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Communities shining through COVID-19

During the current crisis education communities are proving themselves to be inspiring, supportive and motivating more than ever. We explore the power of the community through the voices of those who are finding them vital in these challenging times.

“Communities are an essential part of our makeup - who we are, how we interact in life and how we come up with ideas,”

says Ghizzi Dunlop, learning technologist at the University of the West of England (UWE).

We humans are social creatures – we like to communicate with one another. Belonging, participating and collaborating are essential parts of who we are. Communities fulfil these needs by bringing together groups of people who have similar interests and want to achieve something together.

We’ve all experienced that feeling of being stuck or uninspired. Perhaps you’re unsure what elements of the virtual learning environment (VLE) to use or how you’re going to recruit next year’s students.

For those in the know, communities are the place to go to get a hub of fresh ideas outside of your own organisation. They’re an invaluable pool of people to bounce ideas off when you don’t have a large team at work.

“There's some outstanding practice going on out there and communities help us get inspiration and support to improve our own practice,”

says Esam Baboukhan, e-learning manager at the City of Westminster College.

Building communities at Jisc

At Jisc, we’re proud to be involved with several communities in further education and higher education. We know many of you will already be involved in existing groups.

Over the last year, we’ve piloted several new communities – some have been built on existing groups and others created from the need to address current legislation or pressing themes.

Find out more about our communities and other opportunities to get involved with our work.

The impact of COVID-19

The pandemic has bought a rapid move online for everyone and, almost overnight, students and staff moved from campus to home. Staff adapted the curriculum for the digital classroom and students rapidly adjusted to distance learning.

But it’s fair to say that with no notice, remote working has some challenges. Being the only person at your organisation doing your role can feel isolating. Finding a community of people outside of your organisation who understand the challenges you face is liberating. 

“If you were alone in an institution working in this space, you would have been worried about what you were supposed to be doing, but online communities really supported everybody,”

says Marieke Guy, digital learning manager at the Royal Agricultural University.

“When things changed and lockdown was on the horizon, it was great to hear people in different communities talking about things that our institution hadn’t even considered yet.”

During times of crisis, community is so important - whether it’s a local group coming together to organise food shopping for vulnerable neighbours, or a national group protesting in major cities to drive the climate change agenda. At a time of rapid change and uncertainty for everyone, communities for the education sector came into their own.

As Esam says,

“You've got access to an extensive network of different experiences and even experts within the community that you may not have at your institution. Communities are probably even more important now.”

And Ghizzi agrees.

“The realities of working in lockdown has actually made all of us vulnerable and more accessible to each other in ways that we weren't before.

The ease of access to the community of practice has given us an extra way to learn, experience and empathise and an extra way to share and overcome those issues.”

Communities offer advice, experiences, and the motivation to keep going. They’re vital during challenging times as they maintain connections, provide confidence and offer a different perspective from the media that may skew towards the negative. At the beginning of lockdown, information was pushed out from all sorts of different places and the amount to take in became a little overwhelming.  

Marieke says,

“One of the amazing things from Jisc and Advance HE was that they collated all this information and organised it. Communities started filtering out the noise and the panic from everybody and pulled those resources together in a much more coherent way. That was great – hugely appreciated.”

She adds,

“I attended an online event that Jisc ran at the beginning of May - ‘Planning for the end of lockdown’. It was probably my favourite online session and was such a well-run event.

It gave me the space to think through the things going on in my head, but also brought together so many people. Everyone was so honest about what was working and what wasn't working in their own institutions.”

Marieke found communities provided a picture of what the rest of the sector was doing.

“I was working with quite senior-level people in the institution, who are making decisions about the future of our university. It meant I could cite examples from the event in the discussions people were having on how we were pivoting online learning.

I knew the things I was suggesting made sense and that was incredibly useful. I felt I had some back up from the community.”

A community of peers backing you and offering advice may provide fresh insights, supporting you to keep on top of a rapidly changing situation. They can also help you with the confidence needed to make quick, bold decisions. Having a group of people who can mentor and guide you during a crisis can make all the difference in bouncing back.

Staying connected

Humans are hardwired to seek out communities during crisis periods for comfort and reassurance. Being isolated has far-reaching effects on our physical and mental health. Technology has helped us stay more connected during this pandemic than any other before COVID-19. Today we’re videoconferencing and collaborating across a multitude of platforms.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the relatively new technology was the telephone - good for one-to-one conversation but it’s not the collaboration platforms we’re used to today. While nothing beats the face-to-face meet-up for networking and relationship building, the thriving communities are connecting virtually, keeping the conversation going, unrestricted by location or time zone.

Communities are using technology to enhance how they respond to the challenges that COVID-19 has presented.

Esam has invited leading voices within the FE community to speak more regularly to the community he started on Teams in 2019 by increasing the number of webinars they have. He says,

“People want to find out what other institutions are doing or thinking, what they’re planning to do come September, how they’re going to recruit students, and how much of their courses are going to be blended?”

He adds,

“Having access to a community of over 500 people means you've got an extensive network of different experiences and experts within the community that you may not have at your institution.”

The frequency of podcasts has increased during lockdown at the EduFuturists – Steven Hope’s website community that shares best practice about education, technology and the future. Steven is head of independent learning at Leeds City College and says,

“With teachers working from home, the appetite for live streaming is increasing, as teachers want to participate in the conversation. Podcasts have moved to a daytime slot so we can live stream on Twitter and YouTube - and the audience engagement is growing.”

Communities have stepped up

It’s clear that communities bring people together and power members to create strong and relevant connections. They also make it easier to keep in touch with fellow community members, which has been so vital during lockdown.

Steven’s noticed teachers tagging each other in conversations where colleagues may be struggling –

“I’ve seen that cross pollination between primary, secondary and all of the struggles with education. It shouldn't be ‘well I'm primary so I can only help primary’. Pedagogy is pedagogy and so is learning.”

He’s also seen a big focus on wellbeing across many communities.

“Some have wellbeing hours, where staff can log in and just talk, share experiences and help each other out.”

Sharing best practice has also really come into its own during lockdown.

Ghizzi, an avid champion of the accessibility community of practice, says

“It can be the tiniest little thing to really big things. It's just being able to access knowledge, experience and skills, of being able to make use of that. Everyone's so generous and we're all really open, that's so important.”

Ben Watson, accessible information lead at the University of Kent, adds

“The sector as a whole is really generous – no one’s jealous of resources, everyone’s happy to share, and that’s really important. If something we’ve done at Kent can help a student at Glasgow have a better time, that helps everyone. There’s no competitive edge.”

Ben is also a champion for the accessibility community of practice:

“It’s almost a support group, you always get someone sharing a helpful link or suggesting working together to move forward. People are happy to share and contribute to the greater good.”

Ghizzi concludes,

“Together we're creating a living archive of community interactions which will tell a story of the evolution of digital life. It's like a Pandora's box of goodies - all those brilliant people out there adding their ideas and content. It will be really useful for us for building on in the future.”

Get involved

Now more than ever people are putting their heart and their soul into communities for the benefit of the sector - championing each other through the rough and the smooth. 

If you’d like to join one of the communities mentioned in this article, we’d love to hear from you. Find out more about our communities and other opportunities to get involved with our work.

This story is featured as part of our annual review 2019-20. Read the other stories.