Making connections and keeping connected

Ferry trip to Hong Kong Is (N.Lemon, 2014)
I’m in Hong Kong at the moment attending the #HERDSA14 conference and thought I’d share the poster presentation my colleagues and I have prepared for those who can’t be here.

Making connections and keeping connected: Engaging diverse learners across multiple sites

Our research team: Dr Narelle Lemon, Professor Tanya Fitzgerald, Dr Caroline Walta, Dr Deborah Neal, Dr Rebecca Miles, Ms Jude Warren, and Ms Karen Corneille, Faculty of Education, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.


Student retention and success at higher education has been widely researched (James, et al., 2010; Kifts & Nelson, 2005; Roberts, 2011) however, much of the data available is positioned within policy responsibilities and discussions around institutional structures. With emerging research indicating that there is no one singular reason for students’ withdrawal from higher education it is important to look at a number of inter-related factors that leads to disengagement. Ultimately, there is support showing unsuccessful experiences are driven by issues around pedagogy, practical organisational issues, and support provided (Devlin, 2010; Kirk, 2008; Laing & Robinson, 2003; Yorke & Longden, 2008). Building from these recommendations, this paper aims to share the beginning phase of a funded project that aims to focus on social integration and socially inclusive pedagogies (Gale & Mills, 2013) that connects students within a supportive learning community. The project is based in Australia at a multi campus university that actively encourages the use of online tools to build and nurture peer support and collaborative learning. An unintended consequence of this tool has been the fostering of friendships within and across multiple campuses. As we argue in this paper, it is this online community that has the potential to connect students with their peers as well as with the institution. Importantly, student voices already speak to ways in which these connections encourage their learning and have cemented their intention to remain at university.

This poster reports the first stage  of the project – investigation of student needs for effective online learning – and the impact for subject development in Stage 3.


The intention of this project is to devise, implement and evaluate an online peer mentoring model that connects teacher education students across campuses (five in total situated in the state of Victoria, Australia), and which contributes to the ongoing success and retention of undergraduate low SES (LSES) students.

To devise and implement socially inclusive pedagogies that connects students across campuses and which contributes to the ongoing success and retention of undergraduate low SES (LSES) students.


Participants of this study are 17+ year old undergraduate students (n = 500) undertaking studies in education, thus to become an education professional.


A mixed methods approach utilising focus groups, interviews and online surveys will be used in this study.The first stage is to determine components which promote social connectedness in a regional-based teacher education program, and to put these into practice in the development and implementation of two new online elective subjects to be offered across a city and regional campus in 2014. This will be achieved by inviting the cohort of students who were enrolled in 2013 to participate in an online survey.The second stage is to identify concerns that the new 2014 cohort of Education students have in their first year of a bachelor program of study at Melbourne and Mildura campuses. An invitation to a brief online survey will be issued at the commencement of the year, middle of the year and end of the year. Results from the surveys will be used to provide support to students in their transition to university life. The third stage will involve development of two new elective subjects to be delivered across campuses by a team who are located across campuses. Fourth stage is an evaluation of the two new electives with the use of focus groups, interviews and online surveys involving students and staff. At the end of each semester study participant student retention data will be examined and compared to that of previous years.


There is a growing body of evidence relating to student retention and success (for example James, Krause and Jenkins, 2010; Kift and Nelson, 2005; Roberts, 2011). Much of this is institutional research that examines policy responsibilities and obligations at subject, departments or single institutional level. Where larger studies have been undertaken the emphasis has been on institutional comparisons or the national picture, although some research has been international in scope (for example Yorke and Longden, 2004; Kahu, 2013, Trowler and Trowler, 2010). More recently, research studies have concluded that there is rarely a single reason why students withdraw; there are a number of inter-related factors that lead students to disengage with their studies and the institution. Certainly there is significant research evidence that learning and teaching environments are highly influential for students’ retention and success (Laing and Robinson, 2003). Similarly, Kirk (2008) and Devlin (2010) found that issues relating to pedagogy, practical organisational issues and the support provided have the most pronounced impact on retention rates. Yorke and Longden (2008) suggest the following factors contribute to student retention:

  • an institutional commitment to student learning, and hence to student engagement;
  • proactive management of student transition;
  • curriculum issues such as treating learning as an academic and social milieu; and
  • and choosing curricular structures that increase the chances of student success.

