Guest post – DigiLearn: Time to talk? The value of an online community of learning for part time students
Author: Alice Thompson – Senior Lecturer (School of Health Sciences)
In my role, I have the opportunity to meet some amazing people. Not least are the experienced healthcare professionals returning to Higher Education for under or post graduate study. I feel privileged to support these adult learners. I say privileged because it has often taken a degree of financial and social investment for these students to make the step. Balancing study around work and families brings many challenges.
In addition, returning to study for the first time in several years can be daunting especially given the advancement of technology and culture of encouraging more independent activities. Despite this, I am always inspired by their commitment to learning and willingness to support each other. These students have a lot to gain from an effective learning environment but also a great deal to offer; bringing with them a wealth of personal and professional experience. Creating a sense of community has long been one of my core values but challenges for these part time students are apparent. Limited face to face contact and unconventional home study hours can create a barrier to developing peer networks. Moreover, support from the academic team is typically required during evenings and weekends (or even night shifts!) when they are generally not available.
The creation of an online Microsoft Teams community of learning has been trialled and proved valuable for this student group, complimenting traditional classroom sessions. The online community has provided a space for social, professional and academic discussion. Moreover, students have engaged, independently taking on a peer support role, answering questions and providing guidance to each other. This frequently takes place outside of conventional teaching hours and are mutually supportive. In addition, students have a platform for sharing formative pieces of work, providing peer feedback and working on collaborative projects in between classroom sessions.
The benefits of communities of learning are well referenced and certainly feedback from students has reflected this. These ‘non-traditional adult learners’ have reported a greater sense of belonging, deeper learning and application to practice. The use of the Teams mobile app has provided easy access to keep in touch with each other and receive updates from the academic team. This has proved to be less burdensome and more responsive than traditional email systems particularly for students juggling their work/life/study balance. Furthermore, seamless uploading and private chat functions has placed all communication in one central and user-friendly platform.
New to Teams myself, a short introduction session delivered with the Faculty Learning Technologist proved to be all we needed to empower the students and realise the benefits on offer. Whilst online discussion groups are not a new concept, I do believe that the use of Teams has significantly contributed to the experience of this particular student group.
In the spirit of andragogy, they have taken ownership of the Team and found ways to use it to their advantage. The impact of the community of learning on these students has been truly motivating, as I endeavour to find ways to better support this inspirational group of learners.