News, Student Voice

Peer relationships in online learning – podcast and transcript

We had some technical difficulties with one of the mics, but that didn’t stop this interesting discussion between BILT Student Fellows Chloe and Jonny and TESTA researcher Dr Isabel Hopwood-Stephens, view the full transcript below.


Chloe Reed: Hello, and welcome to our BILT podcast. My name is Chloe Reed and I’m one of the Student Fellows working with BILT this year.

            In today’s episode I’m going to be chatting to my amazing colleague and friend Student Fellow Jonny Barnes and TESTA researcher extraordinaire Dr Isabel Hopwood about the work they’ve recently done on the importance of peer relationships in online learning and something that I think is probably one of the most talked about aspects of blended learning and online learning, which is of course breakout rooms.

            So, Hello Jonny and Isabel!

Jonny Barnes & Isabel Hopwood: Hello.

Chloe Reed: Can you firstly fill our listeners in on what this project is, what it involves for you guys, and also why you feel it is important?

Jonny Barnes: Why is this work important, I think, is the question I’m going to start off with. So, one of BILT’s themes for this year. A very relevant theme for this year, is building inclusive online community and what this theme is trying to do is make sure that we still feel like we are a community, although we might be distant across the globe in some situations. Making sure that we still feel like we’re a cohort and that we are a Community, and we can discuss relevant issues to us.

            Some what we aim to do is that we noticed. Isabel talks about the PULSE data later on, that she analysed as part of it that some students particularly felt that breakout rooms could be better structured to get this discussion that they so desperately want better facilitated. So yeah, so that’s what we did.

Chloe Reed: Isabel about you have anything to add.

Isabel Hopwood: I think, yes, I’d say that the main way that Jonny and I have worked together recently was in putting together a presentation for an online conference, there was actually being it was coordinated by Professor Robin Shields from the School of Education and involved a lot of researchers based in Iraq. So, interestingly, we had the Ministry for Education watching our presentation.

Chloe Reed: Oh goodness!

Isabel Hopwood: They were very polite about it, they were very lovely Yes, he translated, the presentation at the end and then took questions.

            So yes, it was it was really good really interesting experience for us both um but the reason that we kind of wanted to collaborate and that was because as Jonny’s always already mentioned, I was looking at some data from the latest pulse survey that was done for University of Bristol students. And I was particularly interested in a subset 496 students who had all given a reason for why they weren’t, or they were avoiding synchronous online learning activities as part of their blended learning.

            And I sort of thought that this kind of this kind of part of data was really important first of all because it comprised one fifth of our respondents so that means that one in five of University of Bristol students who did the survey were admitting to actually avoiding or you know minimizing their kind of interaction the participation in synchronous online learning. And that’s a pretty that’s a pretty hefty fraction we’ve got there you know one in five. And also, obviously, because there was so much in the responses that they gave they were able to kind of give a free text answer to explain why, if they chose to. And so, it was incredibly rich data with all the stuff that are coming out about why students were uncomfortable with synchronous online or what it was specifically about it, and you know that they wanted to keep away from and so.

            I was talking, I was discussing that with another research colleague, and she happened to mention that Jonny had been looking into what was going on in breakout rooms and how students felt about using breakout rooms and perhaps unsurprisingly, to anyone who’s sat through a breakout room where maybe there’s 20 of you and no one switches on the camera no one wants to say anything. Breakout rooms were coming out loud and clear in my data as well as being particularly problematic. So, to me it seemed like a really interesting idea for me to kind of you know, be sort of collaborating with Jonny and slotting his findings and his thoughts into the presentation that I was putting together because he if you like what kind of what we’d call either insights from the field about what was going on with breakout rooms and some recommendations, based on that, so it seemed to be a really nice kind of partnership, really, I suppose, in in both the two things that we were looking into.

Chloe Reed: hmm. I suppose, what do you think it is about breakout rooms, that really put students off this the question for both of you.

