During the lockdown of 2020, promoting connections and a sense of belonging became challenging. Leading in a Post-Covid World (LPC) was an intracurricular initiative run fully online in Semester 2, 2020, at the University of Sydney Business School. The program provided opportunities for students to develop their leadership and team skills during the COVID-19 lockdown period. The program consisted of interconnecting sections including four immersive masterclasses (figure 1) and fireside chats with leading industry experts, and a series of online workshops and extra curricular activities leading to a pitch presentation at an Industry Forum. Research about the initiative was presented at the ALT Conference in September 2021 (Bryant, P., Overland J., Eden, D. and Arthars. N.).
The LPC program was run fully online using MS Teams. A feature of the online workshops in the program was the use of a peer mentor team, consisting of eight Higher Degree Research and Master in Business Administration students from the Business School. In the workshops, the peer mentors were active as co-facilitators with academics. An inclusive environment was encouraged through engagement with authentic active learning activities that facilitated group participation and online discussion about real world challenges.
Further support was offered to students through the provision of informal online peer sessions led by the peer support team. The team provided valuable peer feedback to the participants in the program on their group projects before their final presentations to a panel of industry experts.
Our research explored the role and impact of peer mentors in the program. Consistent with the literature (Armellini & De Stefani, 2016; Nolan-Grant, 2019; Lehtomäki et al., 2016), findings suggest that the inclusion of peer mentors in the program helped to promote student connectedness, and that student feedback opportunities, combined with students as partners in learning, can promote connection and belonging (Matthews, 2017).
Designing for Inclusivity
Underpinned by the principles of the Connected Learning at Scale CLaS project, the initiative included active learning, Students as Partners in Learning, experiential learning and peer mentoring to promote and build connections across the undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts in the Business School.
A Community of Inquiry (CoI) approach with an increased social presence (Armellini & De Stefani, 2016) was utilised to promote discourse and positive engagement in the workshops. Figure 2 shows how the various peer mentor activities in the program map onto the CoI framework.
Activities were designed to engage learners synchronously and asynchronously across multiple geographic locations. One example was the posting of books read by staff and students during the lockdown. Students unable to switch their cameras on could still post and share commentary through MS Teams. The Peer mentors were a key part of the academic facilitation team leading workshops in the program.
Online Peer Support Sessions
The peer support sessions provided a place for LPC participants to informally drop in and ask questions, discuss problems and receive feedback. These drop-in sessions, led and run by the peer mentors, gave students a chance to practice their pitch and receive valuable feedback from mentors prior to participating in the culminating industry forum. Feedback was provided using a rubric reflecting the criteria for the industry forum.
The feedback from peer mentors extended beyond these sessions, as they co-marked students’ industry pitches with academic facilitators. Participating students described the written and verbal feedback as helpful and supportive.
A student survey was run at the completion of the program. In addition, a focus group with peer mentors was conducted to learn about their experience of being in the role. Both students and mentors identified benefits associated with the opportunity to collaborate during a challenging time.
“I appreciated helping people to think deeper. So I felt like I was making a difference academically and professionally.”Peer mentor feedback
Challenges identified in the study were connected to learning to use new technology; Zoom fatigue and digital access (timezones; location; bandwidth).
From the overall findings, key lessons learnt included:
- A flexible and adaptable approach was needed due to a rapid change to online learning and continuing to learn online in a lockdown situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Training and adapting to new technology for the facilitation team helped support students who were also learning new technology and ways of learning. In the workshops there was a dedicated technology support team separate to the facilitators.
- Students as Partners in Learning was a key theme that emerged for promoting connectedness and transformative learning opportunities.
- Peer support and peer feedback was key to the success of participant completion rates. Participating in the workshops and peer support sessions led to the completion of a group action plan and participation in the industry forum.
- Promoting connections by developing a community of inquiry was integral in developing a cohesive group of facilitators and peer mentors who could provide support across the program.
Students were encouraged to collaborate, co-construct knowledge and reflect on their experiences through their engagement with the program. As part of the academic facilitator team, Peer Mentors provided students with a positive role model and mentor to engage with as they experienced similar challenges to learning such as online fatigue and learning to use new technology. An integral part of the overall program was the design for authentic connected learning experiences, which provided opportunities for reflection and positive engagement during a time of crisis.