Fostering a sense of community and belonging in an online environment

Life may be slowly returning to normal, but at eCampus NZ, we’ll be holding on to the spirit of community and sharing that was felt so strongly across the country throughout the coronavirus pandemic. eCampus NZ will continue to share our innovations, experience, and expertise in online learning with the wider educational community through our new One-on-One with an eCampus Expert interview series.

Today, we sat down with eCampus NZ Learner Experience and Success Manager, Ali Hughes. Ali has extensive experience in the education sector and is passionate about making education work for all. We asked Ali to share her top tips for effective teaching and learning in an online environment.

Q What advice would you give to educators who are new to online delivery?

Ali Hughes: It is absolutely possible to foster a sense of belonging in an online environment!

One of the challenges of online delivery is that there can be a disconnect between what learners expect from online education, and what institutions expect to deliver. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to meet our learners’ expectations.

It’s fair for learners to expect a feeling of connectedness to their learning community, and there are strategies educators can use to overcome transactional distance within an online learning environment.

There are three key components to successful online communication. Establishing an instructional, cognitive, and social presence from the beginning of the course is really important.

If learners make an interpersonal connection with their facilitator, they are more likely to engage with the course and the content. Techniques for establishing a relationship with a class remain the same in an online space: use your learners’ names, engage in small talk, give them opportunities to get to know you, and make it clear that you’re reading their messages and posts by asking questions, expressing agreement, and referring to their contributions in later conversations. Make sure learners can put a face to your name by adding a profile picture and uploading video content.

Of course, in Aotearoa New Zealand, embedding te reo and tikanga Māori in your communications and practice is important in developing a culturally inclusive learning environment.

Collaborative tools and online workspaces, such as forums, OneNote, Facebook, Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Smarthinking study groups can also help educators and learners build a sense of community and belonging.

And don’t forget that online educators don’t just support the acquisition of knowledge; you must also support the development of skills, from academic referencing to critical thinking.

For example, time management skills are key to successful online learning. At eCampus NZ, we help learners develop these skills by providing useful resources (such as a learning pathway) and carefully tracking their progress through our online portal so we can provide additional support and advice if needed. If you don’t have access to an online portal, find a way to track learner engagement so you can check in if they’re falling behind.

Q. What advice would you give to first-time online learners? 

Ali Hughes: Get prepared before your course starts! Read our Top Ten Tips for Successful Online Learning. Trust us, they work!

Set goals, rally your whānau, make sure you have the tools you need before your course start date, and access all of the support services you have available to you.

Write key dates in your diary so that you know when things are due and they don’t creep up on you. Make sure you engage with your course regularly. Most importantly, have fun!

Q. What are some of the challenges our learners face, and what advice would you give to learners who are struggling? 

Ali Hughes: We have learners from across Aotearoa New Zealand, and from every background and walk of life you can imagine, so challenges can be many and varied. For learners experiencing further study for the first time since leaving school, it can be pretty scary at first as they have to refamiliarise themselves with learning and learn all the new academic language.

Time management is a big challenge for everyone. If you’re struggling to find time to learn, whether you’re at home with children; working fulltime and studying in your spare time; or juggling multiple commitments, there are strategies you can use to make time for study. Download a weekly planner and work out what your commitments are, then ensure you factor in time to learn.  Call on the knowledge and expertise of your course facilitator and student advisor.  There’s plenty of additional help out there online; check out eCampus NZs’ online resources such as this info sheet on working and studying from home.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Studying towards a qualification is something to be proud of, so enjoy it and stick at it!

Do online learners at eCampus NZ receive as much support as on-campus learners? 

Ali Hughes: Yes, in fact you could say they receive more support. At eCampus NZ, our course facilitators are subject specialists who work with learners to guide them through the course, encourage discussion, help them reflect on their learning, and mark their assessments. They are available for academic support and to answer any questions learners might have as they work their way through the course content.

In addition, learners are each allocated a student advisor, who is available for pastoral support and guidance. They can help with any issues that are impacting on our learners’ success and enjoyment of their course.

All eCampus learners also have access to the Smarthinking services, where they can receive impartial feedback on assessments, arrange group study sessions, or call on a subject matter expert for support.

In addition, eCampus NZ learners can access their enrolling institution’s support services, including library services, health and wellbeing support, and academic support services. Many of these are available online for those who do not live near a campus.

What strategies do facilitators and student advisors use to create a supportive learning environment? 

Ali Hughes: At eCampus NZ, promoting whakawhanaungatanga (the process of establishing relationships) is really important.

Our course facilitators encourage discussion and help learners to form connections with their fellow learners. Although they can complete their entire programme of study online, we do find some of our learners also establish their own study groups and sometimes meet with other learners face to face.

At eCampus NZ, we like to feel that we are all part of a whānau, supporting learners to be successful and providing the resources, support and encouragement to help them enjoy their learning journey.

Like any educator, those working in the online space must also focus on their learners’ wellbeing. At eCampus NZ, we use an adaption of Professor Sir Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā to provide wraparound support. Te Whare Tapa Whā is a holistic Māori health and wellbeing model.

Guided by Te Whare Tapa Whā, we foster learners’ te taha wairua (spiritual health) through helping them to establish good study habits and self-belief; te taha tinana (physical health) by ensuring the physical needs of online learning are met; te taha whānau (family health) through the building of support networks and connections, and te taha hinengaro (emotional health and wellbeing) by preparing them for study and helping them manage stress and celebrate success.

We’ve found that using this model to provide support for all learners has resulted in improved learner engagement and success.

Q. How do facilitators and student advisors work together to help learners? 

Ali Hughes: Facilitators and student advisors work closely together to support learners.

They share information about learners and build up a picture to help them identify the best way to support them through their study. Learners will often have the same student advisor throughout their whole programme of study, so although their facilitator may change for each course, they have continuity of care.  Both teams meet together monthly to talk through general trends and to work to support any individual learners who need additional support.

Q. Final question: What do you enjoy most about your work with eCampus NZ?

Ali Hughes: What I love most about eCampus NZ is seeing learners succeed, especially if they have overcome challenges to do so.

The eCampus NZ learning platform is being closed on 29 February 2024, as part of the completion of the amalgamation into Open Polytechnic | Te Pūkenga. Therefore, access to courseware for ākonga (learners) will be available for three months post course completion or 29 February 2024, whichever happens first. If you have any questions, please contact eCampus NZ : [email protected] or call 0800 328 269.