Author: Steve Cayzer -

Learning is a social process. As proud as we are about intellectual content, cutting edge theories and industrial practice, the truth is that if you are a student on our MSc Engineering Business Management (EBM) or MSc Innovation & Technology Management (ITM) courses, much of the value comes from your peers. You are learning with and from other students, sharing your skills and experiences with your classmates.

Of course, teamwork is also an increasingly important factor in professional development, formalised in accreditation standards and sought after by industry.

Yet, even more importantly, social connectedness has been repeatedly called out by our students as a key factor in their learning experience, mental well-being, and effectiveness. Our alumni form a tightly knit global family, often mentoring our current students. In short, social bonding is a key part of your learning experience – it is what makes learning fun!

As we transitioned to ‘emergency’ online teaching in the last semester, I used several techniques to preserve this social bonding. Over summer, I have been reflecting on the experience, keeping and refining those practices that worked well. For me, as Janice Bryant Howroyd says, “every challenge is an opportunity to succeed”. In my case, to innovate and improve my teaching.

In my teaching, I apply a strategy called Team Based Learning, in which you use most of your in class time for working with your team on meaningful activities and applying your learning to practical challenges. As you might imagine, team discussions are key. Following a recent webinar for the Advance HE network we asked our students for their views on collaboration (the results will be published in a report for the Engineering Professors’ Council). Not surprisingly, students are aware of its importance in work and life. Our respondents noted that collaboration can be both within a team or between teams. The collaborators might be working on different projects or courses but with useful experience to share. Of course, collaboration also covers staff-student relationships. On my courses we will work with you to design class projects, assessments and even the curriculum.

I’ve also been keenly aware of the importance of spatial and temporal synchronicity – that is, you have access to a number of your peers in the same (virtual) space and the same time. Rather than squandering that gift by ‘talking at’ you, I use the opportunity to get you working together tackling meaningful challenges.

In fact, online working can help collaboration. For example, no more working in cramped rooms with uncomfortable desks where all the teams are talking over one another. You can take advantage of shared documents, chat windows, private ‘offline’ communication and so on. I can bring in industrial leaders and technical experts from further afield. You save time and expense in travel, using the time saved for enjoyable hobbies and home cooking, eating more cheaply and healthily. Online collaboration can also be a less intimidating space to get involved – typing a question into a chat channel is less scary than raising your hand in class.

But let’s also be honest, working from home brings its own challenges, with distractions, time zone issues, access to IT kit (and internet connection!) and lack of out of class contact with your friends. All of this can lead to a loss of motivation. In fact, there is good evidence that social bonding is a key contributor to team effectiveness. This is one of the reasons that in our teaching for 2020-21, which we call the Bath Blend, there is in-person time available on campus.

In the online world we supplement formal team working with more light-hearted sessions, where you can chat, joke or play games with your peers and teachers. Last semester, for example, we challenged our students to online games of skribbl (like Pictionary) and had communal viewings of movies and Netflix series. We also build in mechanisms for conflict resolution (including the giving and receiving of constructive feedback, and self and team reflection), and the use of team charters to create a common purpose. All these activities build trust and help you move beyond ‘forming and storming’ towards ‘performing’.

Representation of Tuckman’s stages of team formation by Diogo Nicoleti CC BY-SA 4.0.

Whatever its advantages and disadvantages, online collaboration is increasingly the way you will work in today’s connected world, with geographically dispersed teams in international organisations. It’s a key skill and one that is now firmly embedded in our MSc EBM and MSc ITM. I can’t see us relinquishing that advantage in the ‘new normal’. Like I said, for every challenge there is an opportunity!

Posted in: Department of Mechanical Engineering, Teaching

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