Work with students to build a sense of belonging in a blended learning environment

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A recent study by Wonkhe and Pearson found that a sense of belonging is one of the key factors influencing the student experience, and that improving students’ mental health should be central to strategies that foster a sense of belonging. It is suggested.

As a new undergraduate program director, I faced the challenge of fostering a sense of belonging in a blended learning environment. The goal was to foster meaningful connections, open communication, and collaboration with students. That’s why at Alliance Manchester Business School, we’re launching a Belonging pilot project in collaboration with the humanities faculty’s e-learning team and student partners to co-create an inclusive and accessible community of practice for students in our undergraduate programs. I took the lead. This project aligns closely with Wonke and Pearson’s four foundations of university belonging identified in their research: connectedness, inclusion, support, and autonomy.

To create a safe space for collaboration and meaningful connections, we leveraged technology platforms already available across our institution. To achieve our goal of fostering a sense of belonging and promoting purposeful interaction, we have shared support networks and resources that are helpful to foster agency among our students.

Based on strategies and experiences from pilot projects that generated high engagement and positive feedback from students, here are some helpful considerations to keep in mind when creating communities of practice that foster a sense of belonging.

Use technology at your disposal

To foster peer connections, collaboration, and communication beyond in-person settings, we recommend using Microsoft Teams as a secure digital platform to build connections and share files. There are several benefits to using this platform to foster a sense of belonging.

The private chat feature helps build trust as it facilitates one-on-one interaction between students and tutors through targeted academic, pastoral, or employability support. Video calls save time and are easy to schedule. Students, faculty and staff can download the Microsoft Teams app onto their mobile devices, making it easy to respond to messages quickly.

This use of collaborative technology has also been found to help alleviate concerns about student mental health, as more students seek support in what they perceive to be a safe space. There was also the added benefit of increasing students’ digital literacy in preparation for the workplace, given the organization’s widespread use of collaborative software and messaging platforms.

Foster meaningful connections and open communication

For undergraduate programs with different grade levels, creating specific channels in Microsoft Teams can facilitate communication and strengthen connections between peers. Through these channels, you can present to each year group and direct them to customized resources to support their learning.

To encourage inclusion and autonomy, you can use the general channel to share announcements that are relevant to all students, as well as resource tabs that link to Blackboard sites, student support websites, faculty handbooks, and learning resources. By sharing these resources in one place, students can quickly find answers to their questions and feel in control of their learning. Using emojis and engaging visuals can also help create a student-friendly space.

While many students are accustomed to using social media platforms, it is important to set healthy boundaries by encouraging a professional and respectful attitude when using platforms such as Microsoft Teams . Students feel comfortable asking questions to create a positive atmosphere. To do this, add a how-to guide tab with guidance and netiquette (Internet etiquette).

Employability is one of the key pillars of our undergraduate programme, so it is important that our students are better connected to professional opportunities. To promote internal and external career (and social) events, we created an event channel and encouraged students to actively participate in these events.

We recommend creating private channels for each year group so they can share customized announcements and resources. As students progress to the next grade, they can rename their channels to reflect that grade, allowing them to stay within the same group and continue building connections.

Collaboration with student partners

Platforms like Microsoft Teams can also help university staff work with student partner groups to support collaboration throughout the academic year. You can create private channels for student representatives to support committee meetings and raise issues, student ambassadors to support public events, and coaches to provide peer-to-peer support to students.

Seeking feedback to promote student voice

To better assess your students’ college experiences and challenges, asking for their feedback at various intervals can help you identify ways to better support your students. You can also use the Insights app within the general channel to analyze statistics about your students’ online participation. You can seek feedback from students in a variety of ways, including surveys and informal face-to-face meetings with each year group. In our case, evaluating feedback led to creating structured social time for peer connections and more engaging and interactive posts within the channel.

The overall benefits of using a platform like Microsoft Teams to foster a sense of belonging include:

For staff:

  • This will reduce repeated email inquiries from students, giving you more time to focus on other tasks.
  • Increased sense of belonging and more meaningful connections with students participating in the program
  • Students feel less hesitant when seeking targeted support
  • Enhance collaboration with student partners when soliciting feedback.

For students:

  • Increased sense of belonging and reduced feelings of isolation and anxiety
  • Improving student autonomy
  • How to expand your network and find employment opportunities
  • Participation in social events to improve peer connections within year groups and across the program.

Above all, this community of practice fostered a sense of belonging and created a more positive college experience for students.

More information and support

If you are interested in creating a community of practice for your students, please follow this advice first and contact me if you require further guidance.

Reimala Sivalingam is a BSc Accounting Program Director at the University of Manchester.

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