Since the 2019 Digital Experience Insight Survey, which revealed so much about students’ experiences of the digital learning environment at Bristol even before the pandemic, the DEO have been keen to channel student voices straight into our work. With 2020 turning out the way that it did, it was even more crucial to make that a reality, and so we worked with Bristol SU to recruit 12 Student Digital Champions (SDCs) from across all faculties in the University. They don’t have a lot of time each week with us, but they’ve definitely been making the most of that time so far!
You can get to know them a little better by viewing this introduction video, also found on the DEO Student Digital Champion project page.
What have they been up to?
Since joining the DEO team, the SDCs have been actively getting out into their faculties, going to course rep meetings and faculty meetings, and talking to staff Digital Champions and other key staff. They’re reporting that even just being in meetings with their ‘digital champion’ hat on has been sparking interesting conversations with course reps and students about the student experience of digital learning in 2020 so far.
They’ve already actively worked with us on two new DEO guides, which have been instigated from student feedback in the Pulse surveys. These are the guides on Interactivity in large sessions, and Breakout rooms. They’ve also worked to co–create and give feedback on the Assessment Checklist and Troubleshooting guide, and other areas of the new Digitally Ready online space on assessment, which launched on 5th January to support students during this assessment period.
What have they found?
The remit of the SDCs is to look for patterns emerging in the student experience across faculties and schools, and work together on the key themes of student engagement in learning and community building. They’ve been tasked with getting students to talk about solutions to their problems too: we want to hear ideas for what could be done differently, or what is working really well and how that could be expanded.
So far they’ve noticed…
Some of the common themes which seem to be merging across the student experience include:
The cohort conundrum
Students are feeling disconnected, are lacking a sense of belonging and a sense of a shared experience. Many are reporting that this is partly due to other students not being active and engaged in online sessions, particularly in not turning on their videos. On the other hand, students also said they feel anxious themselves about being in online sessions, particularly breakout sessions, and in turning on their own mics and video. In the Engineering faculty, students actually felt there was an increase in engagement between students when using the general discussion forum to ask questions. Students seem to be asking more questions and sharing information with each other.
‘I don’t wanna be just a guy on the screen. I want us to be more like a cohort.’ [Year 1 Student, Centre for Innovation]
Clarity and simplicity make good online course spaces
Echoing student feedback in previous years, students are now more than ever keen on things being concise, clear, and easy to navigate. Videos around 20-30 minutes seem to be the maximum that students feel they can engage with, with most preferring 10-15 minutes. Our SDCs are also reporting that a messy Blackboard course space can be pretty discouraging, especially to first year students!
Group work online is brilliant/impossible (delete as appropriate)
We’re hearing loud and clear that the tools of online learning – shared documents, MS Teams, BB Collaborate and BB journals – are potentially great in making group work easier to manage, and coordinate. Students are getting to grips with what these systems can offer, and love the flexibility of it (when the technology allows – internet connection problems are frequently mentioned too!). But they would like more guidance on these tools, and how to use them effectively. At the same time, the lack of group identity, and the fact that they may not have actually met their peers in person, is making things difficult.
‘Only few people are tuning up. How can I trust someone to do their work when we’ve never met?’ [Year 1 Student, Arts]
And they’ve suggested…
There are already several projects in the pipeline, ideas for what might be possible, and pilots in progress. A snapshot of these include:
A Breakout Room toolkit – A toolkit for staff, made by students, on how to plan and delivery the best breakout room experience. This is broken down by year, recognising that first years have different needs and situations than returning students. It includes ideas for group sizes and permanence (3-5 week rotations for groups seems popular), and establishing group identity, as well as how to encourage students to actively participate. More on this soon…
‘Online mingle’ pilot – In partnership with the Centre for Innovation, creating a template for how to run ‘speed dating’ type welcome sessions for students, where they can get to know each other and practice speaking online in a safe and fun environment.
Motivation Panels – Here, more experienced students are there to support first years involved in team/group work, and spark a sense of what their degree is about, and feel motivated by the subject. Led by course reps and students, this is a way to feel part of something bigger than your own unit or programme.
Shared spaces – using tools like MS Teams to explore ways for students to meet regularly and informally. This could include news and inspiration, notices of events, a ‘Help me out’ forum, and introductions to different people within their programme or school.
Groupwork toolkits – Deliverables to help students choose the best tools to use, and how to use them, for group work, as well as how to maximise group work as a way to meet people, and gain the sense of social interaction often missing online.
School assembles – Regular school-wide live sessions, to give a sense of belonging and motivation across a school, rather than just within a unit or programme. These are already been run in the School of Psychological Science, and the SDCs are working to find out what it is about them which are so engaging, and how that might be replicated across the university.