#Take5 #50 The best way to bring the human into virtual space?




Inclusivity and Differentiation, Learning Spaces and Learning Communities

This #Take5 post is brought to you from Sandra Abegglen (University of Calgary), Emma Gillaspy (University of Central Lancashire), and Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield (London Metropolitan University) – all are members of ALDinHE and are involved in the #creativeHE community.

There will be a follow up to this blog in November, where we will run the first #creativeHE event of this academic year: Game on: playful practice for online environments – 18th November 14.00-16.00 – and where we will also call for the community to say what sort of creative activities they want support with across this challenging year. Information and Registration: https://creativehecommunity.wordpress.com/2020/10/13/join-us-for-the-first-online-meetup-of-2020-21/

Photo: Making a fortune teller with Emma Gillaspy at last year’s #creativeHE Jam: https://twitter.com/HannahSeat5/status/1271416548687822850

Virtually Impossible: Embodiment and ‘Being There’ in online space

For most of us the majority of our teaching, if not all, has shifted online for the foreseeable future. Whilst at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic the ‘pivot’ was a temporary emergency measure, this academic year the move to remote education is all too real – the expectations are higher – and the pressure to get this ‘right’ more intense.

A key concern of ours is the facilitation of connection with students new to university – and perhaps even newer to online teaching and learning. How can we connect at a distance and virtually with students from day one? How can we enable them to connect meaningfully with us, as instructors, and with each other to develop bonding, belonging and cohort identity? How do we bring the human into the digital?

Such connection is challenging enough, but studying and learning are also embodied. How can we get students ‘ready’ to bring their whole embodied selves into their learning experience when they are working from home and online? We have developed a few ideas of how to connect with students and foster an embodied, active student self at a distance, but we hope blog readers will contribute their own ideas and experiences.

To Share Your Ideas Contact: Sandra Sinfield (s.sinfield@londonmet.ac.uk) and Tom Burns (t.burns@londonmet.ac.uk) or TALON https://taloncloud.ca Facilitator Sandra Abegglen (sandra.abegglen@ucalgary.ca) #creativeHE https://creativehecommunity.wordpress.com/ (egillaspy@uclan.ac.uk)

Photo: Lego people demonstrating academics at work: https://twitter.com/5fingerTyler/status/1272814003274813445

Bonding and Belonging: Engaging Students Actively and Creatively

The activities listed below are not exhaustive but give a flavour of the sort of activities that would be of use to students, helping them to connect meaningfully and creatively with you, as their instructor, and other students as they engage with their learning. Well planned authentic activities foster belonging and bonding. They also de facto develop complementary practices – like digital literacies and active, critical thinking for example – but without engaging in reductive ‘checklists’ that can position students as ‘deficit’ before they even start.

The activities below invite students to start thinking about who they are – and what they want to say about themselves to you, their tutor, and to their new friends and colleagues; and they position the students to engage actively with university study. They help them transition playfully but powerfully into academia and their epistemic communities – to get to know others and their university.

It is important that these activities are framed positively. They are not just the ‘fun’ bit to get out of the way before the teaching starts. So, tell your students why you are doing what you are doing. Explain that creative, playful social practice is part of active and meaningful learning that will improve and deepen their understanding of content. Have a de-brief discussion after a playful activity to make the learning conscious.

Introductory Activities for Students to do at a Distance

Make a Top Trumps card of yourself and post it to the class social media space – LIKE and say ‘Hello’ to other students in the class.

Create a study space in your home – take a picture and post it to the class social media space – with a brief commentary. Get inspired – and respond to posts from classmates (and adapt and extend your own study space).

Make a study apron – see video: https://youtu.be/ty_ztNPoEp4 – find a large old pair of jeans – transform the pair of jeans or similar into a study apron – share the process in the social media space. NB: #DS106 set our task as a challenge recently – and this is what they got: https://daily.ds106.us/tdc3184/

If asking students to make the apron – extend and set an additional reflective task: Think about the process of making the apron: Did I find it fruitful to make and think?What is the best part of my apron? If I made a second apron, what would I do similar/differently? Having made this, do I feel differently about entering uni? Do you feel like a ‘proper’ student yet?

Make a representation of yourself – out of clean recyclables, plasticine, wood/fabric. Give this some time and thought. Try to lose yourself in the making. Take a picture and post. What’s an interesting fact you could add to introduce your creation/yourself

If you are making a creative self representation – make a study partner/buddy for it – out of materials you have at home. Take that partner/buddy out for a trip/exploration: show what study space they have; where and what they ‘learn’; read them something that you have been using to help you succeed as a student; tell them something that you have enjoyed or found surprising about being a student; introduce them to useful books and resources. Take pictures or short video clips of all these activities as they happen. Share visuals on the social media space. Start a study blog for your study partner/buddy – put pictures up and write about their experiences of studying, week by week.

Make a university – out of buttons, wool, sticks, Lego… Take a picture and post. (Tips: Use this to start a discussion about the nature of teaching and learning at University – of how you value what the students bring… and how they may find their feet in academia. Set up a discussion where the students change the universities to better fit who they are).

Introduce yourself via a meme, gif or emoji – (Tip: Images often enable non-verbal ways of knowing to emerge, leading to increased human connection. Encourage learners to share in an online space a meme, gif or emoji that says something about them, then in a live session they can share more about their choices, deepening the connection further.

