By Carol Edwards, Liz Hardie and Lorraine Gregory
Working at the Open University (OU) we know that distance learning can be isolating. Due to the remote nature of studying online, students can lack the opportunity to form communities of practice which will support them in their studies.
It has been established that communities of practice (individuals joined together in a common goal) can enhance learning (Wenger 1998 and Valerie Farnsworth Kleanthous & Etienne Wenger-Trayner 2016 ). Furthermore, law students have some of the highest rates of mental health issues while studying (Jones, 2019). In an attempt to address some of these issues we decided to set up an online mentoring pilot. Mentoring in traditional universities is often found to have benefits particularly regarding progression (Wilson 2017). In light of Covid-19 resulting in more universities moving to online delivery we thought it might be useful to share our experiences of setting up and evaluating our pilot peer mentoring project.
W101, Introduction to Law, was selected because this is the first module most students will study on the law degree at the OU. W101 students are more likely to be new to study and the OU. Many will have been away from education for a while, and from student and tutor feedback we know students feel apprehensive about their studies. For these reasons we felt it was right to pilot an online peer mentoring project on this module. The pilot ran on the module presentation from February to September 2020.
Our vision was very clear from the start, we wanted the students to be mentored by former students who had successfully completed the module in the last couple of years. We felt that students who had completed the module were in the best position to understand its challenges and student concerns. Furthermore, students are often more willing to listen to advice from peers. The mentoring would take place in small groups and there would be online sessions (using Adobe Connect) and asynchronous forums to allow community development. Our vision was the groups would become more self-sustaining with the mentor taking less of a role as the group developed into a supportive study community of W101 students as a result of shared experiences (Wenger 1998). By developing a supportive community, we were hopeful this would address some of the isolation issues and hopefully improve retention and progression, as well as enhance the student experience.
While we had a very clear vision of how we wanted the project to progress there was some concern within the faculty, and quite rightly so. Prior to starting the project, we spent a lot of time discussing how we would prevent potential problems and address any issues that arose. Key concerns included safeguarding and bullying in the online environment. However, eventually permission was granted, and we were lucky to be given financial support by both the Law School and SCiLAB the Centre for Research and Innovation in Online Legal and Business Education, to fund the project.
Having gained approval, our first job was to find mentors. All previous W101 students who had completed the module within the last two years were contacted and asked to express an interest in this voluntary role via email. Within the email we asked them to explain what they could bring to the role and how they would develop from participating. We were overwhelmed with replies and finally selected 10 mentors. Once the mentors were appointed, we advertised the possibility of a mentor to students. W101 is a large module (over 1,000 students), so we selected region 6 (East of England) and region 7 (Yorkshire) to pilot our programme in. These regions were selected because of their diverse nature, some large towns and cities and some very small rural communities. A range of students applied to be mentored and eventually 42 students were offered the opportunity. Expressions of interest required students to say why they felt they would benefit from the scheme and reasons included the opportunity to meet people and gaining help to get to grips with the course.
As already stated, our key ethos of the mentoring programme was it was devised by the students as they are the best people to know the challenges studying an introductory module can create. We were fortunate to get funding for a face to face mentor training and co-creation day which all the mentors attended. Prior to the event they were asked to complete an online module on safeguarding to ensure they were fully aware of these issues and the action to take if there were concerns. Part of the day covered some basic information about being a mentor, but the main part focused on the co-creation between staff and students of the programme.
The programme devised by the mentors included three online sessions. Each session had a clear theme; session one was delivered right at the start of the module, session two just before the first TMA (tutor marked assignment) and session three after the schedule date for TMA feedback. The mentors were given total freedom in design and would have willingly provided more sessions, but the team felt there was a balance and a need to avoid over commitment, after all the student mentors were all still studying on law modules. The students designed materials for the sessions along with the welcome messages for the forums. The day was extremely productive, and we had a vast amount of positive feedback from the mentors, for example “a wonderful day and I have made friends for life” and a “fabulous experience”.
We were fortunate to get funding from SCiLAB for an AL (Associate Lecturer) to deal with the day to day running of the programme and carry out an evaluation. On going live there was quite a buzz as the mentors started working with the mentees and there were lots of success stories.
We are now at the point of evaluating the programme, but early indication shows that students have found this of value (for example a safe space to ask questions, opportunities to meet and form support groups), and this has informed our practice moving forward. Mentors enjoyed the experience and talk about the community of practice they have formed themselves. They have built a strong and supportive community which goes beyond the project using WhatsApp. Mentors felt this was of benefit as they progressed with their studies and also offering support during the very challenging pandemic. They also feel they have developed skills which will be of use in the employment field, for example presentation, communication and negotiation skills. The mentees have commented on the opportunity provided to meet people, the benefits of talking to a student who has already completed the course and the value of gaining little study tips from the mentor.
So, where next? We have funding to run a second pilot, this time covering the UK for W101. Considering the mentor feedback, we are changing the delivery to focus more on the asynchronous (i.e. not happening at the same time) forums supplemented by online sessions. We are dividing the UK into four geographical regions with four mentors in each region. We will provide a further update next year on the extended pilot through another blog.
Valerie Farnsworth Valerie, Kleanthous Irene & Etienne Wenger-Trayner Etienne (2016) Communities of Practice as a Social Theory of Learning: A Conversation with Etienne Wenger, British Journal of Educational Studies, 64:2, 139-160, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2015.1133799
Jones, Emma (2019). Connectivity, socialization and identity formation. Exploring mental well-being in online distance learning law students. In: Field, Rachael and Strevens, Caroline eds. Educating for Well-Being in Law. Positive Professional Identities and Practice. Emerging Legal Education. London: Routledge, pp. 103–116.
Wenger E (1998) Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Wilson A (2017) Study Buddies Literature Review, Open University
This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.
Carol Edwards is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager within the Open University Law School. She joined the OU as an associate lecturer in 2015 and became a Student Experience Manager in 2018.
She is a Fellow of the HEA and a member of the Law School’s Peer Mentoring Project. Carol’s research interests include tackling student isolation via such programmes as online mentoring. She is also actively involved in scholarship relating to online teaching pedagogy and assessment feedback.
Before joining the OU Carol worked in further education and is still actively involved in the quality management of Open Access courses.
Liz Hardie is a lecturer and Teaching Director of the Open University Law School, having previously worked as a Student Experience Manager for the Law School since 2010. She has worked for the Open Justice Centre since 2016, supporting law students to carry out pro bono projects both as part of their law degree and on an extra curricular basis. She is particularly interested in online learning and the use of technology in legal education.
Liz has tutored for the OU since 2006. Before working for the OU Liz originally qualified as a solicitor and specialised in family and employment claims.
Lorraine Gregory is an Educational Advisor and has been working with the Law Student Support team since 2014. She specialises in supporting students with disabilities (especially those on the autistic spectrum) and is a qualified mental health first-aider. She is particularly interested in helping students struggling with isolation issues when learning online.
Originally from an e-commerce and digital publishing background, Lorraine moved into counselling before joining the OU.