Teaching Matters

Building an online community in Biomedical Sciences

The MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health helps to build online communities

Community (noun):  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; 2. the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common; 3. a group of interdependent plants or animals growing or living together in natural conditions or occupying a specified habitat.

From the definition(s) above, it is interesting that the first one refers to ‘living in the same place’, since that is exactly what our staff and students DON’T do!  However, the second one captures our community almost perfectly, which is something of a relief.  And just by coincidence our online distance learning MSc programme in Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health is very concerned with the third.  Here are some of the ways in which we develop a sense of community between our staff and students, all of whom come to us with different academic backgrounds, from all over the world and often as highly regarded professionals in their field.  We value all types of experience and provide plenty of opportunities for that to be shared, not only enhancing the student learning experience, but also setting the scene for building a strong online community.

The Hub

We have a central area in Learn, accessible to the teaching team and all students.  It is a shared space that is available all year round to post up items of interest, such as conferences, published articles, internships, news items and work opportunities.

Induction activities

On starting the academic year, we use a number of induction activities to help people get to know each other:  we ask students to pin themselves to an interactive map, sharing as much information as they are comfortable with; and ask everyone to post a short introduction to themselves in a dedicated discussion area.  Staff are also asked to introduce themselves here, including themselves in the community on an equal footing.  We encourage current students to offer words of advice and support to new ones, building links between year groups as well as individual students.

Online discussion

Online discussions are an integral part of all courses, and are a key part of our programme assessment strategy.  They provide an opportunity to share ideas and experience in relation to specific course topics and generate a huge amount of collaborative learning resources.  Our students are encouraged to be reflective in their interactions, creating an open and safe space to explore often difficult and emotive topics without fear of being judged.  Student feedback indicates this is the most highly valued aspect of the online learning experience.

Alumnus contributions

Increasingly, we are developing long-term links with our alumni, through research collaborations, tutoring on courses, writing case studies, and joining course discussions.  In the future we hope to develop this further, and to have our alumni contribute not only back into the MSc but also to undergraduate teaching where appropriate.

All in all, we have developed a strong sense of community within the MSc programme.  It is difficult to say which strategies have been the most effective in this regard, but a collection of relatively simple ideas like those above seem to have been enough to bind people together, both during their studies and beyond.