Isabel Hopwood: Well, I’ll answer that question from the perspective of the study that I’ve been working on. I actually went to Tansy Jessop and I spoke to her about the data, because I needed to get permission to kind of you know, really dig into it and obviously it’s quite sensitive data, in some ways, because it’s students, you know saying why they kind of dislike, you know their learning so intensely. And one suggestion she make which was really helpful was to think about it from a relationship’s perspective because learning, you know learning is socially constructed that’s my belief and socially constructed learning is dependent on relationships, so we can say it’s also relational. So, the quality of the learning and the extent of the learning that takes place depends on their perception, if you like, of the learner’s relationships with those different people around them in their environment, so perhaps not so much a social constructivist perspective, but a socio-cultural perspective on learning and how it happens, and what shapes learning.

            She was talking about a paper by someone called Kathleen Quinlan wide four key relationships that she believed higher education students needed to develop as they progress through their undergraduate or even postgraduate degrees and thinking about it, though, so in terms of relationships to peers, relationships to teachers related to the subject and relationship to the search terms of your kind of internal development. And something that really chimed with what I was telling her about the stuff that was coming out about breakout groups and something that Jonny was looking at as well you know and then kind of if, like overlaying Kathleen Quinlan’s idea about key relationships. It seemed that the opportunity for students to develop relationships with their peers was really inhibited in some of their experiences of online learning. By all means not all of them, some people are very effective and satisfying online learning experiences, but some people felt isolated.

            They felt as though every time they went into a breakout room is a totally different bunch of people. They felt they didn’t know the people they were with. They felt inhibited socially inhibited and awkward about saying hi about the small talk, there was no opportunity for the small talk, and so it just felt very high stakes very stressful and intimidating to be kind of pushed into a room with these people and then have to sit there and share their thoughts; and bear in mind as well, these are students who perhaps haven’t got a particularly strongly developed relationship to subject yet so they’re not necessarily confident enough to think “actually, this is my opinion I’m entitled to it” I’m okay about sharing this and you know and bouncing off, you know bouncing off of other people’s opinions. There was a very strong feeling that came through in the data as well, of. Oh, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to speak about this, yet I don’t think I know enough about this yet, and so I think that was playing into it as well. But yeah so, I’ll hand over to Jonny in a second, but for me what came out, if you like, the issue you know that came out for the breakout rooms was that students felt that they did not know their peers they didn’t know these other people, so it didn’t feel safe, you know kind of sharing, sharing their ideas and their thoughts.

Jonny Barnes: Yeah so, I took the same point as Isabel students that just felt awkward in breakout rooms, but from a different slightly different perspective so on my personal Twitter and TikTok feeds I used to get a lot of people sort of memeing about how awkward breakout rooms were. It would be like “breakout rooms and leave meeting sound the same to me” because students would just so feel so awkward in breakout rooms that was easy leave the meeting and come back later.

Isabel Hopwood: Jonny I have to say my favourite was breakout rooms activates my fight or flight.

Jonny Barnes: Ha-ha! They were absolutely excellent. I just felt that in this year where we are online learning that breakout rooms, because they are in a normal classroom environment having a discussion with the people around you is really common practice and nobody hated it that much before Covid. Like, I didn’t look on my Twitter feed. And see loads of people saying oh “I hate groups” or “oh I just hide under the table when we’re put into table groups” which is essentially the equivalent thing when you think about it.

            So, given that we don’t have much time to address these things that might be able to have a really good impact a really positive impact, I felt that breakout rooms, were something that if we can make a few quick fixes and we’d have a really positive impact for the students; both socially and academically because if they’re feeling comfortable socially making as Isabel mentioned, discuss these ideas that they feel that they are entitled to and get more out of the group session in general.

Chloe Reed: That’s really interesting and just coming away from that conversation about breakout rooms Jonny, I know you found that students who are new to the university had different perspective on what improvement to breakout rooms would mean So could you discuss your findings on that a little bit.

Jonny Barnes: So as part of the ways that ways that we can fix it we built on ideas that maybe students could be longer term groups so at the beginning of the Semester, they would be put into a group of, say, between three to five students and be in that same students for a number of weeks. To give them some solidarity that they can get to know these people in that group and get to the stage where they can have some banter and they feel comfortable around those students. However, when I spoke to second third- and fourth-year continuing students at the University of Bristol they didn’t feel as comfortable with that they felt that they would much rather have random groups than potentially be subjected to a group where nobody will where, people didn’t pull their weight as much, for instance.

