A unique academic support service that helps to mentor students in the art and practice of writing has been showcased in a new national report by the Office for Students (OfS).
The Digital Writing Café was highlighted as one of the most innovative examples of how universities and colleges have responded to the pandemic by providing online support to their students. In particular, it was evidenced as an example of how some institutions had succeeded in ‘embedding inclusion’ in their services.
The report, Gravity Assist: Propelling Higher Education towards a brighter future, was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education, and led by Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the OfS. It is published today (Thursday 25 February).
It found that the speed and scope of adaption in the higher education sector had been “extraordinary”. Its conclusions were based upon interviews with digital teaching and learning experts and higher education professionals from around the world, and from surveys of nearly 1,300 students and 570 teachers.
“Digital technology is an important component of university education at all stages of the student journey – from the first few weeks, to group working and private study, through to postgraduate degrees and lifelong learning,"
said Professor Julian Chaudhuri, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Student Experience).
“But the pandemic and the lockdown it precipitated transformed that dynamic almost overnight, with technology and digital skills becoming one of the key facilitators for teaching and learning, and supporting students. So this report is an important reflection of the work that we and many other institutions have undertaken to support our students, and I am delighted that Plymouth's Digital Writing Café has been identified as an exemplar.”
The University originally established its Writing Café in 2013 as a creative space for students to talk about academic writing across the disciplines, and to help them become better writers in a broader sense. Underpinned by a philosophy of inclusion and inquiry, it recognised that some groups may be more privileged than others when it comes to written assessments. And located in one of the physical cafes on the campus, it also offered a valuable social aspect to University life.
Every year, the Student Learning team trains 35 student writing mentors to work at the Cafe. Between them, and working with the catering service, the mentors run daily sessions during term time – engaging with around 2,000 students. In total, 15,000 students have been helped since its launch, and it is believed to be still the only such service specifically designed for social learning and academic writing practices in UK higher education.
But when lockdown forced the University to switch to online learning, the Writing Café had to follow suit, as well as take into account additional struggles that students might be experiencing as a result of the pandemic. Within days, it had moved online with no interruption of service.
“The Writing Cafe was initiated as a comfortable, safe, non-judgemental and welcoming place, designed around the coffeehouse culture of collaboration, debate and discussion,”
said Christie Pritchard, Student Learning Manager.
"By moving the café online, we had to ensure that the environment continued to motivate and reassure students. They used virtual breakout rooms to re-create the physical ‘tables’ in a café, and people were encouraged to bring their hot drinks to the discussion to replicate the real café environment for themselves. And as well as talking through the practicalities of the virtual space, such as if cameras were needed, and how students would digitally share their work, we also made sure the Writing Mentors made space for conversations around how students were feeling during the pandemic.”
The upshot was that attendance for the Digital Writing Café increased by 50% during lockdown, with many new students joining, including those who ordinarily commuted to campus, or were enrolled on health degrees where learning placements reduced their time in Plymouth.
The mentors also ensured they captured feedback from students, more generally, so that the café could become both an early warning system for any issues relating to lockdown and distanced learning, as well as a live forum that could influence Teaching and Learning developments in real-time. As a result, the digital version of the café will continue and will run alongside the physical version once it resumes in the future.
“The Writing Café is one of the few online spaces within the University community where students representing different stages of study and across different disciplines can come together,”
adds Dr Adele Hill, Associate Professor in Medical Education, and Associate Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Health.
“Providing spaces for students to connect with the institution and each other is particularly needed this year, but can play a powerful role in strengthening our student experience in the future.”
For more information on Gravity Assist, visit the Office for Students website.