“Creating a sense of belonging through a hybrid, flexible model”

Written by Dr Joanna Hendy, Director of Learning Enhancement | Cardiff Metropolitan University.

We have done a lot of work on our induction and transition programmes, where we have already moved from a traditional model of where the students turned up and were, in some cases, ‘talked at’, to a more interactive, project-based induction which runs over a series of weeks. With our Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Engagement we set up an induction planning group, working with our academic schools and student support services, which drives this.

What we are aiming to do in the next academic year is to do that in a parallel ‘virtual’ environment – and we will be using Microsoft Teams, for example, with our schools to make the transition process as informative and interactive as we can in an online platform.

If possible, we will also provide opportunities for students to come to campus, in very small groups, for tutorials to follow up on the tasks and interactive activities we have been asking them to do. So, campus will have a very different feel compared to previous years – we are doing a virtual freshers’ fayre, for example, and we have our Students’ Union planning a range of activities over the summer, including digital badges.

However, it is ultimately about taking the principles we have already designed for transition and changing these more into adapted and parallel activities that reflect the new environment – but is also about creating that sense of belonging.

One of the things we have been focusing on as we move to a hybrid, flexible model is really understanding the DNA of our students – running masterclasses, for example, with our programme directors that start to explore the make-up of students coming onto their courses and thinking about the delivery of their teaching. What we really don’t want is simply transferring and repeating a lecture by talking at students on a screen. Instead we want staff to think about what students really want and need, and how can this be effectively delivered in a blended and flexible approach to learning.

It is also about how we visualise student engagement and what we mean by that. From a line manager and academic perspective this is about the communications we pass down to students. They often see published contact hours, and they are expecting what they think of as traditional contact hours, but I would like to switch this around and start talking about the term engagement hours and what this constitutes.

From a learning and teaching perspective we should not get too drawn into seeing contact hours as delivering information to students in lecture theatres or teaching rooms. Learning and teaching is so much more than this and it is also a reciprocal process.

The focus instead should be on us listening to the students and providing multiple options for engagement, thinking about our teaching approach; so for example using of quizzes, peer support networks and, perhaps, moving away from the lecture and allowing students to dip in and dip out to support their own learning and development needs – especially moving into the next semester when we might have students who are shielding or caring.

It is about giving them choice but still allowing them to meet the learning objectives of each module. It is about us, as academics, starting to think outside the box and listening to the needs of individual students, rather than putting them all into one group. It also about sharing with students a clear plan of what we are expecting from them, as well as what they are expecting from us from these engagement hours.

That engagement time does not have to constitute sitting in front of a screen or in a mass lecture theatre to tick the box that they have met those contact hours. But I do feel that it is partly our responsibility to let them know what we are expecting of them in terms of learning.

The challenge for the next semester is going to be the wider student experience as well as the learning. At the moment we are very focused on how we are going to deliver our learning experience, but for some students the issue is going to be about how they participate in wider experiences, such as sport and social activities. In the UK we are at a very early stage in how we are going to navigate that problem in terms of the wider student experience.

At the heart of everything is effective student feedback, which I wrote about in my last blog. As a further example, we piloted through our Business School a system of getting feedback from students throughout the year. We did a traffic-light system: what did they want lecturers to stop doing, start doing and continue doing, so we had some continuous feedback about engagement mechanism and where we are moving in terms of teaching and learning.

Dr Joanna Hendy is Director of Learning Enhancement at Cardiff Metropolitan University

Dr Joanna Hendy is Director of Learning Enhancement at Cardiff Metropolitan University, and was a panellist on Explorance’s ‘Preparing for our ‘new normal’: how can effective student feedback help universities to survive and thrive in the next academic year?’ webinar on 24th June.


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