For the first time, the BILT student Hackathon was delivered entirely digitally. The interactive event provided students with a unique opportunity to feedback on their experience of blended learning and design improvements. It was delivered in a series of small group discussions, individual tasks and group presentations.
A wide range of courses were represented, from the arts to engineering, courses with different teaching styles, course delivery and levels of independent study. Shared themes, concerns, and general experiences quickly emerged. They were expressed differently but carried the same underlying issues.
A common theme was the need for structure. This need varied from student to student with some having significantly reduced contact hours hence greatly increasing independent study. Others had all their synchronous lectures in one day of the week leaving them to their own devices the rest of the week. The level of independent study for has increased for many, given the reduction of in-person sessions.
The need for ‘structure’ that students voiced was directed at asynchronous work. Students stated that they would benefit from a system or organization tool that helped them track all the activities to do in a week across all the units of their program. It was noted that due to the general increase in content from the university, a colour code system would be useful to differentiate work that is compulsory, to work that is additional/ further reading to ensure the basic material is always covered. A suggestion of the use of analytics to track students that are struggling or not engaging with the content to offer early help seemed to be a favoured idea.
Another concern that came up in the discussion of structure was the need to help students feel more engaged with asynchronous activities as part of a broader package of activities. It was noted that the lack of accountability was detrimental to the motivation of the students. Quizzes to check understanding and engagement, regular check ins by staff and introducing smaller chucks of learning were some of the solutions proposed.
The second key area of concern was the need for social interaction amongst students. Social distancing rules and lockdowns have made it exceptionally difficult for students to make friends and interact with course mates and lecturers. This issue is aggravated for new students as most have no former friendships at the university to build from and hence are more vulnerable to loneliness and mental health problems.
One of the key points raised was to separate wellbeing services to each faculty to ensure specific support, students said they would feel more comfortable opening up about an issue they felt the people involved either shared or understood. Also, increased use of or an introduction of a unit specific platform that allows students to share thoughts, struggles, and questions about the learned information with the ability to form private conversations would be greatly valued.
The third key theme was the subject of Academic support. The types of contexts specified included when students don’t know what to do when they’re struggling or falling behind, or when they don’t understand a recorded lecture, or just generally wanting to feel supported by lecturers alongside their studies.
Students came up with the idea of Question-and-Answer hub where students can ask questions if they were struggling which can feed into a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) online area. This could be used alongside discussion boards, after synchronous sessions, as well as summary roundups of the week’s learning outcomes. Solutions were bursting in this category!
The fourth theme pertained to the how students could feel more like they are ‘at university’ given the circumstances and to ensure that in-person sessions to those that can make it are as useful as possible.
Some of the suggested solutions were to incentivise online sessions with treats (digital or delivered items), interactivity (chat roulette), social chats, and inter-year support systems. It was also pointed out that to ensure students think the social activities are worth doing it would be useful to timetable sessions, for importance and ease of accessibility.