Professor Jonathan Powles, Vice-Principal and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Teaching, Learning and Students at The University of the West of Scotland, shared insights into what should be taken into consideration when supporting students remotely as a panelist at our webinar UK Student Helpseeking 2019 vs 2020: what will be COVID-19's impact upon student support this year and beyond?
I think it's a really important question to ask about what the differences will be online, but the starting point is that teaching and learning, wherever it happens, is that everything that happens organically or serendipitously or informally in a face to face environment has to be planned and built. So we know that students learn a great deal from each other, and we had the excellent question about the commuting students with their own support networks, they learn from family, they learn from their peers, they learn in the spaces around the face to face sessions, they ask questions after lectures, those of us that have taught all know about that experience of the 'corridor questions', the corridor conversations which are so critical to the student support network.
Of course, in the UK there is the marvellous institution of the personal tutor who provides that combination, a very informal blurring kind of way, of academic and pastoral support. The whole point is that much of that genuine learning happens organically in the face to face environment but when we shift online, we have to plan for it. I was literally in a session with my UWS colleagues planning for welcome week, which will happen fully online, trying to find out what is the online analogue [experience] of a student who comes into the physical space and looks a bit lost. We know what we would do with those students if they walked in to our physical spaces on the first week of term or week zero, so how will we recognise them online and reach out to them? So I think what we're seeing, the big uptake in Studiosity and I really liked Liz's presentation and the data does echo a similar study we did at UNE at our own institution last year, one of things we're seeing is a student seeking to plug the gaps in that informal support network. So they are reaching out for and they value the immediacy of the feedback.
"They value the interactivity, which is something that we know students who are thrust into an online environment really crave, they crave the sense of connectedness. They value the support that they need when they need it, and and they value that sense of being connected with the institution or with the broader services of the institution."
And in a way, I think it's as important as the academic skill development that they get from the Studiosity advice, is that sense of being connected to a community online when the university has shifted to an online delivery, that may not occur. So, my takeaway would be for all of us, as we prepare to pivot to a blended or hybrid or fully online delivery as the term unfolds, is to invest in those informal learning and learning support touchpoints with students. I've got in front of me a survey of students expressing what they wished universities would invest in, in the online delivery based on their experience at the end of last year and overwhelmingly, they're talking about communication, support, interaction and yet, if you think about what we do as institutions to prepare for the online learning environment, we put so much resource into content creation. We build videos and we design static resources and we generate content but the students are saying in that online space, we need to make sure we've got that informal and that organic and that interpersonal opportunity to connect with each other. That's certainly borne out by my experience at UNE, when we have learned that it is essential to the online design, to quite explicitly break down the barriers between people because teaching and learning is an interpersonal experience, and it's so easy for those barriers to come up in a technological environment, unwittingly, whereas it's much harder for that to happen when you're actually in the same space as the person you're learning with.
A big thank Should academic skills be more embedded into the curriculum, rather than a 'bolt on' that students have to seek help with?
This is a perennial question, isn't it? I might be cheeky here and and I ask the question, who is the person in an institution best positioned to provide students with genuine and actionable academic skills advice? I can think of a number of different answers to that.
The first one, I will go to his peers, in my experience, sometimes the best people to give students that first level of academic skills advice are slightly more experienced peers because there's a relevance and an the immediacy and to be honest, a safety that doesn't quite happen in other environments. Now, of course, there is a very highly specialised group of academic skills advisers that do this full time. I think there's an assumption that every teaching academic is equally capable of providing the sort of support a student needs around academic skills advice, and I think that assumption needs to be tested. It comes back to a similar version of the question is currently being asked at my institution or has been asked at my institution, of personal tutors. Should we insist that every academic staff member be a personal tutor, or should we actually recognise that some people are really, really good at that particular professional pedagogical skill? And I think that that circles back to your question about academic skills. Should they be embedded in the curriculum? It really depends on whether or not you can harness in the curriculum design a team of people who can deliver that support. And this is, again, where Studiosity can be really useful because the people who are answering the questions, the students questions, are specialists who can be, in a sense, embedded in the student's online experience in a way more seamlessly than you can do with a face to face academic skills unit.
A big thank you to Jonathan for joining us. For insights from more of our panelists, view the full webinar video.