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24 August 2020

Supporting incoming students: induction and community-building in digital environments



Alison Eales
Quality Enhancement Specialist, QAA Scotland


Starting a programme of higher education – or supporting students to make that transition – can be stressful, and 2020 continues to present us with new challenges. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that we already have experience of using digital environments to support induction, orientation and community-building.


Below we'll look at some examples of digital spaces that Scottish institutions use to enhance induction. If you have responsibility for induction activities, whether from an institutional, programme-level or students’ association perspective, we hope that you will find some of these examples helpful and inspiring.


We have also included useful links aimed specifically at educators and learners who want to feel more confident working in digital environments.


Enhancing induction


Institutions are committed to better understanding the applicant experience, as evidenced by a research project conducted by the University of Edinburgh. Their findings emphasise the importance of engaging early with incoming students, managing their expectations, and providing them with clear and practical information, along with the importance of building applicants’ trust. These are all great principles to guide us through unfamiliar territory. You can read more about the legacy of this work on the University’s website.  More recently, the University has published an update on student transitions on its Teaching Matters blog, covering topics such as the meaning of induction, academic development for new students, and preparing students for blended learning.


Queen Margaret University have designed a Transitions and Induction Framework and associated Planning List. The Framework offers a joined-up approach to supporting student transitions and induction, combining professional service and academic programme provision. It incorporates three stages (pre-entry, induction and longitudinal induction) and three aspects (orientation, social integration and preparation for learning), and is designed for use by programme teams. The accompanying Planning List offers teams the flexibility to decide what is most appropriate for their programme.


Online pre-sessional courses are a common way of providing support and are often built on an institution's existing virtual learning environment, providing an additional benefit in that it gives new students the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the platform. Examples include UWS's Square One programme, which featured activities designed explicitly to help students navigate the VLE, such as an online treasure hunt. UWS's SMILE study skills module was made available to students before they started, and the University of Strathclyde's We Are Strathclyde course included over 60 activities, including discussion forums and quizzes.


Other institutions opted to use different digital platforms, either alongside or instead of their VLEs. The University of Aberdeen have used Facebook to aid new students’ transition into the institution. Similarly, in 2012 the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland established a Facebook Freshers’ page open only to successful applicants. Key to the success of this initiative was the engagement of a range of people including from both the institution and the students’ union, including current students along with admissions and welfare staff. As of 2020, the Conservatoire manages Facebook pages that connect returning students with incoming students and they have found this to be a more effective way of offering advice and support.


The University of Glasgow enjoyed great success with their award-winning #TeamUofG campaign, which combined social media with innovative merchandise such as temporary tattoos and socks to make incoming students feel part of the University community before arrival.


Teaching in digital environments


If you’re looking for support in getting your teaching online, our Technology Enhanced Learning Resource Hub is a good starting point. The Hub includes tools, training materials, research and reference materials in a range of formats. These cover topics including lecture recording, take-home assessments and accessibility.


Learning in digital environments


If you find the idea of online or blended learning a bit daunting, you are not alone. Fortunately, there are lots of resources available that might help. The Open University has developed a course entitled How To Learn Online: Getting Started, which is available for free on the FutureLearn platform. Also available on FutureLearn is a suite of courses developed by the University of Leeds, including Preparing to Learn Online at University, Studying and Reflecting, Researching Your Project and Managing Your Online Identity.


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and recorded lectures can give you a sense of what the digital learning experience might be like.


What next?


As session 2020-21 gets underway, we will continue to provide support and share good practice. Our new Enhancement Theme, Resilient Learning Communities, is a timely opportunity to address some big challenges, and we welcome engagement from across the Scottish higher education sector and beyond.