            So second continuing students definitely felt that it was an unnecessary step they’d rather just have the random groups, but first year, students and new master’s students who’d joined the university and didn’t know anyone essentially is the key part of this, if you don’t know anyone having those continued relationships, where you actually get a chance to build a relationship with a peer as opposed to the random where you might see another student for 20 minutes over the six weeks that you’re in a module. Yes, so. If you already have those relationships, you didn’t need to rebuild them whereas first years and new master’s students did need to build those relationships.

Chloe Reed: So, having read both of your blog posts and the presentation that you did I’m wondering if you feel that the experiences, both positive and negative that students are having with online learning environments may partly have something to do with the existing relationship between students and academic staff do you feel?

Isabel Hopwood: That, I think that’s an interesting question, I mean it it’s. One of the things that came out again in the PULSE data that I found was first of all, I was looking at it and thinking, this is really interesting it looks to me as though that peer relationship that discomfort around you know feeling comfortable with your peers, when your peers still feel unfamiliar to you and let strangers. That seems to mediate the development of the other relationships and in particular the teacher relationship because somebody who doesn’t want to be judged harshly by their peers on that know-it-all, or whatever, or there they go again answering all the questions you know.

            That that sort of social horror of being judged really harshly by these peers that they still felt they didn’t know was preventing quite a few students from interacting and even students who identified themselves in their comments in the pulse data that as being extroverted and they’d said you know “normally I’d be the first in first in there with the question always asking the teaching assistant something but even I can’t speak because I feel so nervous about what other people are going to think about me” so there was and that obviously there’s a relationship there that then isn’t being developed with the teacher or the teaching staff because that’s you know students aren’t putting up their hands and querying what they’ve just said or asking for further explanation or even just you know, offering their own thoughts on it that kind of back and forth, that kind of dialogue which you would hope would become something of a dialogic relationship with the teacher is not developing and the teachers equally aren’t getting a better feel for like you know what people know and what they don’t know what they understand and what needs more elaboration as they’re doing the teaching itself.

            So, in summary, what we can see, there is that. If you like that there’s maybe there’s a bit of a brittle quality to the development of that student teacher relationship online if that student is already struggling with this kind of peer unfamiliarity, if you like. And something else that came up when I kind of started really rummaging around and looking at the literature on emotions in teaching and learning for higher education students, was the ways in which students can have a very strong emotional response positive or negative to how they feel their how they perceive their being communicated with by the teacher. And, and as you might expect, you know that there’s an upside or downside to this so that paper there’s a paper by Titsworth et al and it’s from 2010, I think, where they’re noticing that when higher education students feel as though the teacher is very responsive.

            If you like perceptive is using lots of what they call, if you like, and nonverbal cues they refer to it as non-verbal immediacy so things like facial expression tone of voice or tilt of the head, you know offline it would be you know turning around or walking towards the student as they’re talking, they’re using gestures things like that as well. All of those are signs, if you like, that the student, you know the student has been responded to that the teacher is responsive if you like. To the interaction and when students perceive a high level of nonverbal immediacy they report to you know emotions, such as motivation happiness, confidence and so on, and the flip side of that is like when they perceive low levels of nonverbal immediacy so perhaps if you know, lack of eye contact, monotone tone of voice and no real clear indication of whether the teacher is actually listening to what they’re saying so they kind of start to feel kind of uncomfortable inside, you know that so that’s the feeling that you get. Then the emotional response in the student is very profound it’s anxiety its boredom is helplessness it’s shame it’s anger. And that’s that comes my paper by Mazor et al, so he was one of the original researchers on the previous one that I cited and that’s published in 2014.

            And so, if this was already going on, you know, seven years before we had a pandemic, then what we’re doing now is you know we’re kind of recycling some of these problems online. And somebody who’s already experiencing, if you like, a brittle relationship with our teachers. And somebody perhaps, who has the misfortune or the bad luck, you know, to have teachers who perhaps are not such competent communicators online, so perhaps you know they’re not without the issues around eye contact around gesture bound, you know gesticulation, tone of voice. Perhaps the teachers aren’t particularly demonstrative or communicative like that in the first place.  Perhaps they’ve chosen to keep their camera switched off as well, because they don’t want everyone to see you know the dirty laundry hanging up you know quite literally behind them in the kitchen. And then you’ve got to students sitting there who’s feeling who’s receiving really low levels of nonverbal immediacy who is feeling really unlisted to really unheard. And ignored perhaps or dismissed and then of course there’s another issue around here as well, in terms of use of the chat.

