Go! Building community and fostering a support culture
Classrooms are not just spaces where ideas are aired, shared, critiqued and debated; they are sites where affects emerge, circulate and enter into conflict. (And this circulation far exceeds the human). Pedagogy is at least as much a matter of affect modulation as it is a question of theories, evidence, arguments and genealogies.
This chapter is about connection before content. It addresses ways to put into practice the pedagogy of care at the start of a course: it has examples of support systems designed to foster students’ sense of belonging and, connected to this, their academic progress.
About the case studies
I present three case studies which illustrate some practical ways in which teachers can show emotional intelligence as they support students’ well-being: (1) about trauma-responsive pedagogical approaches; (2) about valuing neurodiversity; (3) about supporting students through low-tech informal social media groups.
1. In the printed/ebook edition, read the first case study by Godson Gatsha (Botswana) about the importance of trauma-informed teaching practices, particularly at the start of a course, to support students’ well-being.
2.In the printed/ebook edition, the second case study entitled ‘Teach to reach me: valuing neurodiversity’, by Gloria Niles (Hawaii), discusses how we can show, in practice, that we value neurodiversity on our courses.
3. Here below, the third case study by Nomsa Zindela (SA) entitled ‘WhatsApp as a technological affordance for supporting students from a “distance”—A case study’, illustrates the way in which WhatsApp can be used to create a support system for students at a critical assessment time to implement the ‘pedagogy of care’. The case study shows that although a well-structured virtual learning environment (VLE) can provide students with the content and support they need for their studies, using more informal, low-tech spaces such as WhatsApp, an app that students (in many countries) likely use daily on their phone for their informal social exchanges, can make a big difference in the engagement of students by providing emotional support.
WhatsApp as a technological affordance for supporting students from a ‘distance’ – A case study
By Nomsa Zindela (SA)
In this case study, I used a third-year module with an enrolment of 120 students. This is a hybrid module on Contemporary Theories of Language and Literature; Pragmatic Theories of Speech Acts and Queer Theory and is taught using the distance education model.
The initiative aimed specifically to create a supportive environment for students leading to and during the examination period, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It aimed to rekindle students’ sense of community, allay their anxiety about the new way of being assessed, and enhance their confidence as they prepared for their final examination.
Student Support in Open Distance Learning (ODL)
As shown in the image, the primary goals and functions of student support in ODL are threefold: affective, cognitive and systematic (Tait 2000).
Image: Goals and Functions of student support in ODL
Most universities including my own, focus on the cognitive and systematic areas to the neglect of the affective function of the support. I positioned my project in the affective function whose emphasis is on support, caring, promoting well-being, collaboration, creative participation, and community. This domain is closely linked to the inclusivity ‘roots’ values of intentional hospitality and nurturing.
The project draws on connectivism, a theory proposed by Siemens (2004) and Downes (2006), which acknowledges that learning is not an individual activity, but rather a process that allows students to flourish in the digital era. When students use digital tools to connect, they are able to “reflect on dialogue about, and internalize content in order to learn.”
For this project, WhatsApp became the perfect platform for this purpose. It is an inclusive tool in many ways: it is affordable, popular, offers immediacy and flexibility in terms of when and how interaction can occur. In WhatsApp, messages can be recorded and shared or written; and sentiments/reactions can be expressed through emojis, gifs and even stickers.
Using WhatsApp Technology for Student Support
I created a WhatsApp group chat, which ran for 10 days, from 9 June to 19 June 2020, the 19th being the day on which students’ online examination was to be submitted. A total of 39 out of 120 students joined the group. The rules were flexible: joining was a choice, speaking, chatting, posting was also a choice; students set the tone as they were invited to state what they would like to do in the 10 days.
At the end of the 10 days students were given a questionnaire to complete and 18 of the 39 responded to the questionnaire. From the responses it was possible to arrive at two themes which align to connectivity and inclusivity. Below the responses are summarized and examples of responses (R) are given. The students described the experience as interactive.
R1 For me personally a WhatsApp group is much more interactive. It feels more personal.
They were encouraged by the promptness of the responses. They felt connected with their course mates; they were not alone; they belong to a community of likeminded people.
R4 The WhatsApp group also created a great network for students to meet and be in contact with one another.
R4 The entire exam prep. I didn’t feel the need to vocalize much in the group as many of my own thoughts had been mentioned by other students.
Even the presence of the lecture on the group did not intimidate them instead they felt safe because an expert was listening in and would guide then when and if necessary. It felt safe and relaxed as they were under no pressure to say anything.
R6 Hi! Yes. I personally love the WhatsApp group because it feels more personal and is more engaging than any other platform. Whilst I may have not participated, I can tell you that I picked up a lot which is great! Having the lecturer here also ensures that we’re on the right track of things.
When asked for suggestions for future activities, students made suggestions that a WhatsApp group should be created for each assessment task including assignments and that they wish all their course lecturers would do the same for other courses. As captured in the students’ feedback, I am challenged to use this application in my future student- support design.
Downes, S. (2006). Learning networks and connective knowledge. Instructional Technology Forum. Available at: http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper92/paper92.html.
Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Available at: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm.
Tait, A. (2000). Planning Student Support for Open and Distance Learning Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 15:3, 287-299, doi:10.1080/713688410
Obvious challenges here are that if the teacher is part of the group: (1) they need to share their own mobile number and (2) they enter another communication space which spills into their personal mobile space and can mean extra work.
