In it together: creating a sense of inclusion for students learning remotely

by | Nov 16, 2021 | Inclusive teaching

Dr Mark Dilworth BSc, Ph.D, FHEAIn her recent post, Jo Hicks promised that we would be sharing some of the great examples of practice from colleagues that were highlighted in the recent OfS exercise on the teaching and learning we delivered to our students in 2020/21.  We’re delighted to bring you the first of these examples, as we hear from Mark Dilworth, Lecturer in Maternal and Fetal Health. Mark talks here about what the MRes in Reproduction and Pregnancy team did to create a sense of community and inclusion for their students, particularly during a pandemic, and which of their approaches they’ll be keeping as we move forward. 

When planning for the 2020/21 academic year, much of our focus revolved, understandably, around the best ways to effectively teach students. Whilst clearly important, I was confident that our programme could continue to deliver an excellent standard of teaching in a largely remote manner should this need continue. Social integration though was an entirely different matter!  

In March 2020, the switch to remote teaching and research projects clearly presented us with enormous challenges. However, at least the students had already formed social bonds and integrated themselves into our department. When planning for 2020/21, how do you effectively look after each student’s wellbeing and foster an inclusive environment, having not even met many of them in person? This was especially important for our PGT programme, which prides itself on providing an immersive experience and ensuring students are integrated into, and form an important part of, the research centre. How do you re-create that face to face interaction with students and between students? Short answer – you can’t. You can, however, make a real difference to their day-to-day experience.  Here’s how we did it and my honest appraisal of what worked and what didn’t. 

Building relationships 

Firstly, we held online Q&A events before the students joined us. This allowed me to begin to develop a working relationship with the students and afforded them the opportunity to meet each other. At the online induction in October, we adapted team building games and students were asked to tell us interesting facts about themselves. These answers then formed a quiz in the second part of their induction, to test their knowledge of each other. At this induction, we also had honest conversations. Whilst we could not predict whether we would face further disruption during the academic year or whether further lockdowns would happen (spoiler alert – they did!), we did promise our students that we would be there for them; and they later told us that the feeling that ‘we had their back’ was really important to them. In order to do this, I protected a fixed time each week for drop-in sessions so students could discuss any issues and also carried forward an open-door policy, albeit that the open door was a square box on Zoom. For taught sessions, I opened Zoom links early to allow informal discussions and opportunities to build rapport. 

Social events and the logistics of integration 

We arranged an online quiz night and assigned students into teams, using WhatsApp video calls for this purpose. Running the quiz in this manner meant the students could play as a team, rather than being one among many in a sea of individual faces on a screen. We also had a staff team, made up of members of the programme team and academic advisors, to add an element of competition. The staff team won, which I considered bad form!  

I wrote one round of the quiz with a question based upon each of our international students’ country of birth, a simple gesture that made them feel included. Also, I utilised some ideas I found online: I got the students to tell me their favourite songs, and then played them in the background of the quiz. All of this was designed to let the students know that we were thinking of them and that they were not alone.  

In more practical matters, we assigned two student reps, rather than the usual one, to share responsibilities. The student reps had a crucial job, probably more so than in any other year, in terms of arranging social meetings, primarily online.  

We also switched the MRes Journal Club, run by PhD students in the centre, to an online format. This continued throughout the year, and we ended up teaming up MRes and PhD students to form a buddy-like system. This meant that even when learning was remote, we could still ensure students were integrated into the department before they physically arrived for their research projects in February. This was reinforced by weekly Zoom seminars within the centre, to which students were invited, alongside lab-group meetings and social meetings early on in their programme. This doesn’t usually happen until January in a ‘normal year’! 

What worked, what didn’t, and moving forward 

Most of these things really worked. Feedback from students suggested that the social aspects were much appreciated and helped reduce feelings of isolation. The events also fostered a level of openness which meant that students came to us to let us know when they were struggling, particularly in terms of their mental health. This allowed us to effectively signpost help at a relatively early stage. The only aspect I wouldn’t bother with again would be the protected timeslots as these weren’t utilised, with the open door policy working better.  

A couple of key questions are whether this type of support is feasible for all programmes, and whether it is sustainable in the long-term? As an MRes programme, we typically teach in the region of 16-20 students per year, which makes these activities and types of support easier (though not easy!) to manage. Clearly, to replicate this kind of individual support on a larger scale is a challenge. In terms of how sustainable these practices are, there is no doubt that considerable extra effort went into planning and to repeat this kind of effort annually means that other aspects of the job have to take a back seat.  

Final thoughts 

As I write this now, our current 21/22 cohort are having a much more ‘normal’ year and I am struck by how much calmer things feel. Despite the additional stresses, it was a real pleasure to lead such an engaged team, who pulled together to support students during an incredibly challenging time. I think we made a real positive difference to the experience that the students had during their time with us. Ironically, I felt a stronger bond with these students even though I didn’t meet most of them in person until February! When I look back at the pandemic, I will always be proud of how we supported our students. We did our absolute best for them and that, really, is all you can ever do.