New Support Models: How can we help learners build social connections whilst studying online?

West Suffolk College

This project aimed to find ways to enable learners to connect with each other whilst studying online. Opportunities for collaborative working in small groups and a whole department approach to induction led to learners getting to know each other better, increased confidence and improved learning outcomes.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The practice of learners working alongside their peers is integral to the experience of learners in the Adult Skills department of West Suffolk College, with students benefitting from the support and encouragement of peers throughout their learning journey. The aim of this project was to investigate how we could provide space and opportunities for these support networks to develop whilst students were learning online and not meeting in person.

Interventions focused on the 12-week Level 1 & 2 Functional Skills Maths classes taught online by the deputy project lead using the college’s preferred platform of Microsoft Teams.

Learning and feedback from classes in the autumn term led to a range of developments being implemented across the department. A focus on collaborative activities in breakout rooms and a departmental approach to induction led to learners reporting that they were getting to know each other better and appears to have had a positive impact upon learner achievement throughout the course.


We noticed during the 2020 Covid -19 lockdown that the learners who remained engaged with their learning, and who made the most progress, were those who had formed

Week Zero Padlet of pre-course information

Week Zero Padlet of pre-course informatio

friendships within the group before learning was moved online. These learners supported each other, encouraging and spurring each other on with their maths learning. Their connections with one another seemed to lead to better engagement and stronger outcomes.

We were aware that during this academic year we would be faced with the challenge of providing space and opportunities for social interaction to take place whilst having to adhere to strict social distancing and delivering courses online. As we re-imagined what education would look like in this new ‘Covid’ world it was important that we did not lose these positive social interactions that benefit learners both personally and academically.

Our action research aimed to focus on finding effective ways to encourage learners to quickly build community and mutually supportive relationships within their teaching groups. It was proposed that the provision of such opportunities would lead to improvements in attendance, retention and progression as well as making the learning experience more enjoyable for learners.


We set out to provide opportunities for learners to interact with each other through:

  • break out rooms or opportunities for small group work
  • time before each class to chat
  • ice-breaker tasks

Information was gathered through:

  • tutor observations
  • learner surveys at the start of the course, mid-way through, and at the end of the course through MS Forms (see appendix 4)
  • monitoring of attendance and progress
  • interviews with individual learners

Difficulties in setting up learners’ college IT accounts and delays to the roll out of breakout rooms in Teams meant we were unable to trial the interventions as planned across our first cohort of courses in the autumn term. Observations suggested that learners who had met with the tutor before the start of the course gelled much faster with other members of the group and were more relaxed and willing to engage with online classes. It was also noticed that those who were more comfortable with the technology were less anxious about the course.

A review of the online courses in December involving tutors, admin staff and managers led to the decision to effect a number of administrative changes to support the delivery of the next cohort of courses. It was decided to implement a ‘week zero’ session across the department in all Functional Skills English and maths classes (not just those directly involved in the project), with the aim of giving learners the opportunity to meet the tutor and each other and to become familiar with the technology before teaching started (see appendix 7 for more information on ‘Week Zero’).

Advances in Teams meant that breakout rooms were possible in the second cohort of courses which included the following interventions:

  • implementation of ‘Week Zero’ (group induction & individual meetings between learner & tutor)
  • learners meeting in fixed tutorial groups each week
  • tutors developing collaborative activities

Adjustments were made to collaborative tasks throughout the course in response to learner feedback and observations. Initially the Teams Class Notebook was used as a platform for accessing the group work, before moving to Jamboard which proved more successful for encouraging collaborative working (see appendix 8 for more detail).

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The design of the course on Teams, utilising a flipped learning approach, allowed students to take responsibility for their own learning. The completion of the self-assessment sheet each week guided their pre-class preparation (see appendix 9). The ability to set, keep track of and provide feedback on assignments through Teams has made it easier for staff to monitor learner work and thus saved time. A number of tutors plan to continue setting work through Teams once back in the classroom.

New learning tools and strategies have been adopted out of necessity to make the online classroom more engaging, many of which will no doubt become features of the classroom once in-person classes return. IT skills across the department have improved with tutors becoming proficient in using a platform many had not heard of 12 months ago. Members of the team have worked together to practise using online tools and team meetings have included mini-CPD sessions involving the sharing of tools and resources (see appendix 10).

Whilst reflection is a standard part of the teacher’s toolkit, the process of being involved in the project has meant greater emphasis being placed upon listening to learners, on gathering information from a wide range of sources and of sharing these observations and ideas, with colleagues within the department, the wider college and with fellow FE practitioners in other contexts.

Learners have been keen to share ideas and feedback, readily acknowledging the belief that ‘this is new for all of us, and we’re in it together’. The novelty of online learning for most people has meant tutors have not been burdened by the range of expectations often brought to class by students, and learners have been willing to embrace new ways of doing things.

