We learn many things from each other. Whether it is being shown how to do something by another person, or watch what they are doing themselves, or reading what they have written – learning is a social act. Each one of us has an established ‘Personal Learning Network’ around us, a collection of sources of information, advice and guidance. A Personal Learning Network might comprise of people, groups, technologies, or activities. We have people or resources that we turn to if we need information, guidance, or help. Personal Learning Networks are particularly important to undergraduate students, and are particularly challenged in newer students who are in new and unfamiliar surroundings. We develop Personal Learning Networks over time, and so when a student comes to university, or moves from shared student accommodation to a shared house, the nature of the network changes. Vincent Tinto’s 1975 model for why students drop out of university had social interactions at its core. Although this model has been revised and challenged many times over the recent decades, social interactions remain fundamental to student success and persistence.
My own research has suggested that Personal Learning Networks are particularly important for Year 1 students during the transition to University, as they are learning the ‘rules of the game’ for their new life as an independent person, a university learner, and a novice member of an academic discipline or profession. There are three key sources of these interactions – peers on their course, peers with whom they live in student residences, and friends they make in sports clubs, societies and religious communities. The first of these, peers on their course, are often the least established of the networks, especially for those courses where face-to-face contact is limited, and there is limited scope for students to work in pairs or very small groups. Without the course-based peers, the learning network suffers when it comes to learning the conventions and expectations of the academic discipline. It takes them longer to understand what we want from them, and how University is different from school. The most impactful contributors to the Personal Learning Network are actually the other students with whom they share accommodation, or interact with in extracurricular groups.
Why is this important? The recent environment of social distancing and online learning have potentially massive impacts on the formation and development of these networks. With classes that are predominantly online, with limited opportunities for impromptu socialisation, there is a danger that students did not have the opportunities to make these important social contacts, and redesign their Personal Learning Networks to suit their new environment. This social isolation would not only impact them in forging personal relationships, but in developing academic understanding. Their learning journey could be impacted as a result.
What can we do? Ironically, many people have found that being locked down for the past year, they have connected with people more frequently, through the use of video conferencing platforms. This shows us that socially distanced does not have to mean socially isolated. There are ample opportunities to contact our students, and help them contact each other. However, these interactions only really develop from existing social connections. So if we are to continue with an online or blended format at the start of the next academic year, we also need to think carefully about how we empower our students to form social communities (both within the discipline, and outside of their studies). The situation we find ourselves in could in fact be an opportunity to begin establishing methods of increasing student-student, as well as student-staff, interactions. For example, encouraging students to form online groups and peer-supportive ‘Learning Communities’, meeting your students for an online chat once a week, embedding small group activities into your online teaching as frequently as possible. Then why not keep these activities going once the Covid crisis is over? We have the potential to use this difficult time to enhance the student experience for the future, and help our students expand their Personal Learning Networks, regardless of the wider situation.
Written by Professor Stephen Rutherford, School of Biosciences and Academic Lead for CESI