Digital experience: Using digital technology to build a sense of community 

Last week we launched our Digital Experience consultation, inviting you to have your say on the future of the digital learning experience. As part of this, we want to hear your thoughts and insights on the challenges and barriers that you face in delivering a blended learning experience for our students, as well as your ideas on how to overcome those challenges. The consultation is open until 14 May and we encourage you to join the discussion on Ideascale and share your comments via Google Form.

In the past year, we have seen a truly staggering increase in the use of digital technologies as part of the blended learning approach. We have seen some outstanding examples of innovative practice across the University and indeed across the sector. In the coming weeks, we will be sharing your examples of best practice to help inform the development of a longer-term plan.

This week, Dr Sabine Little shares her tips for building a sense of community online and her thoughts and considerations for the future of the digital learning experience.

Sabine is Programme Director for International Postgraduate Certificate in Education (iPGCE) and MA Education, Teaching and Learning, two online courses within the School of Education. She has a wealth of experience in building a community via technology, and has been working with students online, across the globe for over 15 years, often leading a cohort of around 75 students from over 20 different countries and cities within.

How have you been using technology to build a sense of community during the pandemic?

The programmes I direct are always fully online, so we have thankfully had a bit longer than colleagues to consider how to build a community via technology. I think, at its core, there are three considerations:

Google Map shows where in the world students are.

#1 Dedicate time to the purpose of community-building

I view community-building as a part of induction, so the overall induction process might take longer - we have timetabled induction activities across the first two weeks, which includes both traditional induction activities (learning to use the library, understanding different roles in the department, etc.) with activities that are intended to draw out students' views, ideas, and opportunities to share their personalities, hobbies, etc., should they wish to do so.

#2 Make it visual, and blend the students' real world with the virtual

We have two specific activities linked to this. The first is a Google Map, where students are placing a marker and then adding a photo of themselves and some basic information. This map then lives on the programme landing page, as an easy reference to look up peers, identify common interests, etc.

The second is a simple A4 poster, saying "I am a School of Education student in..." - our students are all over the world, so they have the task to add their location to the poster, and find a spot in the landscape. Choosing this spot is up to them, it could be something that is representative to them, or personally meaningful, it's entirely up to them. They take a selfie, and upload it to the welcome activity. A lot of ice gets broken as people comment on architecture, beaches, flora, workplaces.

A student holds a poster sharing their location in Brunei

#3 Keep it going

Following the induction activities, we use weekly 'Reflective Nudges', in the form of stimulus activities which are designed both to help students share their thoughts on relevant course topics, and to bring in personal views and professional experiences. This is fairly easy in a programme where all students work in education - we might compare practices around homework, kick-started by a paper that researches the advantages and disadvantages, or attitudes towards reward systems. If something relevant happens in the current news, that might feature, too. The nudges lead changes week-to-week, so they are also an opportunity to interact with different staff from the programme team. Participation in the Reflective Nudges fluctuates, but it provides an asynchronous 'red thread' of conversation through the programme, where personal discussions are maintained.

How has the pandemic changed your use of digital technology for teaching and learning?

As an online programme, we have had fewer changes to contend with than others, but certain departmental changes, such as developing a single support Blackboard Course for Academic Skills and Development, have been really impactful in improving accessibility to resources.

I think that digital technologies hold great opportunities for programme-level approach - we need to re-think the concept of modules, timetables and sessions, and technology, if used well, can help us to synergise different activities into a coherent experience, or learning from different modules into a coherent programme experience for the student.

DR SABINE LITTLE

What has been the biggest positive impact of the increased use of digital technologies?

Internationally, the pandemic has led to much more accessible content, in the form of free online talks, conferences, etc. We started a departmental Google calendar where these opportunities are collated, giving students the opportunity to engage with experts beyond the scope of their original programme. It is a great experience to attend an online conference and recognise a student's name on the attendance list, have them ask questions, etc. These practices break down barriers, and I hope at least some of them will be maintained.

What has been the most challenging part of the move to blended learning / increased use of technology? What challenges / barriers do you think we will face in delivering blended learning in the future?

I think we have seen an immense amount of good practice being developed both rapidly and rigorously over the last few months. We have had to develop our understanding of learners to include use of cameras, speaking in virtual environments, etc. Some of this thinking is not embedded in policy, and our understanding is still developing. In terms of future challenges/barriers, we will need to ensure that the pedagogical considerations are always at the forefront of our thinking, but also be aware that there are real logistical challenges regarding our understanding of timetabling, how we expect students to engage with us, and with materials, etc.

How will digital technologies enhance teaching once we are able to increase face-to-face provision? What aspects of digital learning will you take forward as we move to more in person teaching?

I think that digital technologies hold great opportunities for programme-level approach - we need to re-think the concept of modules, timetables and sessions, and technology, if used well, can help us to synergise different activities into a coherent experience, or learning from different modules into a coherent programme experience for the student. This already exists in traditional teaching, of course, but I think we have seen some great use of technologies for students to be creative and in control of their own learning, consider new assessment formats, etc. One development we created was an online student journal and blog, to give student research projects a creative outlet. These sorts of initiatives tie different learning experiences together, and then tie the learning experience to the outside world - I would like to continue to explore these sorts of opportunities.

What has the feedback from students and/or colleagues been like?

The last year has seen an unprecedented amount of change, and both colleagues and students have worked incredibly hard to overcome issues, and develop new ways of working. At the same time, everybody was aware that events were unprecedented, leading to a lot of good will - forgiving technical difficulties and teething problems, 'making do', 'hanging in there'. I think it will take a while to properly differentiate feedback, and to make sure we treat feedback that might come with the addendum 'under the circumstances' carefully, to judge long-term opportunities and impact. I know from both staff and students that certain changes have been embraced, and others less so, and I am aware of several changes that will be embedded permanently, especially around assessment. Overall though, I think it will take a period of recollection and further exchange to truly understand the impact the pandemic has had on our understanding and practices of learning and teaching.

If you would like to share an example of digital experience best practice, please email internalcommunications@sheffield.ac.uk