Deakin University: the power of peer-to-peer interaction in the cloud

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Peer mentoring in higher education isn’t a new concept: ‘Supplemental Instruction’ originated in the United States in the 1970s, before making its way to the Australian shores where it was adopted under the name of ‘Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS)’.  Designed to improve student retention and academic success in often traditionally difficult courses, the form of peer assisted learning that we see in institutions today has evolved from face-to-face student engagement to an online collaborative environment that leverages innovative technology and the advantages of cloud computing.

Deakin University in Victoria has an online learning environment that is rapidly growing, with more than 12,000 students choosing to complete courses through its Cloud Campus each year, making up 25% of all student enrolments.  The university has run the PASS program for the past nine years initially focusing on campus students.  However, in 2014 they recognised the need to explore an alternative delivery method to support the needs of online students and extended their on campus delivery of PASS to an online model titled CloudPASS.

A challenge for most universities these days is creating courses that are engaging for all students both on-campus and online.  An increasing number of institutions are looking to improve retention by building online communities through support programs like Deakin’s CloudPASS, with the goal of enhancing social and academic connectedness for online learners and increasingly for on campus students also.  

Typically aimed at first year students, PASS is a weekly guided study group led by students further along in their studies who have successfully completed the unit they are mentoring in and who have been trained as PASS leaders. During these group sessions, students are given the opportunity to consolidate their understanding of the course, improve study skills, develop confidence and interpersonal skills while engaging with their peers and ultimately achieving better results.  The sessions are voluntary to attend and are meant to create a less formal, ‘safe’ learning environment where students can confidently discuss and explore ideas and ask questions with their peers.  Content is based on course materials and PASS leaders are engaged in sharing their experiences and facilitating discussion rather than re-teaching the subject.

Initially trialled across three course units, Deakin’s CloudPASS has been steadily growing and now is run across 30 online course units through Blackboard Collaborate, the web conferencing and virtual classroom solution adopted by Deakin for online courses.

Training of PASS leaders is a fundamental element of the program and key to it all is ensuring leaders understand it is a mentoring leadership role and not a teaching leadership role.  The activities used by PASS leaders during CloudPASS sessions are interactive, collaborative and student centred.  PASS leaders never introduce new content into sessions, but rather create activities and promote group discussions around weekly lecture content.  The development of study skills that are transferable to other units is also a core goal.

Training is also an interactive experience facilitated by the Peer Support team and senior existing PASS leaders and based on Deakin’s online learning pedagogy, the PASS team’s knowledge of education, experiences of past leaders and a trial and error approach.  There is also a series of preferred student centred activities that have been identified as most effective for PASS and trainees are invited to go through these activities and run model sessions as if they were the leaders, utilising various activities and tools, including Blackboard Collaborate features, such as shared polls or interactive whiteboards.  

CloudPASS sessions are run live between Monday to Thursday for student convenience, where PASS leaders work in pairs. One leader is the main session facilitator and the other leader supports; takes attendances, sets up the polls, assists with break-out rooms and trouble-shoots minor technical difficulties.  PASS leaders are required to submit session plans each week and regular reflections along the way, whilst supervisors check in every second week or so to provide support and observe a session.  Feedback from leaders about the support provided by Deakin’s professional PASS and Peer Support Programs staff has been positive and many liked the fact that they could easily get guidance from these staff members, should they need to bounce ideas off or defer to someone if an issue arose.  

Another positive initiative introduced last year was the weekly feedback to the lecturers.  PASS leaders provide the lecturers with a summary of each session, which might include a list of topics covered and questions the students have asked. This has been an effective relationship building exercise, strengthening connections between Peer Support staff and the academic staff. The Peer Support team also provides an overall summary to the Faculties at the end of trimester.

Leaders have been consistent in crediting Blackboard for improving the whole experience of CloudPASS sessions.  For example, some subject matter can be perceived as quite dry and leaders not only need to make sessions livelier and more interactive, but also have to monitor the level of participation of each student.  Prior to using Blackboard, it was difficult to determine how engaged students were in a session, but thanks to Collaborate, it is easier for the leaders to see who is away, has the microphone on or is having network connectivity issues.  They can also see which students are commenting or asking questions via chat and those who are not interacting at all.  Moreover, they can identify those students who might be hesitant to use their voice in an audio/video setting and provide support to boost their confidence in participating in class activities.

The use of the ‘breakout rooms’ feature has been invaluable particularly in some units, as attendance in CloudPASS sessions has grown in the past few years.  Leaders divide students into smaller groups of three to four in breakout rooms.  This creates a more intimate environment that increases interaction with students and makes them more willing to develop and share ideas.  

Keeping track of time within a CloudPASS session has also been made easier by Collaborate.  With the ‘timer’ function, leaders can monitor how students are progressing through an activity and if there are questions still to be answered, students can be directed to complete the task at hand before the session concludes.  Leaders have also expressed their appreciation for being able to observe student emotions during sessions because participants are able to click on their avatar to reveal if they are happy, sad or confused.  It’s these little things that have made a significant difference to the CloudPASS sessions for the leaders and students alike.

The Peer Support team is very committed to this program.  A vanguard of leaders regularly attends on-campus classes to promote sessions and the benefits of participating in the study groups.  Subject specific asynchronous discussion groups have been set up to compliment the synchronous CloudPASS sessions, in order to keep the student conversation going in between live CloudPASS sessions. This platform can also be used to promote the CloudPASS sessions and advertise the Blackboard session links. 

A key goal at the inception of CloudPASS was not only to provide online students with academic support but also to promote a sense of inclusion and community.  Asked for their feedback, students have responded overwhelmingly that CloudPASS sessions have assisted with their connection to others, which in turn has contributed to their feelings of inclusion rather than isolation.