Thinking back to the beginning of my first year in 2017, I remember going to a social mixer with staff and other first year students. Awkward at first, yes, but useful? Undeniably. I met my close friend and future academics who would guide me through my undergraduate degree. As we make our way through this unusual year, the current first years will not experience anything like this. Instead, online calls to meet course mates have become the reality for new arrivals at Bristol. Second- and third-years struggle with increased workloads in a time where there is a disconnection and disengagement with the learning process and other students. The Student Hackathon came at a crucial time. Numerous key themes emerged during the afternoon. I want to focus here on the wellbeing of students and feelings of isolation. Wellbeing of students is paramount and to hear the struggles many are facing was hard and touching.
What are the key challenges you are finding with online and blended learning?
Comments regarding struggling with the lack of in person teaching was common – especially for first years. This included struggles to make friends and not knowing many people on their course. Interestingly, many spoke of a lack of a sense of belonging to the University because of a disconnection with campus and the institution. Sometimes, disconnection can be a means of dealing with overwhelming, anxious situations. Sitting in your room, communicating through online platforms, and struggling to make friends are some of the ways that students start to feel growing isolation. In this context, disconnection is not only understandable but expected.
Ideas to overcome these issues
It was inspiring to listen to the ideas that emerged to address the issues regarding the wellbeing of students. It is always nice to hear students coming together to help the situations of other students – it is what I love about the Bristol University community. The key idea that emerged during the Student Hackathon that I want to highlight relates to the emergence of technological solutions to connecting and reconnecting. One of the suggestions was a Bristol Well-being app – which would allow individuals to share thoughts, struggles and questions relating to learning and wellbeing. The mode of connecting is, however, less important than the potential positive impact for students. Facilities that allow both bigger groups, more exclusive groups and the ability to form more private conversations, and means of supporting people academically, emotionally and mentally. Providing dedicated opportunities to meet others on courses, share concern and worries and form a degree of connection can all help to off-set isolation and disconnection.
In this unprecedented time, ideas of how to adapt and innovate emerge. Suites of platforms and software, such as the suggested app, can be incorporated into existing structures within schools and the university – a contemporary, streamlined place where students can easily engage with one another about their struggles, both privately and as groups.
What I came away with from the Hackathon was that while there is an appreciation of the difficulties the university itself is facing in terms of adapting to the situation and the efforts that have already been implemented, there is the potential to creatively facilitate engagement, social connections and students supporting one another’s wellbeing.