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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The Digital Tutor: Digital Tools, Relationships and Pastoral Support in Higher Education

by Jodie Pinnell and Sukhbinder Hamilton

If navigating higher education in recent times has taught us anything, it is that digital technology for teaching and learning is no longer an ‘option’ but imperative for an accessible and inclusive learning environment. With the sudden response to Covid-19 leading to remote online approaches overnight, some professionals in higher education have been thrust into a new digital world, and in survival mode, this has naturally prioritised its potential for pedagogy. Unsurprisingly, research has investigated digital technology and pedagogy thoroughly (Williams, 2012), but outside of the remit of formal counselling (Situmorang, 2020) and distance learning (Hilliam and Williams, 2019), the potential for digital tools for pastoral support has yet to be thoroughly explored. This gap in research prompted us to see how digital tools can benefit personal tutors, and more importantly, how these tools can aid relationships, in a climate where students and academic staff find themselves more disconnected than ever before.

Working in the capacity as senior lecturers, predominantly for undergraduate Childhood Studies programmes, the ‘digital awakening’ brought about by Covid-19 has been a welcome development in our practice. For us, it has paved the way for new approaches, new thinking and ultimately innovations in all areas to support students. Even before the unexpected impacts of Covid-19, we had identified a gap in our personal tutor practice at level 4, a crucial time for students to feel supported as they settle into the first year of their undergraduate degrees. For context, within a study skills module, students are allocated a designated academic ‘personal tutor’ to address academic and personal matters. Whilst this module design has historically allowed for a holistic approach to study skills and pastoral support, it has relied on students being confident enough to approach their personal tutors to articulate needs, something that many were often reluctant to do independently.

The nature of the personal tutor and tutee relationship within higher education is one conducted in a climate which is growing ever more ‘consumerist’ in nature; with inflated expectations for ‘value for money,’ and rhetoric defining students as customers (Modell, 2005). With increasing student numbers (Yale, 2019), it is notable that more and more students are demonstrating wellbeing issues (Universities UK, 2020). The personal tutor is the first point of contact for students to discuss concerns, and with a focus on emotional wellbeing through individualised support, the personal tutor role can be increasingly compared to that of a counsellor (Jorda, 2013). A supportive relationship with a personal tutor in the first year of a degree can prepare students for more challenging times (Brinkworth et al, 2009), and in managing transitions, provides a familiar face and a door to knock on. Giving ownership to the student to share information with their tutor is needed, especially where personal or sensitive issues need to be discussed, and the student signposted to necessary services is required.

Despite this, it has been found that students can struggle to understand the role of their personal tutor (Ghenghesh, 2018, p 571), and with diverse student needs, tutors are pressured to help at all costs, with support not appropriately suited to the confinement of ‘office hours’ (Jorda, 2013, p 2595). Other challenges span a general lack of effective tutor training or the ability to meet increasingly complex student needs (Lochtie et al, 2018). With growing workloads, academics already have a plethora of ‘hats’ to wear (Knight, 2002), with competing demands in other areas, causing a conflict for a role that cannot necessarily be time bound.

Within this consumerist culture, and with a focus on the personal tutor role (and its challenges), we decided to do something different. A Google form asking pastoral questions was forwarded to first year students at the start of the academic year, giving them the opportunity to provide a written background about themselves. Without knowing this would prompt a research project and prove to be valuable, the form aimed to ‘break the ice’ between tutor and student, to remedy reports that some students struggled to open up. Without an opportunity for students to discuss their needs, the correct support is difficult to provide. The form’s questions included; How are you currently feeling about enrolling at the university? What are your hopes and fears regarding university life, and the course? What do you expect from the tutors? And importantly (and most effectively) the request to ‘Finish this sentence… I wish my tutor knew…’ (Schwartz, 2016). All answers were collated in a spreadsheet, and tutors were able to find their tutees’ answers through a search function. The aim of the forms was to give personal tutors an insight into the student’s world without requiring them to initiate conversations in a ‘cold’ meeting with a stranger, ‘fast-tracking’ a relationship between personal tutors and their tutees. The form was completely optional and formed the basis of the first tutorial meeting between tutors and students, giving some background, but ultimately allowing students to outline issues that they may struggle to articulate in the first instance.

Following the success of this approach, a second form was issued at the end of the year, with questions about the effectiveness of using the initial form. Both ethical clearance and student consent were sought to publish the findings. All responses from the students who agreed to participate were collated in one single document, and with rich findings two papers emerged, one focusing on the role of the tutor, and the other on the impact of Covid-19, but with threads of student wellbeing and a sense of belonging running through both.