            This is something that pops up every now and then is chat etiquette. If you if students are posting questions in the chat when do you pause in, you’re teaching review the questions and reply to them. Or do you just seem on through because you’re stressed out and you’ve got so much content to do, and you can’t understand why they keep chucking things in the chat with they just stop it is really distracting. You know, or maybe you just disable the chat altogether and you think. I’ll just deal with questions at the end, but the student doesn’t know that that’s what you’re doing and they don’t understand that’s your rationale for doing it so there’s other things like that that can be picked up by the students as being particularly cold or unhelpful as well, so there’s those things I think those dimensions of online learning can be quite maybe damaging is to strong but detrimental to the development of that relationship between students and teachers.

Chloe Reed: Thank you Isabel, and for our listeners I’m wondering what key points you would both like them to know about using break out rooms more effectively.

Jonny Barnes: So, I guess I collated some tips on this in my blog and so to summarize them really quickly for our listeners group size played quite a key role in this.

Jonny Barnes: mainly because some students as Isabel found out were in quite large breakout rooms, say 20 students, I think, was the maximum. Which is really quite large you wouldn’t have a 20-person conversation in a normal classroom really so I guess group size is important, and I would recommend between three to five students and I think that’s quite key.

            Another point would be to give students a really clear task on what to do and a way to get an output from that for instance I would like you to do this task and write your thoughts on this padlet. What the students have to do and what the output is and then, because this is on a padlet in my example you can then discuss the output as a class once you’ve brough them back in from the breakout room.

            And another thing to be considerate of his students who are watching this back asynchronously so if they can’t benefit from the discussion in person to give them something to do during that time so it’s not wasted, and they can still study independently.

Isabel Hopwood: I think I’d add another point to that are attached to me and I can’t take credit for this this comes from Michelle another of the Student Fellows. She was um she said something the other day that was very interesting to me because we were actually doing a student workshop. She commented, and she was observing, and she commented that it’s really useful to have somebody who knows that they’ve got to lead the activity out. And that was a really interesting point because I’ve done a lot of kind of you know breakout rooms chat wrangling everything else, and these online meetings in the last year and it’s always been other members of staff.

            And so, the idea that you know you could kind of like throw five lecturers into a breakout room and have none of them hesitant or not able to think of how it started discussions that seems absurd, so you don’t have to worry about them. But it was it was very thought provoking for me, and I actually did I did actually talk to the students about another workshop I did, and she was saying, oh yeah you know, sometimes you just go in and because no one wants to start it no one says anything. Because it just sits there getting tongue tied and you say okay, so you’ve got a couple of options, haven’t you, you either: Try and drop it on all of your breakout rooms and do the jazz hands at your students and make sure that they’re kind of got going or you’re actually saying right one of us going to need to start this activity.

            And it’s interesting because that to me seems like a really good idea, but then I would absolutely hate as a teacher; I would hate to make a particular student feel about put upon and exposed by saying, and it has to be you Jonny you know you have to kind of be the guy in charge today or something like that you know because we’ve all been there when there’s you know when we’ve kind of felt that. When if I’m in a group everyone was expecting to make notes or whenever I’m in a group everyone always wait to me to be back to the teacher because they don’t want to say anything, so we need to make sure we avoid a situation where it’s the same old people again and again as who begin to feel quite resentful and unhappy you know because they just want to participate sometimes, they don’t always want to be the mouthpiece for the group and But yes it’s, I think, maybe. I don’t know what you know what your views are on this, do you think it’s appropriate or helpful say well suggesting groups? You know that, as they go into the breakout when somebody is going to need to start the activity?

Jonny Barnes: It was something when I was researching this, they did come up in a couple of articles aimed at secondary school pupils older secondary school pupils to give each group member a task, so you might have a timekeeper, note taker.