Research about specific student groups in higher education repeatedly concludes that the learning environment is critical for students to feel integrated and to reach their academic potential. For example, Devlin and O’Shea (2012) conclude that it is essential to take into account the wider socio-economic context of students within the learning and teaching context. Crucially, universities have a social and moral responsibility to genuinely and proactively provide support for students from non-traditional backgrounds. Of importance then is the need for socially inclusive pedagogies (Gale and Mills, 2013) that work to connect students within a supportive learning community.

What this points to is the critical importance of social integration. Students must be able to feel that they ‘fit in’, both socially and academically. For students from LSES backgrounds, the need to ‘fit in’ is imperative as they tend to have weaker support networks, display attributes linked with social isolation and withdraw more easily as they have no sense of connection to the institution (Furlong and Cartmel, 2009; Harvey and Drew, 2006). Hence, a range of formal and informal social experiences may serve to reinforce students’ attachment to an institution, facilitate development of their educational goals and improve their academic performance (Tinto, 1993).

In Tinto’s work, students found that learning communities had academic and social benefits that impacted positively on student achievement and persistence. It is these established learning communities that have promoted social, as well as academic, integration. And it is this form of social and academic integration that connects students within and beyond their own campus that is the focus of this project.

IMG_0998Stage 1 reporting

What we have learnt from students who have completed a post-graduate teacher degree online?

A survey of students (n=34) revealed 61.7% of students (n=21) commented that strategies implemented by the teacher and subject design were significant for establishing a successful online community of support. Highly featured were:

ü  Resource and ideas sharing (cognitive presence)

ü  Feedback (teacher presence)

ü  Support (social presence)

ü  Sense of community developed face to face helped develop relationships for the online components of delivery (social presence)

Twenty-one likert scale items (1SD – 5SA) relating to the online components were listed covering levels of support, interaction, engagement, feedback and technical skills . The lowest mean (3.68) indicates that there was a strong level of agreement to all 21 items with the top 5 being:

  • I was happy to share information with other students (n=31 mean 4.35 sd 0.66)
  • I had the right amount of technical skills to participate fully (n=31 mean 4.35 sd 0.66)
  • I valued the feedback I got from teaching staff (n=31 mean 4.42 sd 0.56)
  • The teaching staff were responsive (n=30 mean 4.47 sd0.51)
  • The teaching staff created a safe online learning environment  (n=31 mean 4.58 sd 0.56)

Proposed implementation

From listening to the feedback from students who have undertaken studies online and in partnership with literature, this project aims to implement the following guiding principles for Stage 3:

ü  Develop two new elective for delivery across multiple campuses.

ü  Social pedagogies applied to subject design.

ü  Socially connect students in a learning space with students who they would not normally connect with.

ü  Build a community of learners for students through online spaces.

ü  Provide online resources across the university.

ü  Build in orientation to subject to assist in the ongoing support for success.

ü  Build in how to participate in a community of learners to assist in the ongoing support for success. This will focus on support and scaffolding how students can support one another and how to connect across networks from multiple sites. There will be purposeful pedagogical decisions by teachers to scaffold this experience.

ü  Take into consideration teacher presence and the impact on pedagogical decisions that establish and support student success.

Build a community of researchers not located in the same physical location that model to the students how to network and participate in a community of learners.  This will mirror social connectedness as a teaching team


The presentation shares a project that focuses on online spaces as a place of and for collaboration, community building, participation, and sharing. We view this as an institutional responsibility not just a student responsibility. The poster presentation presents implications for supporting diverse learners to be successful at higher education while becoming global citizens. Specifically we raise attention to those responsible for course design for online and blended learning environments and the need to be particularly mindful of embedded opportunities for students to learn collaboratively, engage in social interaction and readily communicate with and receive feedback from course administrators.


The research team would like to acknowledge that this  research is funded by the  Commonwealth Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP).



5 thoughts on “Making connections and keeping connected

  1. Tseen Khoo says:

    Great post (and poster!), Narelle! Really enjoyed reading this. The concepts of community-building and diversifying ways that cohorts can emerge and connect are very much at the heart of how I’m approaching building ECR + HDR cohorts. Good to read about your experiences.

    • Narelle Lemon says:

      Hi Tseen, thanks so much for your thoughts. Much appreciated. This is an exciting project and the team is looking forward to the next stages where we begin to build community with the students across campuses within one subject.

  2. amanibell says:

    Thanks for sharing your presentation – I couldn’t make it to HERDSA this year, so it’s great to be able to hear about your project. All the best with it.

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