It’s safe to say that the findings have made a real impact on our practice. Firstly, the value of the forms for relationship development were clear, with snapshots illustrating that it allowed students to reflect on how they are feeling and to raise any concerns they had. Linked to wellbeing, the approach meant that students could discuss mental health issues and their home life situations, without needing to ‘physically disclose something to a stranger.’ Linked to expectations surrounding the personal tutor role, it was clear that students saw their tutors as the first person they felt ‘comfortable’ with, and they expected them to learn about their names and backgrounds. Qualities of a tutor were clearly identified as ‘respect,’ ‘empathy’ and ‘trustworthiness,’ and at level 4, this was largely characterised by the transitions associated with first year study. Anxiety, relief, wellbeing and the impact of Covid-19 were threaded through these findings, leading back to the role of the tutor primarily for support.

So, what’s next? For practice, the continued use of the digital forms will remain an integral part of our pastoral strategy but rolled out across other year groups also. The value of the personal tutor role needs to be reiterated across the team and plans are afoot to provide in-house training. This is not just a useful step to take within our establishment but should be the case for higher education in general as it is imperative for successfully supporting students as a first point of contact. Further research is needed in the area of digital tools for pastoral care and their potential for fast-tracking relationship development and ‘breaking the ice.’ Working towards the goal of creating an inclusive learning environment starts with relationships, and with the rise in remote working, we can rely on digital tools to help, harnessing their perceived unlimited potential to enhance the student experience.

Jodie Pinnell is a Senior Lecturer, Course Leader and Senior Tutor in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Jodie on Twitter @jodieEdu

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Co-Convenor for ‘The Women’s Workshop Sociological Collective,’ and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Sukh on Twitter @sukhhamilton1

References

Brinkworth, R, McCann, B, Matthews, C and Nordström, K (2009) ‘First-Year Expectations and Experiences: Student and Teacher Perspectives’, Higher Education 58 (2) 157–173. https://DOI:10.1007/s10734-008-9188-3  

Ghenghesh, P (2018) ‘Personal Tutoring From the Perspectives of Tutors and Tutees’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42 (4), 570-584. DOI: https://10.1080/0309877X.2017.1301409

Hilliam, R and Williams, G (2019) ‘Academic and pastoral teams working in partnership to support distance learning students according to curriculum area’, Higher Education Pedagogies, 4 (1) 32-40 https://doi.org/10.1080/23752696.2019.1606674

Jorda, JM (2013) ‘The Academic Tutoring at University Level: Development and Promotion Methodology Through Project Work’,  Social and Behavioral Sciences 106 (1) 2594- 2601

Knight, P (2002) Being a Teacher in Higher Education  Buckingham: SRHE Open University Press

Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E, Stork, A, and Walker, BW (2018) Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. Critical Publishing

Modell, S (2005) ‘Students as Consumers? An Institutional Field‐Level Analysis of the Construction of Performance Measurement Practices’ Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 18 (4) 537-563 https://doi.org/10.1108/09513570510609351

Schwartz, K (2016) I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids Da Capo Lifelong

Situmorang, D (2020) ‘Online/Cyber Counseling Services in the COVID-19 Outbreak: Are They Really New?’ Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 74(3) 166–174

Universities UK (2020) Coronavirus (Covid-19) https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/covid19

Williams, J (2012) Technology Education for Teachers BRILL

Yale, AT (2019) ‘The Personal Tutor-Student Relationship: Student Expectations and Experiences of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43 (4), 533-544, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164


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Pandemic and post-pandemic HE performance in Poland, UK and Ukraine

by Justyna Maciąg,  Mateusz Lewandowski, Tammi Sinha, and Tetiana Prykhodko

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The original  statement can be found here.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have had to change their delivery and ways of working at incredible speed. The disruptive innovation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is having profound impacts on all stakeholders of HEIs. This study reports on the results of the project which has brought together 3 perspectives from Poland, the United Kingdom and the Ukraine. The purpose was to evaluate and compare the performance of Universities during this period. Performance is understood as assessment of support given by a University to its stakeholders in the following spheres: organisational, technical, technological, competency and social. This study will contribute to better understanding the context of value creation by Universities during the pandemic and post-pandemic period.

We took the perspective of HEI stakeholders into consideration (students, academics and administrative staff). Their opinions and comments were collected by interviews in the form of an online questionnaire with some open questions. We intended to give them a space to share their perspectives, emotions and feelings caused by the lockdown. The questions carried out thematic analysis around the following issues: 1) organisational (planning and communication); 2) technical, (platforms available, teaching methods); 3) technological, (bandwidth, equipment); 4) competency (your own learning and comfort with online learning); 5) social conditions (your environment for study) of higher education experience within the current COVID-19 pandemic and follow up research post-pandemic. The surveys started in the middle of June 2020 and continued till October 2020. Sampling followed the snowball method. Participants were self-selecting with links shared for the online Microsoft forms and Google questionnaires. 

