The current Covid-19 situation and pivot to online teaching has brought with it many challenges for higher education institutions, not least in terms of how we support students who are working remotely to engage effectively with coursework and independent study. This is particularly true for science disciplines and how academics approach the supervision of independent research projects.
- How can we replicate the lab-based collaborative working practices that students are familiar with within an online environment?
- To what extent can we provide students with the support structures and ‘just in time’ advice that they would normally receive from demonstrators, academics and fellow students as part of their campus-based learning experience?
These were key questions that James Chong, Set Chong and I addressed in a longitudinal study of final-year life sciences project students working on ‘dry’ research tasks using online learning methods. We did this by exploring how a team-based environment – Slack – could be used in a blended course design to support students working remotely on individual research projects, helping them in collaborative trouble-shooting and problem-solving activities. We drew on lessons learned from an initial trial (2017-18 cohort) to inform a revised peer-led research design (2018-19 cohort). (For further details on our research approach, please see this slideshare presentation.)
The choice of Slack as a host environment for this project work was intentional. Slack is one of the new generation of team-based environments that have been gaining traction in the UK higher education sector – a development that was underway well before the pandemic. Data from the 2020 UCISA Technology Enhanced Learning Survey shows that 40 UK higher education institutions had established a centrally-supported MS Teams service before the Covid-19 outbreak, and take-up has no doubt increased with the move to fully online teaching. Slack is the collaborative platform that has been adopted at the University of York and after initial trials it was rolled out institution-wide over the past academic year. It is very similar to MS Teams in terms of its functionality – combining the conferencing and messaging features of social media with file sharing and searching capabilities as part of an integrated, cross-platform solution. One of its distinctive features, however, is the use of channels for small groups to share updates and discussion, which are flagged to channel members through ‘push’ notifications.
Our use of Slack was based on a departmental version of the platform which had been set up in the Department of Biology prior to the institutional service being launched. We saw Slack as particularly attractive for the independent project work that we wished to support, offering a safe space for questioning, ideas sharing and problem-solving, helping students to work dynamically as they would in a physical lab setting. This would support remote working, whilst enabling them to share protocols with each other in small groups and obtain practical advice from postgraduate and postdoctoral members of the lab through ‘just in time’ learning, as part of a peer-assisted learning experience. We intended it to be an inclusive environment for everyone to share observations on their project work – offering something more than the private Facebook groups which students have used in the past to chat about their project work.
We first introduced Slack to a 2017-18 cohort of project students and their experiences with the platform are captured in this case study. The environment served its purpose as a forum for students to talk to each other and discuss individual problems, but we were keen for them to go further – encouraging them to be more self-supporting, working as a community of practice. Rather than contact academic staff directly when they had a question or encountered a problem, we wanted participants first to engage in problem-solving within their project group, drawing on the guidance of postgraduate near-peers and fellow students in addressing the practical challenges arising from their own research projects. In this way we hoped that students would develop valuable collaborative working skills which they could take with them to the world of work – an employability benefit for the future.
Reflecting on the lessons learned, we made adjustments to the design of the project work for the 2018-19 cohort, giving a more prominent role to postgraduates in offering ‘first line’ support to students within their own dedicated Slack channels. Our combined results are presented in this Research in Learning Technology journal article, which discusses our revised design approach and the learning outcomes from the collaborative activities supported within the Slack environment. Our findings demonstrate the potential of collaborative platforms such as Slack to support near-peer learning and agile problem-solving support in response to individual queries. The peer-led support contributed to high levels of engagement with the project work and deeper learning, helping less confident students to learn from group members and achieve positive outcomes in their own project work.
In the article we discuss the necessary conditions for effective peer-led learning to take place within a virtual space – identifying the clear communication of instructional roles, socialisation of students and responsiveness of near peers as factors influencing the adoption of the targeted learning methods. These findings are intended to serve as a guide for how we manage future group-based research projects within a team-based environment. With the rollout of Slack across the institution, it will be interesting to see how learning and teaching use cases evolve within different disciplines – drawing on the affordances of the group-based learning tools.
Walker, R., Chong, S., & Chong, J. (2021). Facilitating peer-led group research through virtual collaboration spaces: an exploratory research study. Research in Learning Technology, 29. https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v29.2520