“Watercooler moments” in virtual space: using online platforms to enhance the student experience

At the time of writing, we have transitioned through almost two full academic years under Covid-19 conditions. The impact this has had across society is well documented, as are the specific challenges created in the higher education sector. Indeed, hardly a week has gone by without a high-profile news story decrying the plight of students “robbed” of the traditional university experience, many prompted by the students’ own reactions to rent demands for unoccupied property and the difficulties universities had in interpreting the everchanging Government guidelines.

This is not to mention, of course, the novelty of online teaching itself, which was, with some exceptions, a rare experience for the average undergraduate, but which in March 2020 assumed an important dimension in university life. Given this background, a presumption has arisen, seemingly rooted in the belief that the transition to virtual learning has (automatically) led to a reduction in the quality of substantive learning materials and impacted on “the whole university experience”.

Because of this belief, many university departments have clearly felt the need to justify the benefits of online/blended learning, leading to countless esteemed colleagues engaging in worthy debate as to the relative merits of a range of virtual learning environments (VLEs), the utility or otherwise of classroom configurations (breakout rooms and flipped classrooms) and the latest in virtual assessment design. Moreover, this has taken place against a background that at the outset, saw colleagues engaging in a rush to transition to online environments almost overnight and, furthermore, having to repeatedly react to changing circumstances within university education, particularly in late 2020 with the attempt to restore some elements of face-to-face teaching.

In many ways, the debate about the value of such a transition has only really taken place after the transition has already happened, requiring a retrospective justification of the value of the whole process. The difficulty for many commentators has been that the narrative has already been set by those viewing online learning as arguably “deficient”, thus requiring any justification of virtual teaching to confront this unfortunate and (in our view) erroneous paradigm.


Quality, not Quantity

In essence, the academic part of the student experience has very little to reproach itself for. Universities have endeavoured to ensure that students have received, at the very least, learning materials of broadly equivalent quality. This has been coupled with enhanced levels of learning support throughout. The volume of activity at the outset aimed at securing the smoothness of the transition and the periodic assessments along the way of its effectiveness, accompanied by much experimentation with the capabilities of different platforms, plug-ins and software, are all testimony to the willingness of most academics to embrace the opportunities afforded by the new technology.

In sum, the value-for-money argument touted in the media falls short of the reality, in which students are arguably receiving a more blended suite of educational methodologies that many report as enabling them to tailor their learning more flexibly.

In that light, the shift in the debate to what elements of online learning can be retained and improved upon, even in a world where the opportunity for face-to-face learning has been restored, has gathered momentum, particularly more recently, as confidence has grown for the restoration of something approaching full service in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Arguably, however, the claims of those who detract from online learning are not wholly without merits. There are clear areas for improvement regarding the technology itself as well as the more holistic aspects of student engagement, as will be detailed below.


Criticisms, Criticisms

In respect of the technology, as time has gone by, many of us have surely noticed how regimented this switch to an online means of delivery has been. Just as quickly as the capabilities of the technology were manifested, so too concerns arose about the reliability of online servers set against a background of digital poverty and unreliable bandwidth problems.

More times beyond count, the managing of online (or even hybrid) teaching has required an extra dimension of patience and skill to deal with these problems. Quite often, whoever is leading a session finds themselves having to not only cover their materials, but also serve as an ad hoc technical expert. This can lead to limitations on the amount of time spent on assessing whether students have properly engaged with the learning materials, as indeed time spent generally cajoling students to engage by switching on cameras and microphones.

Technology concerns have undoubtedly had an impact on student engagement; in many ways, they have almost entirely eliminated our ability to engage our students in more informal dialogue at the beginning or end of a teaching session or indeed at other times throughout the day.

Oh, for a return to the innocence of a snatched conversation with students in the lull before class begins. Or a hastily conveyed query dealt with in amongst the hubbub of a class filing out of the teaching space. What of the chance encounter with students around campus; in the line for coffee perhaps, or simply walking between classes? Far from serving some trivial purpose that can be easily cast aside in the name of more pressing technical considerations, these small interactions can actually be viewed as an essential part of pedagogical architecture, which are key to building learning communities and creating a sense of belonging. If we were to lose these interactions, there is every reason to believe that the overall student experience would suffer.


An Experimental Tale

Our suggestion, from an experiment that began in March 2020 and continued until now, is the concept of radioDMU, just one of the many ways potentially to maintain the holistic aspects of student engagement and the university experience, even within the constraints of an online environment. The concept was simple: we would make use of BlackBoard Collaborate (and later MS Teams) to maintain a point of contact with our students. We adapted the team-teaching approach that we had developed for face-to-face lectures into a radio show format.

The principal advantage of this was that, while one person took the lead in interacting with students, the other could monitor the live chat and feed through themes to the overall discussion. We chose this approach due to our awareness of the digital poverty and connection issues experienced by many students who lacked the resources to transition to online learning smoothly. By focusing on an audio driven presentation, rather than incorporating visual elements with webcams etc, we were able to reach a far wider range of students, with many reporting they felt increased confidence in interacting this way.

The lack of formality, it seems, was a particular draw for the students, and radioDMU sessions have continued with a blend of materials, ranging from those with a teaching focus to general careers advice, pastoral support and day-to-day problem-solving, all the way to the critically important discussions about Netflix and other ephemera.

That this format has worked so well in our experience is not in any way an invitation or call for others to simply adopt this approach; rather, it is a single example of the kind of holistic engagement that is possible within virtual learning environments that are not simply focused on bread and butter teaching delivery or providing support for learning.


The Shape of Things to Come

Now, even as we contemplate some return to face-to-face teaching and the opportunities for the “watercooler moments” this will offer, there is a danger that, in dialling down the opportunities for formal virtual engagement, as a response (in part) to the “value for money” critique, we will also undermine the evolving dynamic for informal community building and interactions.

From the experience we have had, whilst many students will of course thrive on a return to face-to-face learning, if we do away with these virtual sessions, many others could lose out on a crucial confidence boosting part of their university experience that they have gained over the past year. We need to find a way of retaining the best parts of virtual engagement as an accompaniment to face-to-face interaction, both from the perspective of teaching and learning as well as from the point of view of more holistic student engagement.

Our ultimate conclusion, garnered from what has been a forced rush to use the virtual world is that, even as we transition back to face to face teaching, the role of broader engagement in the virtual space will still play a hugely significant role moving forward.

If we do not open up a debate about the role of the virtual in the future shaping of not just teaching and learning, but also the holistic student experience, we do a disservice to the efforts of colleagues and students across the last two years to enable the virtual world to function for all the vital tasks Universities needed to do to sustain their role as educational providers in the modern age.


Dr Russell Orr is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for LLB at Leicester Law School, De Montford University. Dr Paul Omar is a Senior Lecturer at Leicester Law School, De Montford University. 



De Montfort Leicester Law School