No student left behind

The decision was made this year to suspend classes and move teaching online, and many of our students travelled home to be with family and friends.

As a result of this sudden change of environment, many students have commented that this disruption to university life has resulted in a sense of loss of belonging and a fear of being left behind on their academic journey.

This isolation is perhaps felt more keenly by our international students who are often struggling, not only with learning in another language and culture, but also with the potential for becoming disadvantaged members of our community without appropriate support available. Coronavirus is exacerbating the global inequalities within education like never before.

Inclusion is a core value in Sussex’s 2025 Strategic Framework, and one which aims to provide an inclusive and supportive environment for all. Part of this is about understanding that gaining an education at university is different for everyone but our international students require more from us than just recognising that. They need us to reach out to them and to work out how to give them equal access to everyone else. This ethical imperative chimes with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2030 pledge that no one will be left behind.

UNDP’s core aims of examining potential disadvantages, empowering independent learning and new modes of support fit with our own way of working and so we think it’s a helpful model to consider here.

The Academic Success Advisors have adapted the UNDP’s three-pronged framework to ensure that no student is left behind as the university community moves forward together at this difficult time.

  1. Examine the potential disadvantages students may face

We support all our students’ progress and recognise the challenges that face many of us now that we cannot be together as we once were. This has been particularly hard on international students, many of whom who have had to travel home to very different circumstances with no certainty about where this leaves them regarding their studies.

In order to reach all our students, we asked them how best to contact them for one-to-one meetings. Having listened to the responses, we currently offer meetings via Zoom, phone, WhatsApp and WeChat. By encouraging students to communicate on their terms, we aim to ensure that our modes of communication do not exclude certain demographics.

We quickly realised that the use of social media encourages students to seek help (Amador & Amador, 2014) and so increases their academic engagement. Some of our Advisors have found WhatsApp and WeChat a vital communication tools since moving online, and a medium through which they can host video/voice calls, post university updates, advertise workshops and events, as well as provide academic advice. Widening our channels of communication has attracted students who wouldn’t normally access our service.

Since online teaching started, communication has generally moved to emails, university webpages and online teaching platforms. After moving back to their home country, many Chinese students experienced internet restriction issues. Many also reported feeling overloaded with emails and preferred the WeChat platform, due to the ease at which you can communicate essential information.

Social media platforms can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of communication with international students, who often experience a degree of language and cultural barriers. Students have mentioned that they are more confident with typing in English via online chat and consider our WhatsApp sessions to be clearer, more informative and efficient than traditional face-to-face communication.

WeChat has not only facilitated effective communication with some of our students but has also enabled previously reticent students to communicate with us. One of our international students (3rd year student, BSc Business and Management Studies) commented:

‘Introverted students, like me, found it very difficult to talk to a faculty member or anyone about the issues we experienced as international students with language, culture and many other barriers … (By using WeChat) you are showing you care and are willing to be close to us. I found it easier to talk to you. I and many other students like me are really appreciating this.’

This is one example of how our team has adapted and reached out to our students during this difficult time. It will be important for us to keep these channels of communication open once we have transitioned back to campus and resumed face-to-face teaching. Having examined the potential disadvantages that certain students face in their attempt to communicate with us, we are now more enlightened with regards to providing an inclusive and supportive service that leaves no student behind.

  1. Empower students to become independent learners in an online community

One of our main goals is to empower our students to be independent and motivated in their academic careers. This is more important now than ever as we adapt ourselves to a shifting global landscape within higher education, with increasing reliance on remote working.

We have boosted student motivation through our weekly “Come Together and Revise” virtual workshops. These workshops aim to recreate the group study that many students are missing since working remotely. The impetus for these workshops arose from feedback that students were lacking the motivation usually gained by studying in a social environment, either in the University library or with friends. The workshops provide students with blocks of time to revise, interspersed with regular breaks to chat with peers, ask questions and discuss revision techniques. One undergraduate student said that they felt the session generated the collegial atmosphere that comes from studying in the library.

While working remotely, we must not forget that we are still part of an academic community. Although this community is currently dispersed around the globe, its unity still stands. The Academic Success Advisors work to promote the strength of this unity and its potential power to help students achieve their full academic potential.

  1. Enact new modes of support to accommodate the changing academic environment

As part of the support services available at the University of Sussex, we have been acting as the first point of call for students who are studying remotely. We have adapted our ways of working to accommodate the new circumstances some of our students have found themselves in.

Owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, fifteen of our Business School students remained in China after travelling home for the winter break. These students spent all of semester two studying remotely, while their peers continued to receive face-to-face teaching for a further seven weeks. We wanted to provide the best support for these students, who had found themselves in unforeseen and potentially deeply disruptive circumstances. We worked with each student individually and collaborated with faculty and professional services to provide academic advice and support to these students throughout the term. Despite the challenging situation, all fifteen completed their studies this year.

With the support we provided, a second year BSc Marketing and Management with Psychology student reported feeling much happier with their academic progression than in the previous semester, and their current results are 10% higher than their average:

‘I wish I had known about the Academic Success Advisors service earlier… with the support I received from you (advisor) and tutors I am confident to graduate with a 2:1 or even a first.’

The Academic Success Advisors at University of Sussex Business School offer a wealth of support to our student community and continue to draw ideas and knowledge from students and fellow practitioners to create an accessible and inclusive online learning community. Our service is continually evolving and adapting as we endeavour to work with students in a way which meets their needs now and, in the future, so that no student is left behind.

Reference

Amador, P. and Amador, J., 2014. Academic advising via Facebook: Examining student help seeking. The Internet and Higher Education, 21, pp.9-16.

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