Regarding sharing one’s personal mobile number, it might be possible to use a work mobile number or a virtual phone number (compatible with WhatsApp) which can be easily set up online. Regarding spilling into teachers’ personal space, WhatsApp (web) can be accessed via a desktop, so it’s easier to limit its use to one’s office hours.
Also, clear netiquette and expectations should be set out from the start so everyone is clear as to the role of the teacher in that space.
To be culturally responsive with international students’ group, there might be another social media platform that they prefer, rather than WhatsApp, so we should check with them rather than choose what suits us.
Starting the course
I present three case studies about ideas to design a more inclusive course start: (1) about intercultural learning; (2) about students as novices; (3) about support systems in the first week of a course.
1. In the printed/ebook edition, the first case study narrative by Pilar Teran Trueba (UK) entitled ‘Can we envisage ‘the modern intercultural learner’ in higher education?’ is about the development of intercultural competency and includes a suggested icebreaker activity.
2. Here below, the second case study by Tim Fawns, Derek Jones and Gill Aitken (UK), entitled ‘Students as novices’ proposes an initial activity to put teacher-students in the shoes of a beginner learner. Depending on the discipline we teach, we might be able to set up a novice activity for our students at the start of the course, or at least discuss what being a novice learner entails and what metacognitive abilities can support their learning on a new course.
3. In the printed/ebook version, the third and final case study by Era Savvides (UK) entitled ‘Support systems at the start of a course’ discusses practical, inclusive systems that we can put in place to support students during the first week of a new course.
Students as novices
By Tim Fawns, Derek Jones, Gill Aitken (UK)
“…there is no out-of-context” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte): Derrida 1967
Students of our MSc Clinical Education programme are clinical educators from a variety of disciplines (medicine, nursing, dentistry, and other allied healthcare professionals) and a variety of locations within the United Kingdom, Europe, USA, Australia, Asia and Africa. They are typically experienced and knowledgeable professionals, although their roles may be positioned at different levels of seniority, from junior doctors to high-level managers. They also have varying levels of educational expertise. A question that arises for us is, how do you explore learning, knowledge and the development of expertise without that exploration being entangled in their current practice? In this we are reminded of the much (mis)quoted statement by Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida: “…there is no out-of-context” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte) (Derrida 1967). That is to say, it is difficult to think about learning without reference to the fact that one is a clinical educator, attending a postgraduate course on education at a University, in the presence of one’s peers, etc. One approach to inclusivity, for us, is to reposition students as novices, supporting learning by putting them in a new context, promoting learning about learning, and fostering a collegial spirit in the group, both amongst peers and between students and teachers.
A (voluntary) activity that provides a way of taking the student out of their current context is a motor skills task we encourage our students to do early in the first course. This task involves each student and teacher choosing a physical skill to learn, which they have very little or no experience of. Examples include juggling three balls, performing a magic trick, drawing a horse, tying a complex knot or mastering an origami shape (see the image below). The activity is designed to help our students to remember the kinds of challenges they faced in developing their expertise as clinicians, reflect on their assumptions and beliefs around performance, learning and knowledge, and help them identify with the perspectives of their own students. Of course, following Derrida, context is still at play, but it is introducing a different context for the purpose of illumination.
Image: Students (and teachers) take a leap by learning a new skill as ‘novices’
By encouraging both students and teachers to position themselves as novices, we attempt to create an equitable and inclusive learning space and to reduce hierarchies. In using this approach, we are influenced by another idea proposed by Derrida, the ethic of hospitality. In accordance with this ethic, we aspire to make space for the “students who show up”, rather than presupposing their characteristics and backgrounds (Ruitenberg 2011). Through ongoing dialogue around the processes, failures and triumphs of learning their tasks, students and teachers explore barriers to learning, and ways of overcoming obstacles, finding resources and developing practices that are useful to particular students in particular situations. By encouraging both tutors and students to be open about their own fears and challenges, we hope to encourage a culture of honest reflection and dialogue, in which educators are freer to be themselves and to learn from each other.
Feedback from students has highlighted the value of this activity in promoting a holistic and, broadly speaking, inclusive, sense of education, helping them see beyond content and competencies to supporting their own students to orient themselves to their learning. There are, of course, both opportunities and challenges with this task, not least the requirement for the teacher to learn a new task each year!
Derrida, J. (1974). Of grammatology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published 1967)
Ruitenberg, C. (2011). The empty chair: education in an ethic of hospitality. Philosophy of Education, 2021:28–36.
This activity might pose some challenges hence we should avoid making it compulsory, though this could result in low take up. Some students may have various disabilities which might considerably limit their ability to learn a new motor-skill (so we could broaden it to any skill). Also, as teachers we should model being a novice and this means challenging ourselves to learn a new skill for every new cohort we use the activity with.
Though being a novice is a very impactful learning experience, we should analyse our context to determine the appropriateness of the activity.
Although in this case study the students are teachers and the point of the activity is for them to take off their (disciplinary) teaching hat to reconnect with their learner self, I believe that no matter what context and field we teach in, all teachers would benefit from being a novice in something. Over 20 years ago I took a course to learn to teach foreign languages and the first activity we did was to sit in a first lesson of a language we did not know. I still remember my mixed feelings, the strategies I employed to learn, where I got stuck and just the overall experience of being a beginner language student. I remember all that, over two decades later, because being a novice is an emotionally high impact activity.