The New Academic Teaching Year will include special weeks ring-fenced for student enrichment events. But how will such periods of time work for the university’s growing distance-learning student body? This project involved a series of monthly, and then weekly, online events aimed at engaging students from a distance. In its original format, the project involved a monthly social and/or academic event specifically aimed at DL students. With the worldwide lockdowns that occurred from mid-March onwards as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the project morphed into a weekly online meeting that served both DL students and on-site students who had suddenly moved their studies online. In the end we hosted 28 online events, ranging from an online theatre watch party to a livestreamed Q&A session about dissertations to trivia quizzes to research talks from staff, visiting academics, and research students.

Our project necessarily evolved in response to lockdown. We originally planned for five events, to happen on a monthly basis, from January-May. The first two of these took place as planned; the other three also took place, but in a modified form once we began our weekly meetings online. From 19 March we began meeting on a weekly basis every Thursday from 1-2pm; we will have our final meeting on 10 September. We began by using Canvas conferencing for these meetings, and eventually switched to Zoom. The meeting format involved 15-20 minutes of informal discussion and Q&A between students and staff about how things were changing as a result of lockdown. For the rest of the hour we offered some sort of activity: guest talks from arts practitioners, research discussions with members of academic staff and PhD students, community-building exercises including quizzes and competitions, discussions in response to an academic article, welfare sessions about coping with stress. Attendance at the meetings ranged anywhere from 15-45 people each week.

It's clear from our evaluation survey, which was completed by 33 students, that keeping a sense of community going through such difficult times was invaluable. Below are some comments from these students. 

‘I am convinced of the value of much of the subject matter, but possibly more important is the community feeling generated by the sessions. This is very motivating for continuing to explore new fields of study.’ 

‘I have always been a distance learner and I am used to muddling through on my own. These Thursday meetings have been a revelation to me. For the first time I feel part of an academic community, and so happy that I can join in with a group of people who share my interests, even if we are not talking about work!’ 

‘The Thursday meetings have been a lifeline in lockdown and it would be amazing to see them continue in a post Covid environment. The opportunity to engage with both lecturers and fellow students at all levels, in a social as well as academic space, has made me (as a DL student) feel so much more a part of the SI.’ 

‘The enrichment programme has been an excellent way of enabling us to stay connected to the student and academic body. We have a great sense of community and I have certainly felt supported during these strange and challenging times.’ 

We learned that students will come to these events, and that they really appreciate the opportunity to connect in real-time with their instructors and peers (though we also recorded them so that students with work and care commitments could watch them later). In response to the question, ‘What kind of sessions would you like to see in future online enrichment programmes’, the most popular events all had to do with research activity in the immediate departmental community. Research talks from staff members were most desired (94%), then research talks from PhD students in the department (76%), then group discussions in response to a set reading and talks from arts practitioners (tied at 70%), then opportunities for Q&A with staff (61%) (there were seven additional forms of activity beyond these top five). This suggests that students are most interested in interacting in a research-oriented fashion with other members of the departmental community.