student support staff and at least 14 students), we sought to draw on the collective wisdom of the UTS community to think this through.

Beginning with a reflection on students’ critical pain points during their first six weeks of session, Alycia Bailey from the Student Learning Hub shared her teams’ insights discerned from data around students’ help-seeking behaviour. These included technical issues with systems and technologies, and academic challenges related to independent study, managing study workloads, and understanding what is expected in assignments. But a critical theme, particularly relevant to the remote study environment, was the problem of social isolation. Our community’s observations of students include: a lack of connection with university life and community; difficulties making friends and building relationships; a felt lack of peer support; stress experienced attempting to network with peers and/or connect with group members and manage group dynamics; and ironically, despite a desire to connect, their lack of comfort with turning on their camera in Zoom. For some, we recognise, the formal learning opportunities provided in Zoom do not feel like spaces where connection, care and trust can be experienced in meaningful ways, and this is something we aim to reflect on. 

This feeling of social isolation is not merely an unfortunate side-effect of remote teaching, it is a critical factor in students’ sense of belonging and their willingness to show up and engage and persist with study. It is also one we know our best teachers are attempting to address by staying up late to respond to students’ emails out of a genuine concern and care for their wellbeing. So how do we create connection and care for both staff and students at this time?

Reflecting on this and the provocations provided by Georgina Barratt-See and the U:PASS leaders about how to better engage students online, the community came up with some important strategies.

Fostering connection

  • Use the first or last 5-10 minutes of class to check-in with students and provide social time for non-subject related chat
  • Use fun ice-breakers (eg. Show your pet, Scavenger hunt, Virtual background, An item with a story) to personalise the space
  • Allow more time and use different methods for students to get to know each other (eg. Zoom coffee chats, Teams channels)
  • Use small group work regularly to allow for connection, chat, breaks, and using games and shared documents to recognise participation and contribution
  • Hand ownership of the activities to the students (eg. lead discussion, share screen, provide examples of experience)
  • Encourage students to access the support, resources and activities advertised through the Supporting Study Online website

Building a culture of care

  • Do tech checks – without embarrassing students, find out who has a camera and who is using their mobile phone – accept these differences without judgement
  • Acknowledge student concerns, share your own, and invite positive conversations about how they can be successful studying your subject
  • Co-create the rules of engagement (eg. conversations rather than information sessions about communications, group work, assessment criteria)
  • Model respectful behaviour (eg. online and face to face, appropriately engaging in difficult conversations)
  • Use students pre-class work to shape the focus on the in-class work
  • Allow for silence and thinking time with reassurance and possibly early guidance to students about how to use this time to their advantage
  • Provide opportunities for reflection (e.g. Minute paper, 3-2-1, Rock, stick & leaf, Highs and Lows, A rose and a thorn)
  • Provide clear instructions about the purpose, procedure and value of the session
  • Blend, as well as you can, the asynchronous and synchronous learning activities
  • Use interactive technology for engagement and to check for understanding (Kahoot, Mentimeter, Google Docs, Jamboard, Padlet, Polls, online quizzes, chat function in Zoom)
  • Where possible, email absent students to check they are ok
  • Remind students of the services available to them

Fostering connection for staff

Turning to the staff experience, Associate Professor Anne Gardner (Head of School, Professional Practice, FEIT) shared the work she is doing to create a community of care among staff. Recognising that staff will struggle to create a community of care for their students if they themselves do not feel cared for, Anne uses weekly School meetings (which other Schools are invited to) in tandem with an MS Teams site with a ‘Wellness’ channel (Wellbeing, Resilience and Flourishing ) and a ‘Coffee Break’ conversations channel to provide spaces for staff to connect and relate. These weekly meetings are not formal. They begin with the question – ‘What issues and questions do you have?’. Staff are invited to show up as ‘whole people’ with personal and professional lives to pose questions and seek input from the ‘collective brain’. Anne has found this opportunity for discussion very successful with those staff who particularly value connection with their peers. As Anne says, if we want our teachers to care for our students, as leaders and managers, we have to care for our staff as well. 

The Forum also showcased work from the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion’s Welcome and Belonging Project, a students as partners project led by Susan Hansen. This work will be showcased in a future blog post written by the students. The Forum also featured work on belonging from Tyler Key (FTDI) about communities of care, and a reflection from Nick Manganas (FASS) about how caring for ourselves is a critical part of being able to care for our students. We will pick these themes up in a future post, so please watch this space. 

Many thanks to Susan Hansen and Alycia Bailey for setting up the pre-Forum quiz activity exploring the Supporting Students Online website, and Simone Faulkner (Business) who facilitated our opening activity on connection at the beginning of the Forum.

Useful resources

How can I… build relationships with and between students in Canvas?

How can I… use Canvas to facilitate social learning?

Teaming up online

Resources for inclusive teaching & learning environments 

A quick and effective way to help student groups establish norms

Feature image by prostooleh on Freepik

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