I ‘C’ you … communication, community, connectedness and co-construction within the context of tertiary education responses to COVID-19

Nicki Dabner (College of Education, Health & Human Development, University of Canterbury, Aotearoa/ New Zealand)

He waka eke noa
We are all in this together

We have experienced some unexpected challenges here at the University of Canterbury that have informed our organisational pandemic response and enabled us to establish some resilient practices; in particular two major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 (plus over 10,000 associated aftershocks).

Reflecting upon our learning from both the current and prior events, research we conducted throughout the earthquake period, and feedback we have received from students (then and now), one constant appears across both contexts: an ethos of care needs to underpin all organisational responses and practices in times of crisis.  This includes the provision of timely, on-going support to students. Student support strategies are implemented across a variety of ways within tertiary organisations, and are often framed as pan-organisational responsibilities in non-crisis times.  However, the provision of student support in times of crises become more complex, in particular when immediacy of response is required In the spirit of kotahitanga (unity) and drawing upon my lived experiences, teaching and research, I’d like to share three strategies that I believe support students and encourage student engagement in challenging times:

  • establishing relevant channels for on-going communication
  • encouraging community connectedness
  • inviting students to be co-constructors and collaborative problem-solvers

Establishing relevant channels for on-going communication  (FOCUS: Connectedness & Wellbeing)

Information and communication are both vitally important within times of crisis.  Students require clear, accurate, timely information as situations develop, and this information need to be circulated via platforms students can access and/or regularly use. Communication involves ‘exchange’ and has a much greater potential to support student well-being, connectedness and engagement. Existing pan-organisational strategies for communicating with students (e.g. student care teams) remain important, and vitally important for students who have identified the need for professional, clinical support.

Staff who work closely with students have an increasingly important role to play in times of crisis, as many students feel more comfortable communicating with staff they have an established relationship with and/or have met within F2F environments. It is also likely these staff are in the best position to be able to identify students who may need 1-1 communications, and can instigate this. Some students will open-up communication channels with you.  The ones you need to be more concerned about are the ones who are not contributing and have made no contact. These are the students who will likely benefit from 1-1 communication the most.

Some practical suggestions:

  • Be authentic, non-judgemental and humane within all communication with students. Encourage them to contact you if they need to chat 1-1 about stresses or concerns. Letting them know are keen to support them can alleviate some of the stress in contacting you. Letting them know you are finding things challenging too can help establish mutual ground for communication.
  • Let them know you ‘hear’ them and actively listen so you do so. Sometimes just providing reassurance that ‘we are all going to make it through this together’ is all they need. Share the load between staff if your student numbers are large.
  • Check back to see who contacted you via email or 1-1 earlier in the year. These may highlight some key people to check in with.
  • Use data analytics, if available, to check individual student engagement with your course sites. A gentle email, text or phone call to check in with them may explain their lack of engagement.
  • Consider offering ‘social get-together times’ in association with online teaching sessions and office hours. These serve a different purpose. Notice who attends. These will be students who feel they are gaining from ‘extra’ interactions right now.
  • Pay attention to the ‘high-achievers’ as well as the students who may be lacking in engagement – they may be struggling more than you think with the move to distance learning and changes in assessment!

Encouraging community connectedness (FOCUS: Connectedness & Wellbeing)

There is much we can learn from revisiting the powerful student-initiated contributions made by the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) that was established in response to the 2010/2011 earthquakes in Canterbury. These students made an important contribution to the local community and in doing so, fostered an incredible sense of community amongst the student body that continues to this day. This early initiative has grown into a movement that has positively impacted universities across the world and now offers SVA programmes in New Zealand Primary and Secondary schools. Localised branches of the SVA are currently delivering food to people in lockdown within their pandemic response.  Whilst the key intent within the first iteration was simply to make a positive contribution within the community, what students gained from this was so much more. Within this lies the learning.

Connectedness within a community in times of crisis enables us to feel like we belong. Providing support within a community can enhance our feelings of efficacy and empowerment. Gaining support from a community can help us to feel connected and not alone in our journey. Communities are already established at many levels across tertiary settings (e.g. qualification/ course/clubs/ student study groups), and each can play an important role in enhancing a student’s sense of connectedness, belonging and engagement.