The structure and accountability offered by involvement in the OTLA project has ensured that interventions have been adapted and honed throughout the process rather than being abandoned when challenges have been faced.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Although Covid-lockdowns have meant the vast majority of our team working from home this year, in many ways this has encouraged greater collaboration with staff actively seeking out opportunities to discuss and collaborate. Team meetings have been much better attended this academic year than previously.

Collaboration with an English tutor from another college inspired the use of Jamboard as part of the project. The knowledge, experience and practical tips that she shared gave the project team the confidence needed to get started and use the tool professionally with learners. This experience was in turn shared with other members of the maths team, and a number of tutors now regularly use Jamboard.

The knowledge gained through the project of online course design in the autumn term meant that the team was ready with an effective course and resources to be rolled out to all tutors upon the unexpected move to full online learning in January 2021.

Constructive dialogue between all stakeholders in the process of enrolment and induction led to an effective solution to a number of issues including learners not receiving their college log ins (meaning they were unable to access the full functionality of Teams), learners joining courses late leading to difficulties ‘catching up’ & learners not having the IT skills or resources to be able to access the online course effectively. The enrolment process was restructured and ‘week zero’ sessions instigated across all courses (see appendix 7).

Common ground rules and expectations were decided on across the subjects ensuring a consistent approach and experience for all learners. The team worked together to produce a Padlet of pre-course information to be sent to each learner. These adaptations meant that learners were as prepared as possible before starting their course and aimed to reduce the anxiety around accessing an online course.

Learning from the project was shared with the wider college through the college managers’ meeting (see appendix 16), digital steering group and with other colleges through the Maths Practitioners’ Network.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learner feedback and observations show that learners who took part in small, fixed tutorial group sessions got to know each other better than those who only took part in whole class live teaching sessions.

Learner ‘JB’ describes how it takes time to get to know other learners:

“I think it’s developed over [time]…the first two weeks it was a little strange and you’re seeing these faces and you’re like, hi, and then it becomes a little bit more comfortable.“

Learners value being able to discuss maths in small groups and feel it has an impact on their learning:

“I think it’s made a massive difference having other people because there have been times when I’ve not known the answer. Like the circumference of that circle, I said diameter & a couple of them jumped straight in and said no it’s circumference and there have been a couple of times where I’ve been able to help other people as well. I don’t think my learning would have been as far if I had been on my own.”

Learner Karla felt it was important to be part of a group when learning but was also aware of the ‘flip side’ explaining that she sometimes did not want to answer questions verbally, or in chat, as she was concerned about what others would say or think if she got it wrong. Being in a group with the same people each week seems to have eased her anxieties as the learners have got to know each other better:

“Last couple of weeks ‘C’, ‘M’ & myself have been in a group together. It’s been nice seeing how we’ve worked together over the past couple of weeks, kind of formed a little bond in that group and we talk a little bit first and got to know each other a little bit more as well as how we work together and how we figure out the work through the equations together.” “If it was in the group, I’m working in now I’d say I don’t understand it, if it was a new group of people, I wouldn’t say anything.”

Whilst learners’ achievement on milestone assessments in the second cohort appears to be better than the first (see appendix 17) this could be due to the connections built between learners or that the extra hours practice of maths per week has boosted their learning. The majority of learners felt that learning alongside others in their tutorial group had helped to develop their maths knowledge and skills (see appendix 13 & 14)

‘Week Zero’ appears to have had a positive effect on learners with both teachers and learners stating that they felt it had prepared learners well for the course with many learners specifically stating that it helped them feel less anxious (see appendix 7).

Contrary to our initial thoughts figures for those leaving the course appear to be higher for cohort 2 courses (see appendix 17). Possible reasons for this include the decision not to learn online as the more thorough induction to the course ensured learners were aware of the time commitment needed across the 12 weeks and opted to postpone their learning.

Cohort 1 classes: Whole group live teaching sessions & optional drop ins

G489: A cohort 2 class involving whole group live teaching sessions & compulsory small group tutorials.

Learning from this project

Learners reported that working collaboratively, in smaller groups had a beneficial impact on their learning & data suggests that those in the 2nd cohort did perform better. However, it is important to bear in mind that many factors may have contributed to this outcome such as the impact of Covid upon learners’ mental health.

A major difference between ‘in person’ and online classes is the lack of spontaneous opportunities for meeting up with other learners. On this project all opportunities were mediated by the tutor and so a future project could explore the benefits of facilitating learners to communicate outside of class through the setting of group work projects that did not involve the tutor.

‘Week Zero’ had a positive effect especially for anxious students. Aside from the benefits of ensuring all learners understood course expectations and technology, the building of the tutor-learner relationship appeared to be key to this. Tutors reported that learners whom they had got to know better were more likely to contact them to discuss any issues and seek support. The Adult Skills department are looking at how we can apply our learning from the success of Week Zero on online courses to the classroom when we return in September.

The project worked well because it encouraged tutors to engage learners at each stage of the course design process and involvement promoted a spirit of collaboration within the wider team.