We were reminded of the transformational potential of co-creation in the keynote speech of the Advance HE symposium on Students as Co-creators on 26th January 2023. Catherine Bovill, Professor of Student Engagement in Higher Education at Edinburgh University outlined the benefits of co-creation including greater student engagement, improved meta-cognitive awareness, improved teaching experience and an enhanced sense of belonging. This is something which we discovered, almost by chance, when we used co-creation to develop and run our peer mentoring scheme in the Law School. Co-creation means ‘staff and students working together in an ongoing, reciprocal, creative, and mutually beneficial process to negotiate and share decision-making' (Lubicz-Nawrocka, 2020). We presented a paper at the symposium on our experience of co-creation to create peer mentoring support on a first year law module.
The peer mentoring scheme came out of a project on wellbeing, where students discussed how a peer mentoring scheme might help address some of the issues they faced as distance learners, such as isolation, lack of confidence and difficulties in forming peer relationships. We therefore decided to explore its use in an online environment to also improve wellbeing. We introduced a small scale pilot in February 2020, where a more experienced second or third year law student mentored a small group of new law students. More information on the first pilot can be found here.
Student feedback was very positive, and we therefore started a second pilot in October 2020 for all law students starting their first law module. Students were placed in four geographical groups, supported by a team of mentors through online forums and meetings. Please read our blog on the second pilot for more information. Feedback again was positive, but concerns were raised about the asynchronous forums. We therefore started a third pilot in October 2022, where a smaller group of students are being mentored through WhatsApp groups as well as online forums and meetings.
Both the origins of the project and its development responded to student feedback, but we involved the students much more closely in the design and running of the project through the use of co-creation. Our guiding principle was ‘by the students, for the students’. For each of the pilots, we held a full day’s training event, either face to face or online. In the morning we provided training on a variety of topics including what mentoring is, the skills needed, where they could gain support, safeguarding and digital skills. In the afternoon we focused on co-creation. Students were asked to design the project in small groups, including the timeline of their contact with the mentees, and the content of the online meetings and forum or WhatsApp posts. Each group had a tutor facilitator, but we stressed that the student mentors were the experts and should draw on their own experience to make decisions collectively.
The students enjoyed the co-creation event. One mentor felt valued and welcomed the opportunity to ‘impart some of our expert knowledge as students’. He felt co-creation gave them ‘a sense of ownership’ of the project. Another mentor described being ‘able to create the project together instead of being told what to do’. Despite coming from ‘different backgrounds, with different personalities and life experiences’ she felt the co-creation event enabled them to listen to each other: ‘we could be really honest and were made to feel in a safe environment to share [our views].’
We reflected on some of the benefits and challenges of co-creation from a staff perspective. We felt we had a better understanding of the student journey and student concerns from the discussions of the mentors. We also felt the programme was much more relevant and directly addressed student needs. The mentors were not bound by convention or academic orthodoxy and so had some innovative and different ideas we may not have considered. Finally as the students had designed the project, they felt a sense of ownership and were incredibly committed and enthusiastic.
There were some challenges though. We acknowledged that ceding control can be disorientating; we didn’t know what the students would suggest and so it felt risky and unpredictable to give the decision making over to them. It also made planning our budget and resourcing more difficult as we didn’t know what would be suggested. We were also mindful that there was a power imbalance between the academics and the student mentors, who might see us as authoritative.
We asked our student mentors about the benefits and challenges of using co-creation, and interestingly they all spoke of the benefits; no challenges were mentioned. One mentor felt empowered through the co-creation: ‘we were encouraged to share our thoughts and feelings at every stage’. Another mentor spoke about how different people had different ideas and so they had to spend time ‘merging ideas together’. The mentors saw this as a benefit as they learnt from other people and developed their understanding of being a peer mentor.
The mentors also spoke of the effect of taking part in co-creation on them and their studies. One mentor said he had gained communication skills and improved his confidence. He felt he had a better understanding and empathy with his fellow students, and also valued knowing how the university seeks to support its students ‘behind the scenes’. Since the project, two of the mentors have taken up roles with the OU Student Association. Another student described how meeting the other mentors was ‘an absolutely massive benefit to me. I’m in regular contact with at least half of them now, which is fantastic. I hadn’t engaged or spoken with any other students prior to the project.’
A further unexpected outcome of the use of co-creation was its impact on the students’ sense of belonging. One student commented that ‘it’s been a very inclusive project and it’s made me I suppose feel more part of the wider community rather than me sat on my own behind my laptop at home.’ This has prompted us to think about ways we can better encourage our students to feel part of our academic community in the Law School, and we started a Belonging Project in 2022. You can read more about this in our blogs: ‘Not belonging is a terrible feeling’ and ‘A sense of belonging’.
Having started a peer mentoring scheme as a way of addressing issues around wellbeing and isolation, the transformational potential of co-creation was an unexpected consequence and benefit to our project. This in turn has led to further exploration around how to encourage a student’s sense of belonging in an online environment. We are excited to see where our research and scholarship takes us next!
Liz is a Senior Lecturer and Teaching Director of the Open University Law School. She is also part of 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, including the moving of clinical legal education online.
Carol is a Senior Lecturer and Student Experience Manager within the Open University Law School. Carol’s research interests include tackling student isolation via such programmes as online mentoring and projects focused on creating a sense of belonging for both staff and students. She is involved in scholarship relating to online teaching pedagogy and assessment feedback. She tutors on LLB Law modules. Before joining the OU Carol worked in further education and is still involved in the quality management of Open Access courses.