We collected 396 questionnaires, 296 students, 100 university staff and academics (240 in Poland, 133 in Ukraine, 24 in UK). We would like to thank all of our participants for their contribution and candour.

First we would like to start with some qualitative analysis of students and staff responses in the questionnaire. The open questions were used to diagnose their experiences related to measures taken by Universities during lockdown. They were also asked to highlight the most and the least effective  solutions offered. We decided to use an Ishikawa Diagram to analyse the possible causes for their most and least solutions identified. We analysed the factors around the COVI19  problem in order to provide insights and possible solutions for an effective and thriving  ‘post-pandemic University’.

We grouped responses under headings showing below in the Ishikawa Diagram.

Chart 1 Ishikawa Diagram

There are some obvious similarities between these countries and some differences. We draw a conclusion that in each country the situation was similar, the teaching-learning process was transferred into our Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), and staff started remote or hybrid work (both academics and admin staff). The difference was notably the mechanism of this change: in the UK it was deemed more incremental change, in Ukraine and Poland the change was more radical. The proof of this is that in the responses in Poland and Ukraine respondents indicated several solutions which aren’t coordinated and supported by the Universities (i.e. using a social media for teaching-learning process, lack of integration of different e-learning platforms). Whereas in the UK many Universities used VLEs as ‘business as usual’. 

The common themes identified for research in investigated countries were the expectation of support in different areas, not only in a teaching-learning process, but also in equipment (provision, repairs), financial aid, mental sphere, and competence development etc. The findings implied that the expectations of the students and staff support needs were not fully met at this time. Universities were in survival mode and the change management process was lacking in many areas.

Next, we analysed the background given by quantitative analysis of University performance in the technical, competence and organisational sphere (evaluation was carried out using a 5-point Likert scale). The results of research in each country are shown on Chart 2.

Chart 2 Evaluation of the support given by university during lockdown (Poland, Ukraine, UK)

We also investigated the need of support and help provided during the pandemic period studied. The results are presented in Chart 3.

Chart 3 Percentage of respondents who declare that they need support or help

The results of research showed that ‘University’ is mentioned the most, as the expected supporter for students and staff, both academics and administrators. The importance of social support also has appeared in our results. People are looking for assistance among colleagues, thus creating a proper, strong internal social relationship is valuable for them. 

Table 1 The frequently mentioned sources of support

Our key conclusion from this work, at this time, is the importance of support and setting expectations of what support is available in HEIs. We  draw a key finding that the understanding of value delivered by ‘the University’ has to change, and leave behind the neoliberal concept of value for money. We need to expand the understanding of value, taking into account the necessity of tolerance perceived inefficiencies within the university. University staff and students have had to adapt very quickly, and use all of their skills and tenacity to deal with this situation. Creating and co-creating value within universities has always been challenging, however the creativity of staff and students has pulled this sector through it. We have all had to become disruptive innovators.

Justyna Maciąg, PhD,  and Mateusz Lewandowski, PhD, are lecturers and researches in the Institute of Public Affairs at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland. 

Tammi Sinha, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Operations and Project Management, Director of the Centre for Climate Action, University of Winchester UK. Tetiana Prykhodko is Head of the Program of Analysis and Research,  City Institute at Lviv, and a PhD student at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine.


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Transitioning a large first year Human Physiology group to fully online due to Covid-19 and supporting their learning

by Amy Larsen, Deanna Horvath, Stuart James

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The authors’ statement can be found here.

There is no going back: in a post-COVID University the new norm will inevitably be greater reliance on online and remote learning. The student experience will no longer be structured around a bricks and mortar campus that only those in proximity can access, but allow students more choice and flexibility in when and where they learn. The National Guidelines for Online Learning tell us that effective online learning requires a whole-of-institution approach, curriculum that is designed specifically for online, meaningful learning analytics and teacher presence. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic universities were not afforded the time to implement this best practice approach.

As coordinators of one of the largest subjects (Human Biosciences A (HBA)) at La Trobe University (LTU) delivered to  about 1600 students from 14 different degrees in their first semester of University study, our team faced a significant challenge to pivot from a blended to fully online delivery due to COVID-19 in five working days. We were particularly concerned about the support for students and staff in the transition to the new learning environment, in addition to the curriculum changes required. Students had completed three weeks of the subject activities prior to this shift, which included 2-hour face-to-face workshops per week structured for peer learning, and interactive seminars with clicker audience response. While we were unable to implement all of the recommended National Guidelines, we examined the subject structure and determined we needed to establish and maintain online teacher presence, implement solutions for asynchronous delivery of learning content, and provide high quality online synchronous options to replace previously face-to-face weekly workshops and fortnightly seminars.