Some practical suggestions:

  • Focus upon fostering a sense of community within your courses. Providing opportunities for students to get to know one another, work together, and seek/provide support to one another can be a great starting point.
  • Acknowledge the importance of collaboration and providing/gaining support within your learning community. Suggest ways they could contribute to get them started, and then let them take the reins. They will know better than you what support they need and how they can support each other.
  • Use inclusive language when you are working with your students. Describe your class/cohort/ group as a learning community, position yourself as a community member and make explicit links to the ways they are working and shared values of relevance (e.g. collaboration, shared endeavour, AKO – we are all both teachers & learners).
  • Establishing smaller student support groups, as well as working groups, within a course can be helpful. Students may quietly alert you about students that they believe need further support.
  • Encourage the students to identify the positive, unexpected learning that they are experiencing, and the transferrable skills they are developing within the current context. Acknowledge and celebrate this with the community.
  • An ethic of care will be at the forefront of student-initiated communities in times of challenge. Work with your Students Association and/or student representatives to explore ways to support them, and/or ways they may be able to support you within your role.

Students as co-constructors and collaborative problem-solvers (FOCUS: Collaboration & Connectedness)

I have found accessing networks (including social media networks) invaluable to identify common issues being experienced across the tertiary sector, and gain from the expertise of colleagues in their attempts to solve these issues. This highlights for me the value of collaboration and partnerships. What appears to be largely absent within the narrative I am encountering across my current networks are students being invited to contribute as co-constructors and problem-solvers.  Too often students appear to be positioned as the source of organisational problem, with few opportunities to collaborate and contribute to the problem-solving processes organisations are currently needing to engage in. The SVA exemplified the value of student problem-solving when they developed an innovative App solution to address an issue they experienced coordinating the movement of student volunteers within the local community after the earthquakes. More recently, my own graduate students contributed excellent ideas that are now evident within university-wide resource material designed to support students new to working via distance delivery. They commented that they felt more connected to the university, empowered and validated after being invited to contribute. Consider how you can involve your students, especially when attempting to find solutions to problems they are encountering themselves. I propose there is a wealth of untapped potential here.

Some practical suggestions:

  • Pulse surveys can be great to gain on-going information about the issues students are experiencing. Consider sharing some of the common issues identified by students with students, and ask for their input/ suggestions to help address these issues.
  • Invite your students to be involved in a co-construction process if you need to make changes to your course content. Consider ways that students can become involved as (co)creators of content, as well as consumers of content. Provide them with opportunities to act as facilitators within your course if possible, if they are interested in doing so.
  • Brainstorm options with students if you need to make changes to course assessments. Invite them to come up with alternative options, and discuss the options within the community.
  • Provide opportunities within course spaces for student-generated suggestions, content and sharing.

My final suggestion is to make connections to the graduate attributes you promote within your tertiary organisation. At the University of Canterbury we have the ‘UC7’: seven key dimensions that we have embedded across our qualifications and courses to prepare our students to ‘change the world’. Upon reviewing these, I realised that many of these attributes have been central within my communication and collaboration with students since our COVID 19 responses began. UC Connect: highlighting the importance of community involvement. UC Wellbeing: the importance of finding your way and making the most of university life (even if it is not as you expected it to be right now). Global awareness and community engagement are both key attributes within our graduate profile.  Perhaps if we focus upon fostering the growth of humane, globally-aware, community- minded, problem-solving students within our endeavours throughout this time, we can better prepare them for the changed world that lies ahead.

Ngā mihi nui.


Some useful reading of you are keen to learn more about the SVA and University of Canterbury responses/ learning following the 2010/2011 earthquakes:

Student Volunteer Army Website (history, current programmes and resources): https://sva.org.nz/our-story/

Dabner, N. (2012). “Breaking Ground” in the use of social media: A case study of a university earthquake response to inform educational design with Facebook. Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 69–78.

Mackey, J., Gilmore, F., Dabner, N., Breeze, D., & Buckley, P. (2012). Blended Learning for Academic Resilience in Times of Disaster or Crisis. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 8(2). Retrieved from https://jolt.merlot.org/vol8no2/mackey_0612.htm

O’Steen, B., & Perry, L. (2012). Service-learning as a responsive and engaging curriculum: A higher education institution’s response to natural disaster. Curriculum Matters, 8, 171-183.

Tull, S., Dabner, N., & Ayebi-Arthur, K. (2017). Social media and e-learning in response to seismic events; resilient practices. Journal of open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1), 63-76.

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