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
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