Guest post – DigiLearn: Building relationships in an online setting
Author: Sarah Johnson – Lecturer in Midwifery
Imagine the challenge of commencing a professional undergraduate degree online, the same day as the national lockdown; this was the case for the March 2020 midwifery learning community. Learners starting university in the pandemic, missed out on coffee and lunches together, general chit chat, getting to know each other, working together on assignments in the library, drinks at the end of a theory block, and much more.
The midwifery team sought to foster and strengthen students’ relationships and create ways to learn about each other. We supported students to establish connections with each other by organising virtual coffee rooms, and timetabling students to regularly meet in a social capacity. It was important to help the learners get to know each other and discover what they may have in common in addition to being on a midwifery programme. To facilitate this, at the start of the course they delivered a short presentation about themselves, their journey so far, and who they are. These sessions were met with a lot of positive feedback and were rather emotional, and we as lecturers/educators also joined in to help foster learner-educator relationships.
From the onset of the programme, we encourage learners to participate in live sessions by keeping their video on or using the Microsoft Teams chat function. Some discussions have hundreds of comments, emojis, thumbs up, hearts and cuddly teddy bears. Although this interaction is subtle, it builds relationships between the students and connects them with the teaching team. Who doesn’t love the dancing Penguin on Teams?
Being at home during lockdown has enabled us to learn more about our students, in a fresh and novel way, and they have had a glimpse into our lives from a unique perspective. Seeing each other’s houses, décor of living rooms, meeting and learning names of each other’s children/ pets; many of whom are a regular feature in the lectures. This supports the establishment of authenticity; learners get to know their educators in a different way; breaking down barriers and hierarchy, showing students we are real people too.
Blended learning continues and perhaps is here to stay. For now, the new normal is predominantly online, so it has never been as important to engage learners and to build connections. Not only do we need to make sure relationships are built and maintained with the learners, but with team members too. A colleague and I both started at UCLan in March 2020, around the time of national lockdown. We did not meet for over eight months, yet we think of each other as dear friends. You could say, it has been a peculiar type of online dating for educators; we spent hours together on Microsoft Teams, over lunch, coffee and cake, the odd wine in an evening and chatting to each other’s children and husbands. Therefore, building relationships online is possible.
Our entire team appreciates the importance of supporting each other; checking in, not just asking how you are, but being genuinely interested in the answer. Working from home is a lonely business, many of us have felt isolated. Having such a caring a nurturing team has reduced the isolation. Summer online quizzes; fancy dress team meetings; impromptu evening drinks and a virtual Christmas party have been great new ways of working.
Human life is about the connections we make. It is essential that we build and maintain these. Imagine your life without a single relationship, what meaning would it have? Relationships are a biological need for us and our students, let’s support and nurture these relationships.