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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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Dupery by Design

by Petar Jandrić

Since the election of a number of right-wing populist governments across the world, there have been increasing concerns that fake news in online platforms is undermining the legitimacy of the press, the democratic process, and the authority of sources such as science, the social sciences and qualified experts. The global reach of Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms has shown that they can be used to spread fake and misleading news quickly and seemingly without control. In addition to their power and reach, these platforms operate, and indeed thrive, in what seems to be an increasingly balkanised media eco-system where networks of users will predominantly access and consume information that conforms to their existing worldviews. Conflicting positions, even if relevant and authoritative, can be suppressed, discredited or overlooked as a result of filter bubbles and echo chambers.

Digital technologies have contributed to the prolific spread of false information, encouraged ignorance in online news consumers, and fostered confusion about how to determine fact from fiction. These same technologies have, however, permitted marginalised voices to be heard (transgender and autistic communities, victims of street harassment, for example), encouraged diversity, facilitated error detection and investigative accountability, and challenged privilege and prejudice. This opens up myriad questions such as:

  • How are online platforms designed to exploit particular vices such as close-mindedness, epistemic nihilism, insouciance, etc. and contribute to the power and dissemination of deception?
  • Deception: what is it? Is there anything peculiar about the times in which we live that should raise special concerns about the proliferation of fake news, lies, bullshit and other such vices online?
  • How do our individual and collective epistemologies interact with digital technologies to produce deceit?
  • How can we counter epistemic vices online, and protect ourselves and our institutions from their potentially baneful effects?
  • Can deception ever be justified? Is there anything to be learned from mass propaganda and deceit in other historical periods?

The epistemology of deceit in a postdigital era

To address these and related questions, Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose, and Ibrar Bhatt have edited a book The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery by Design. The book offers strong theoretical and philosophical insight into how digital platforms and their constituent algorithms interact with belief systems to achieve deception, and how related vices such as lies, bullshit, misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance contribute to deception. This inter-disciplinary collection explores how we can better understand and respond to these problematic practices.

Continuing editors’ earlier work in the Special Issue of Postdigital Science and Education, ‘Lies, Bullshit and Fake News Online: Should We Be Worried?’, the contributors to the collection discuss the diverse ways in which deception is a pervasive feature of our communicative lives. Among the issues explored are how the design and infrastructure of digital platforms enable (or disable us from distinguishing between) what is true and truthful; fake or real; informative, disinformative or misinformative, malinformative, and other such information disorders. The scale of the dupery impacts on human rights, individual freedoms and dignity, agency and autonomy, in addition to the harms mentioned above.

The role of higher education is critical within this context, as universities have traditionally been regarded as sites of epistemic authority where knowledge is created and disseminated through the work of academics and theoretically grounded systems of teaching. Recent trends have shown that universities market the idea that an education through them will create ‘future-ready’, ‘globally-aware’ and ‘critically-thinking’ graduates, equipped with the relevant skills and knowledge to deal with issues facing our modern world, including public health crises, climate change and conflict.

The book was launched at a successful SRHE event held on 16 March 2021, in which editors, authors, and more than 100 members of the public engaged in a vivid discussion.

What is next?

These days, there is really interesting research taking place in different fields about post-truth and online deceit. Closer to higher education, and interesting example is Michael A Peters, Sharon Rider, Mats Hyvönen, and Tina Besley’s popular book Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education, which discusses the meaning and purpose of higher education in a ‘post-truth’ world.

Aided by a unifying postdigital theoretical framework which holds that human beings are systematically embedded in digital infrastructures, Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose, and Ibrar Bhatt in The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery by Design make a unique contribution by reaching interdisciplinary boundaries to explore, examine and counter online deception, and analysing the power of social platforms and their role in the proliferation of epistemic harms. This line of inquiry is in its early days, and it will be very interesting to see where it will develop in the future.

Petar Jandrić is a Professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Zagreb (Croatia), Visiting Professor at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), and Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Zagreb (Croatia). His research interests are focused to the intersections between critical pedagogy and information and communication technologies. He co-authored the chapter ‘Scallywag Pedagogy’ with Peter McLaren (Chapman University, California) in Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education. pjandric@tvz.hr