Active Learning Strategies to be Built Into any Class, Any Time

Virtual escape room or quest: Where students are put into social groups to solve a series of questions, the solving of which will help them discover more about the course you are teaching or the assignment that you have set (see https://blogs.city.ac.uk/learningatcity/2018/12/12/educational-escape-rooms/#.X39DEOhKg2w).  

Ideas from ImaginED (http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/): To seed engagement with a topic being studied: Twenty pictures: Go out, take 20 pictures – reduce to three – write anything from a caption to a poem – share the pictures and the writing. Acrostics – produce a short poem using a keyword from your subject – illustrate – share acrostic and illustration; Be like Andy Goldsworthy: Go out and build an installation that comments on the subject you are studying – take a picture of the installation – perhaps take pictures of people engaging with your installation – and share. Ideas from: In Praise of Idle Time: Taking LiD Outdoors

Scavenger Hunts: Using Scavenger Hunts to Get Students Moving in Virtual Learning – scavenger hunts can be built into any theoretical session – to seed student thinking or reflection on a topic. A scavenger hunt is pretty much what it sounds like. Staff give students specific clues or items that they have to find from their homes or around the larger community – to create an artefact or build a ‘picture’ of something that is being studied. This works well as a video-conference activity, but it can also work as a series of photos that students take and upload to a shared file. Students can work in teams using the breakout room function, or they can work independently. Useful apps to explore: https://www.goosechase.com/ and https://en.actionbound.com/.

Think of a song: When starting a new topic of study – ask students to think of a song or poem that represents that topic and post it to the class social media space – giving a reason for their choice. Read and respond to posts from classmates.

Class curators: Each week ask a different group of students to ‘curate’ the session. Expect them to creatively capture the key ideas in any lecture or discussion. They can draw, knit, dance… Alternatively they can make animations or a video diary of the session. Share with the whole group.

Motivation board: There will be moments during a course when motivation dips so why not invite your learners to create a collective board (Miro, Padlet, Jamboard and Lino are useful tools for this) to get them through these difficult moments. Ask them to share motivational quotes, images, music.

Thinking about Studying

We cannot assume that students will know how to best organise themselves for study online – but the activities that we have suggested will help them to become more active in their virtual classrooms – and will help them learn how to appreciate each other and work together – and if well discussed and ‘de-briefed’ will foreground the active learning that is taking place.

Similarly, many of our students have entered university from very transactional and disempowering pre-tertiary education spaces – hence they may not know just how active and engaged they will have to be to make their studies come alive for them. They may not know how to ‘study’ and actually learn that which they want and need to learn. You might want to share the tips below with your students to encourage them.


Before you start: take a deep breath, go for a walk, meditate:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hL-FiMYY_34

Work in short bursts: Try the Pomodoro technique: The Pomodoro Technique® – proudly developed by Francesco Cirillo | Cirillo Consulting GmbH and Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Working in short bursts | Academic Skills and Writing Development

Work fast: How to write an assignment fast (6-min video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZlGmOazg_k&t=1s

Work Slow: And in Partnership: https://theslowacademic.com/2017/02/16/writing-differently/ 

Draw your learning: To help understand and remember what is being studied, use some form of visual thinking to organise thoughts and develop ideas: https://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/studyhub/drawing.html

Make active notes: https://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/studyhub/note.html

Reward your progress: Decide how you are going to reward yourself when you achieve each mini-goal (you may have identified during your pomodoro-ing) and make sure you do it! Rewarding yourself will improve your intrinsic motivation and lead to more progress https://debut.careers/insight/12-ways-reward-your-studying/ 

Further help: Study Hub – LondonMet’s study tips website: https://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/studyhub/index.html

Share: However, your students may have experience with particular online tools and approaches. Ask them to share with you – and their peers. Utilise the opportunity for discussion, exchange – and shared learning.

And finally, be kind. A reminder that staff and students will need to be even kinder to each other in online space. Any one of us may lose connectivity or suffer a technical hitch or breakdown at just that very moment when we need that camera or mic to work. Neither staff nor students suffering technical hitches are incompetent or unskilled – but oh boy – it can certainly feel that way… Support each other on the way!


Sandra Sinfield, Sandra Abegglen and Tom Burns have worked and taught together at LondonMet for many years. Sandra A left LondonMet in 2018 and is now based at the University of Calgary (Canada) where she works on a research project that looks at design studio practice. Emma Gillaspy is the Northern interloper of the group, being a born and bred Mancunian now working at the University of Central Lancashire. Their connection is through creative education via communities such as #creativeHE. They all research emancipatory practice in HE and/or teach on PGcert, MALTHE and other academic development courses, with a special focus on praxes that ignite curiosity, harness creativity, and develop power and voice. Tom and Sandra S have co-authored Teaching, Learning and Study Skills: a guide for tutors and Essential Study Skills: the complete guide to success at university (4th Edition, 2016), two books that support academic learning and teaching across disciplines. Sandra A has recently co-edited a book on education and economics: Understanding Education and Economics: key debates and critical perspectives (2020) whilst Emma is currently editing a journal special issue exploring the creative self of educators.

Sandra Abegglen (@sandra_abegglen);  Tom Burns (@LevellerB); Emma Gillaspy (@egillaspy); Sandra Sinfield (@Danceswithcloud)


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