The R&D team at Jisc is working on a potential new product that we’re currently calling Peer Connect. Peer Connect will be an app for learners who are predominantly studying online to connect with others on their course.
Aimed at all students, national and international, Peer Connect will adopt a “privacy first” approach allowing students to connect without exposing personal contact details. Unlike many other social connection apps, Peer Connect will not require students to share phone numbers, personal emails, or connect in an existing personal social space like Facebook or Instagram. The app will allow students to connect with other students either in groups, one-to-one or in message boards to “crowd source” answers to questions.
Where did this issue come from?
In late 2020, the team embarked on some research around the pervasive issue of student loneliness. Covid was continuing to make all walks of life uncertain, including studying. The UK was entering into a second lockdown and many students were feeling isolated; away from their friends and classmates, studying online.
At this point, the team embarked on some Design Thinking about emergent teaching and learning futures from the pandemic. One of the directions took us towards a future where significant online teaching remained and how that would impact on student learning and wellbeing.
To bolster the large quantity of emerging research, we interviewed a number of university students who were studying online at the time because of Covid to ascertain what had changed for them and what they thought needed improving. Three main trends were identified:
Lack of contact with their peers – students were not able to message or converse with others alongside group or class activities such as lectures.
Lack of group work – it came through very strongly that not being able to study with friends and classmates was not conducive to effective study; not just in collaborative scenarios but the overall lack of behavioural nudges to work more effectively.
Staff availability – Reduction in contact time with staff and delay in receiving answers to questions meant students were unable to remove blockers and get on with their work.
What’s an online student to do?
Alongside this massive technical and cultural shift sat online-only education courses that have always been set up that way. We identified almost 1000 such courses in the UK and there are many more if we include courses with an online/f2f tuition mix. In comparison to the newly online students due to Covid, how did students on these online-only courses feel about the opportunities for social interaction and collaborative learning? Were there similarities? What were the differences?
We took our learnings from the first round of interviews to work up two design prototypes. These were presented as apps with key features that addressed the main themes that emerged from the first interviews. These were:
- One to One messaging
- Q&A bulletin board
- Ability to create groups and communities
Once we had designs, we sought out postgraduates studying online to get a picture of their digital learning experience. The response was unanimous for positive change in the social contact area. Some students indicated that they could use the apps we suggested in their courses immediately. Although we had only created designs to stimulate conversation, the feedback was very strong about their potential usefulness.
The priorities for design and function were:
- Privacy first design
- Question and answer functionality
- Real-time availability (who’s online)
- Enabling better group work
Why hasn’t this problem been solved already?
As part of the research, we looked at solutions in this space. We knew that there was nothing particularly novel about what we had come up with in the prototype and yet the student need remained. VLEs come with these features but the evidence suggested these were not used that regularly for discussion between students.
WhatsApp is often used as a makeshift community but is banned in some countries. This is an issue if the cohort is international (and which seems to be an ever growing use case with the increasing numbers of online courses being offered to learners outside the UK). Students reported that whilst it was a good proxy solution and allowed people to converse as a group, WhatsApp does not have filters and requires sharing a phone number which some learners don’t wish to do. Interviewees also reported a high noise to signal ratio, making it hard to find the information they wanted. These groups were often self-starting and entirely unsighted by the course staff.
The social messaging space is dominated by big tech players – with well-established offerings that are often free to users. Yet feedback suggested that these ubiquitous solutions didn’t fit the bill, either by lacking a specific education focus or poor standing with the student community around trust and privacy.
Based on all the feedback we’ve received on our initial designs we’ve created a test space within an existing product which recreates the functionality most requested: the direct messaging, group spaces and Q&A bulletin board. We’re currently working to partner with institutions to see if students will engage with the app and to gather further insights into how it might be used. While all our feedback so far has been very positive this is an opportunity to test whether students will truly engage with a new app and to increase our understanding whether it meets the needs of the students and has potential as a new product.
If you are interested in finding out more, you can email us at email@example.com. If you are attending Digifest 2022 in person, please come and find us in the Demo Zone, in the Exhibition Hall.