Isabel Hopwood: yeah yeah.

Jonny Barnes: And it was interesting to me at the time, because I was like I can see that, as you brought up Michelle’s example, I can see that working to some extent. But at the same time at a university, I don’t think we necessarily need a note keeper and a timekeeper and all the other roles they might potentially fulfil giving them useless tasks that nobody’s going to benefit from. So, I didn’t it’s something that I wanted to look more into because maybe we can develop more group roles to suit your own seminar the purpose in your own seminar.

Chloe Reed: Yeah, thank you so much. I’m just to finish up I’m wondering what has been the overall takeaway points from this project for both of you, what do you think is kind of most important for seminar leaders to begin considering in order to better students experiences of online learning.

Isabel Hopwood: For me there’s two. The first one is that giving students, especially first years, you know who are fresh and new and have not already built up a kind of you know, friendship basis you know. It is giving students, the opportunity to develop their peer relationships and as part of that online learning experience is absolutely critical because if they don’t feel, as you know, those opportunities they have to stand up at the lecture hall, and have a bit of a giggle, for they go in. The opportunities they have to kind of give each other, a “what on earth is she on about?” about like you know why they’re kind of trying to figure out what the assignment is. Or you know, have a chat afterwards and go for a coffee none of that was possible, and so we have many students who were really struggling with that sort of sense of. “I’m not sure if I can work with this group I don’t know if I know these people” It’s really critical that our students feel comfortable enough familiar enough around each other to be able to take the risks we wanted to take, and to be to be able to learn. You know to kind of share their ideas, even if they half formed. To put an argument for and against something even knowing that you know somebody else’s likely to criticize aspect of it, you know that’s really, really important, and I think.

            The second thing, so we need to make sure there’s opportunities for peer relationships to be development we know the teaching opportunities that we do create but online. And the second thing is that, as teachers, we need to remember that that nonverbal immediacy that comes very naturally in is very easily picked up with we’re offline. Really doesn’t translate very well online, and so this is where we have to be a lot more verbally explicit in terms of how we communicate with students. We need to remember to miss it almost like the pleases and thank yous you know to greet people as they come in to use their names. We need to explain why we’re doing something what we’re doing like Jonny was saying, be really clear about purpose of the task you know. What’s what the outcome gonna be how we’re going to share it, we need to thank students when they make contributions, because it’s hard for them it’s nerve racking you know they’re in this weird position. And you know, we need to hang back at the end, if we can so that students can have a chat and come up to us with a question, towards the end when some people have left the call. And then there’s just a few of them left and maybe it feels a bit safer less intimidating to come up and ask you know to ask a question about something that you mentioned earlier, I think we need to be aware of that as well.

Jonny Barnes: Yeah, I just wanted to add on to all of the excellent points that Isabel has made in regards to something I guess more logistical in that so breakout rooms, to have them. I guess little and often so to have sort of 10 or 15 on sessions, so if it isn’t going well, then it’s not too long to wait through before you get back to something more productive. That um but little and often in the sense that, having 1×15 minute breakout room is quite manageable for most students. If it’s within a group of three to five students, they can turn the camera on they can turn the microphone on, be quite comfortable within that whereas having more of them within the same session is quite draining because being on camera I’m sure we’ve all felt zoom fatigue over the past year. Being in zoom meetings for hours on end, even with your camera off can sometimes be quite draining so having one opportunity within a lecture to do that and to have the relatively short but with a very clear outcome so. Not that there wouldn’t be time to exchange pleasantries because I think that’s a really key part as well, so make sure that you’ve got time in there, so that people can ask. How their weekends are and just general small talk that we would do because we’re in teaching block two now so hopefully on the same course, you would have started to see some familiar faces and start to build some relationships with students, so I guess little and often would be my takeaway.

Chloe Reed: Yeah, well thank you so much both Jonny and Isabel for joining in about such an interesting discussion.

Chloe Reed: If you’d like to read the blog posts that are Jonny and Isabel have written on this topic, then you can find them on our blog. Chloe Reed: And also, just to say that that BILT is always looking for new ideas so if you’d like to help us further this conversation then do feel free to get in touch with the team.

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