Photo Renée Boucher, PASS program Coordinator and Hanan Abu-Saif, PASS online project Officer at WSU

More than 5,000 hours of Peer Learning Online: How Western Sydney University Made it Happen



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Nov 23, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Whether or not you are familiar with the concept of peer assisted learning – where students get together to assist each other with class content and to develop study skills – you should take a look at the great work being done at Australia’s Western Sydney University through the Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) Program.

Recently, Western Sydney University (WSU) received the ANZ Student Success Award, a Blackboard Catalyst Award for their PASSOnline program, which recognizes mentoring programs leading to improved student skills and retention, among other criteria.

A Brief History of PASS

PASS is based on the global peer learning program Supplemental Instruction (SI). PASS/SI has been running for more than 40 years, with over 2,000 institutions internationally implementing peer learning programs. PASS is characterized by being peer led, with weekly sessions run in a collaborative way. Senior students are employed to facilitate sessions for their peers.

“It’s about reviewing content, but also about study skills. PASS attendees achieve higher grades, on average. And that happens because they build up skills like motivation, confidence, employability and a sense of belonging to the university,” says Renée Boucher, PASS Program coordinator at WSU.

For the past four years, PASS has been available online for Western Sydney University’s students. Worried that the online program could become a second-rate initiative compared with the on-campus face-to-face experience, the team worked creatively to retain the existing qualities of the program and deploy them on online platforms.

“We had to reimagine what PASS would look like online and not just take what works on campus and put it in a virtual environment,” says Hanan Abu-Saif, PASSOnline project officer at WSU.

A Way to Reinforce Learning

The original name of the PASS Program – Supplemental Instruction – implies that it’s intended to be supplemental to tutorials and lectures. Hence, it’s another way for students to reinforce their learning. The peer learning experience is key to engaging students in a program like PASS, since students can feel more comfortable when learning from their peers. For example, “You might ask a silly question in a PASS session, something that maybe you wouldn’t have the confidence to ask in a formal learning environment,” says Renée.

6 Steps to Engage Students in Online Environments

  1. Make it as inviting as possible

    Sessions are promoted by both the PASS team and academic staff. WSU uses Blackboard Learn 9.1 and the PASS program has a dedicated site with information and access to the online sessions. For example, the site contains recorded introductory videos that are used as a virtual way to replicate the experience of a facilitator promoting the sessions in person. “It’s more inviting than just clicking and joining the sessions,” says Renée.
    Getting academics on board to support the sessions and actively promote them in person and via the unit’s LMS site also plays a crucial role in engaging students.

  2. Keep the focus on collaborative learning, but don’t forget the tech structure

    Nevertheless, the best measure for an engaging session in Blackboard Collaborate is quality. That’s why Western Sydney University deploys a range of technological tools to enable interaction between the facilitator and students. Cameras, emojis and chatbox, among others, are crucial to engage students. “The chat is the most popular, possibly because they join in a kind of anonymity (since no one is watching them), so we try to get the facilitators to ask questions that engage them,” she explains.

  3. Allow them to engage from anywhere

    Students can join Blackboard Collaborate sessions from their mobile devices, making it possible for them to engage wherever is most convenient.

  4. Train your facilitators

    Facilitator training is essential to success in online peer learning. Training includes online modules, face-to-face workshops and ongoing support. “We have got to train and skill them before they support their peers. We developed our training program over the last year and a half to ensure that facilitators are prepared for the challenge,” shares Renée.

  5. Keep them confident

    Students need to be confident with the technology. Students can develop these skills by exploring a virtual room before the sessions or by accessing the automated tutorials. Also, the facilitator runs ‘ice breaker’ activities so students can get comfortable with both the whiteboard tools and with each other before learning begins.

  6. Create a sense of community

    Maintaining a sense of community is challenging, but essential to engage students. Use collaborative learning to build connections and a sense of community. A range of active learning activities, addressing students by name and encouraging participation by all increases interactions between students, which means they are able take the lead in their learning process.


In Autumn 2017, 643 unique students attended PASSOnline sessions. Spring attendance was at 447 up to week 10. Contact hours (defined as one student attending one hour of PASS) to this date amount to 4,438 per year, with an estimated 600 more contact hours to be added in the remaining weeks of the Spring program for a total of over 5,000 hours. 

About 20% of PASS program attendees are now engaging online and 30% of them also go on campus for sessions, which demonstrates the flexibility the students require and which WSU provides them.

Photos by: AFP – Wendell Teodoro