The challenge

Moving so abruptly to online teaching during the Covid-19 periods of lockdown certainly provided challenges for everyone working in education, from the redesign of learning materials to the navigation of new technologies for learning online.  

I spoke to Sarah Khan, a Senior Lecturer within the Nottingham Institute for Languages and Intercultural Communication (NILIC), about the challenge of supporting students in collaborating and communicating online and the effective solution that evolved. On the Materials and Assessment in Language Teaching (MALT) module, students were timetabled for two hours a week, but Sarah found working online made this time seem even shorter than it had been when teaching face to face, observing that “by the time you’ve set up breakout rooms and given instructions, it’s at least five minutes more than what you would have done in a face-to-face session.” Given the limitations on allotted time for student engagement, Sarah and her colleagues in MA TESOL sought another way to allow students to continue in-class discussions after the session.  

The solution: online group spaces 

Sarah settled on creating channels within her class team in Microsoft Teams and assigning students to them, making these permanent groups for the students to work in, and giving them a space where they could meet and collaborate online. Rather than the momentum being lost while students organised a time and place to meet up in person, students could continue interesting discussions immediately after class, with the additional benefit that rather than being ephemeral this could be recorded in a space they all shared.  

What surprised Sarah was the strong community that formed between the students. Students were creating weekly meetings, using Team spaces to communicate and share ideas, and providing a level of peer support to each other. This is not unprecedented and is reflected in recent literature: 

“It has been our consistent experience that students will present explanations or provide illustrations of concepts that facilitate the learning process of their peers. Breakout groups and discussion boards are very useful instructional tools that can be quite effective pedagogical tools that foster and promote this type of enriched student teaching and learning within virtual classrooms.”

Neuwirth, Jovic and Runi Mukherji, 2020

While Sarah had access to all channels and meetings, she was careful to encourage the students to think of these spaces as their own, explaining: “I never attended those meetings because they were student generated, student led… the meeting channels were always popular, and I think it seemed from some of the chat that they were sharing documents as well.”  

Visible benefits

Sarah has been able to observe the positive effect this intervention has had on her students, watching how effectively they have used the space to learn from one another, but she acknowledges: 

“The success is mostly because the students took the initiative, and they actually did the things themselves.”  

Sarah has found that one of the major benefits of working in this way has been the students’ improved time management. She observed that as well as setting up weekly meetings they even chose to meet in reading week and other breaks during the time that they would usually have a class. She feels that the platform supported this way of working.  

“Something that I feel needs to happen is more collaboration… [Teams is] a low-pressure environment, nobody is watching over and listening to what you’re trying to say.”  

Moving forward 

Without the extrinsic motivation of Covid-19 and pandemic lockdowns to prompt the students to collaborate in this way, Sarah has started to think about how this strong online student community can be created alongside the return to face-to-face teaching.  

What initially started as a direct replacement for student-arranged meetings in library spaces or coffee shops has evolved into something all its own. “We used Teams in a way that we hadn’t planned,” Sarah says, “it just kind of emerged.”  

Sarah has started planning how to initially scaffold online interaction between students to support the evolution of the kind of strong community that formed last year, alongside team building activities that have always been a part of her course. She is also thinking about using the class team as a space for students to ask for help, allowing for more peer support alongside answers from the lecturer. With the return to on-campus teaching, we look forward to seeing how this model of online learning further evolves.  

Further reading on student collaboration

Pearce, R. (2021) Taking the Newsroom Online: Creating connected, authentic learning remotely LTSU Blog: Learning, teaching and educational technology news from the School of Arts and Humanities at NTU, 18 June 2021 

Jeckells, D. (2021) Presence: A small group online collaboration case study LTSU Blog: Learning, teaching and educational technology news from the School of Arts and Humanities at NTU, 23 March 2021 

Mihai, A. (2021) Collaborative Learning: Ready, steady, go! The Educationalist, 19 January 2021 

Evans, G. and Galley, R. (2020) Collaborative Online Activities: A guide to good practice Reflection and resources from the Open University Learning Design team, 17 July 2020