I’ve been thinking a lot about how we support the learning community, and how we develop/deploy pastoral activities into the online space. I did some whiteboarding earlier and thought I’d share some thoughts and ideas I’ve had. The definition I have used for “pastoral” is an activity which “supports the wellbeing, welfare, and engagement of the student delivered by the learning community”. Specifically, I haven’t focused on personal tutoring, but taken a broader definition.

I’ve started with the assumption that we may go into lockdown again (nationally, locally, or a quarantined bubble) removing the opportunity for face to face engagement. For this reason, we need to make sure our digital approaches are robust. Secondly, many institutions will be running the majority of their pastoral engagements online during the pandemic. I’ve also assumed that people’s home environment will be vastly different. For some people, home is a nurturing and supportive environment, for others, it isn’t. Even if that home environment isn’t unhappy, it could still be disruptive with its own unique challenges. “Awkward” housemate relationships are often flagged during pastoral engagements.

So, people may not be willing to “open up” during a scheduled video chat. Why? Because the situation they may need to talk to you about could be sat in the room with them at the same time. They may not be able to chat to you about the genuine issues they are facing. Also, remember that a scheduled session may be difficult to engage with. If we do go back into lockdown, parents (mature students) may need to homeschool their children, others may have elderly relatives to care for.

To address this, consider normalising a number of different communication mechanisms (such as email, teams chat, video calls, etc) for your pastoral engagements, as some of these may be easier to communicate through. I sometimes ask the students I am working with to check-in additionally to our scheduled pastoral sessions. I do this by sending them a quick email asking them “how the programme is going” and “is there anything preventing you from making the most out of your experience”. Be very careful with your wording, as excellently noted by my colleague Professor Megan Bruce.

I always take the time to highlight that students can contact me outside of our scheduled sessions, and I use my wording to give them an opportunity to flag up any challenges they may be facing. However, I’m not always the person that a student wants to talk to, and this is OK! We feel different levels of security and comfort from different people. For this reason, I think having a strong learning community can be an important lifeline for many students as it gives them access to a range of people who they can get pastoral support from. However, students will often not know how broad their learning community is, or the number of people (and support departments available to help them). Consider how you are presenting this information, and don’t assume that students will scroll through your staff pages.

One way I did this was a silly spoof TV series called “Star in VR”. You can see it here Including Professor Liz Mossop (Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor @mossposs‘s) race. We put staff (professional and academics) into a silly race series, and used that as a hook to package up meaningful information.  What made it useful was that it was ALL student-led. Students did the interviews, picked who they wanted to highlight, and helped us to make it meaningful to other students. I wrote up a quick guide on how to do your own on one of my other blog posts – https://chrisheadleand.com/2020/09/01/student-led-staff-interviews/

Importantly, we learnt that not every student needs to see the episode for the information to be spread. Sometimes it is enough for people in the cohort to know, and they can repackage that information for other students. Star in VR wasn’t socially distanced, but it could be! Lots of options to do student-led podcasts, videos, you could even do games competitions as we did, all through the magic of video conferencing:-) The important thing is sending out the same info in a variety of ways. 

Peer-mentors can be invaluable agents in the pastoral mission. However, loads of challenges doing traditional peer mentoring in a socially distanced environment. Students may struggle to meet face to face, and more complex timetables may make things more difficult. Engage with the students how they would like to manage their peer-mentoring. many have their own platforms and communication channels (Whatsapp etc) which we don’t have access too and can’t endorse or use.  Consider setting up a digital “common room”. This is a peer mentoring model where students can go into an anonymous discussion board, and post questions. These common rooms are monitored by the mentors who can respond quickly to needs as they arise. 

To give people the sense of a strong community, they need some shared events. In Computer Science, we have given our students the opportunity to do Hackathons and Game Jams, but in recent years I have also been doing regular video games live-streams with colleagues. These pastoral events are opportunities for students to chat with staff and other students anonymously and in a casual environment. We run these streams for about 3 hours, and usually, get around 80 students join us for the full stream. I wrote more about it on this blog post https://chrisheadleand.com/2020/06/21/could-games-have-a-role-in-combating-social-isolation/

Games can be great to play with students. I used to have a tutor who would play chess during every meeting. I didn’t get much better at chess, but the game (and play) created a very relaxed environment where I felt more comfortable talking. It humanised my mentor. I genuinely think there are few things as humanising as play. It demonstrates that people are fallible, and I think this helps us be more approachable (even from a position of authority).

During the lockdown, I have been running many of my supervision meetings in video games. It creates a fun shared event, relaxes everyone, and actually helps focus the conversation. I’m currently running an evaluation of this approach. You may want to try it?  I’ve also played a few games of chess and checkers with students over the internet using a webcam, and some pieces of paper. You will be surprised how many inclusive ways you can find to play on a video connection or asynchronously via email. 

Next year, we will also be facilitating ways to allow students to set up their own gaming groups and clubs to get together and play online games together. There is evidence from the recent lockdown that online gaming has helped people to avoid feeling isolated. 

I love gaming – but it’s not for everyone! Consider how you facilitate students setting up study groups. Provide spaces where you can help students match together. Online tools like Microsoft Teams and Talis Elevate can help here (speak to @mdleast about Talis).

Consider adding pastoral elements into your live, and face to face sessions. Take a little time to just ask your students how they are feeling, and how they are managing with their programme. Make sure you share the feedback through your facility. Look after each other! You can add to this by running virtual “town hall” sessions. Some students feel more comfortable talking about certain issues in a large group, there can be comfort in a crowd. It’s also a great shared event you can provide to your learning community (allowing you to come together). 

Work with your student reps and ambassadors to collect “good news”. Positive things you can share about achievements throughout the cohort. Consider setting up a school blog or repository to share this among your community.

Question what is your virtual watercooler is going to be? Many of our pastoral engagements happen when we interact with students in the corridor because this is often a lower barrier to engagement than booking a formal meeting. Consider how you are going to facilitate serendipity. We won’t naturally be bumping into people in the corridor if we are working online, so we need to find ways to facilitate this.

Consider how you are using your school social media accounts. These can provide a lifeline for students to contact. What content is the social media putting out for the students benefit? Again, consider this an alternative channel that you can use. Consider how you use “reading weeks”, and non-scheduled time to provide students with the opportunity to check-in and gain pastoral support from their community. A milestone-map or progress map can help here. Think about how extracurricular opportunities are signposted.

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