Asynchronous: what happens when you are absent is just as important as when you are present

Remote and online learning can leave students feeling isolated; thus, we established an online teacher presence through extensive communications throughout the transition, including a video from the coordinators detailing what to expect at the recommencement of their studies. This outlined the key changes to the workshop structure and assessments, as well as setting clear expectations for students for the rest of the semester. The learning resources in HBA were created using H5P which enables the addition of interactive activities with immediate feedback on learning materials, providing students the opportunity to undergo active learning asynchronously. Forums remained another useful asynchronous learning tool where students had an open space to ask questions which generated discussion between students and academic staff regarding subject content.

Synchronous: generate peer interaction and connectedness with an online learning community

The biggest challenge we faced with synchronous learning was replacing the approximate 50 weekly face-to-face workshops with virtual classrooms via Zoom. Students were provided with numerous support resources to assist their familiarisation with Zoom, gain access to their sessions, and to set clear expectations of how online workshops would be delivered. In terms of delivery, online workshops involved combining two classes into one session, allowing us to pair academic staff with varying degrees of experience. This also prevented a class from halting completely in the event of a staff member disconnecting due to varied reliability of home internet connections. The main room was used for general discussion, breakout rooms provided students the opportunity to undertake collaborative problem-solving tasks in small groups, and Zoom polling allowed students to test their knowledge in real time with instant feedback and discussion from teachers during a class.

Delivering seminars fully online came with fewer challenges than workshops. Effective communication around online seminar scheduling and access, the use of live chat, polls, and recording sessions for students who could not attend live were all key factors in ensuring students had an enriching learning experience. Interestingly, we found that the nature of online seminars allowed for a much higher degree of interactivity between teachers and students compared to their face-to-face counterpart.

The student perception

Students were surveyed after undertaking three weeks of online workshops for feedback on both their experience of the online workshops (see Table 1), as well as how well they perceived their transition to online (see Table 2).  Overall, students perceived the experience of online workshops as positive.

Positive72.2%
Neither Positive nor Negative12.7%
Negative15.1%
Table 1: Student Experience in the ‘new’ online workshops

Even though the students found the experience of online workshops positive, just over half of the students found the transition easy while the rest were undecided or found it difficult.

Easy55.6%
Neither Easy nor Difficult 11.9%
Difficult32.5%
Table 2: Student Transition to online workshops

Student feedback

Some qualitative student feedback on the transition to online highlighted the importance of the LMS for the organisation of learning resources and communication of important information – “Lectures link clearly with enquiries set out on LMS, they are well prepared before delivery flow well and easy to follow along. Having two facilitators is excellent – one to talk and one to answer questions, and they back each other up. Thanks, it been a smooth crossover” and “In all honesty I would like to commend HBA on its smooth and efficient transition to online learning … HBA by far had the best process and communication when we became online. They were very clear and concise with information and made the steps as simple as possible. I think the support system that they have set up is exemplary as everything is well laid out via the LMS”

Student feedback also identified that workshops, including Zoom breakout rooms and polling, created an engaging and supportive learning environment with their facilitators and they were able to receive immediate feedback on subject content and identify gaps in their knowledge – “That despite being moved onto online study, it is still just as easy to communicate and get involved with your facilitators and fellow group members. I really love the way the quizzes have been set up to show the most common option answered by students and immediate feedback is given to address where any gaps in knowledge are evident” and “We get feedback and clarification from our quizzes immediately. We are encouraged and easily able to ask questions using the chat format”.

Student satisfaction

Overall student satisfaction for the subject improved (2020; 4.13/5) when compared to pre-COVID delivery (2019; 4.04/5). Thus, it can be inferred that delivering the subject in a fully online mode did not affect the quality of student experience.

So, what have we learnt from this experience?

  • The importance of clear, frequent communication and setting student expectations early.
  • LMS organisation and support for navigating the online learning environment is key.
  • Teacher presence in both asynchronous and synchronous activities is vital.
  • Students were overall satisfied with the online learning experience.

Amy Larsen is a Lecturer in the Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology department at La Trobe University, and for the past eight years has acted as the Subject Coordinator of the Core First Year Physiology Unit HBS1HBA. She has expertise in teaching large, diverse first year cohorts in both face-to-face and fully online modalities.

Deanna Horvath is an experienced online educator with a focus on technology enhanced learning and equity in higher education. Deanna is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University and coordinates the universities largest online course.

Stuart James has over eight years of teaching experience with three of those years in fully online teaching. He is passionate about innovative learning and teaching solutions to enhance student engagement & success. Stuart is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University.