This article is more than 1 year old

Letting students lead – reflections on virtual access and outreach

This article is more than 1 year old

Esme Cavendish is the Undergraduate Access, Education and Participation Officer at Cambridge SU

Kate Mcintosh is the Student Rep Coordinator at Cambridge SU

The status quo in universities has been upended by the pandemic, with the shift to online delivery initially causing all kinds of chaos. Now that we’ve been forced to adapt, though, is it possible that some of these new ways of doing things might actually be better?

This is the big question we’re now grappling with, and it’s particularly pertinent to access and outreach work in the higher education sector.

In our experience, running online access events provides more chances for students to successfully lead this important work. While virtual delivery has its challenges and drawbacks, and there are indisputable benefits to physically visiting universities, we believe that online outreach can actually match — or even trump — in-person outreach on some counts.

A virtual format not only makes outreach events more accessible, but allows us to centre students’ honest experiences of university – which is key to prospective students being able to make informed decisions about their futures.

The shadowing scheme

We are writing from our experience of moving the Cambridge SU Shadowing Scheme online this year. For over twenty years, Cambridge SU has annually offered 300 year 12 (or equivalent) and mature students from the most disadvantaged groups in the UK the opportunity to spend three days in Cambridge and ‘shadow’ a current student who studies a subject that they’re interested in. The scheme is led by students with the support of the SU and seeks to showcase an authentic picture of an often mythologised university.

Moving online meant finding ways to virtually replicate the scheme’s most crucial elements — the chance for shadows to develop their academic interests, live in uni accommodation and chat informally and sincerely with current students. It’s the opportunity to get to grips with the reality of living and studying in Cambridge that makes the scheme so valuable and sets it apart from access projects where students’ input is limited, so the prospect of translating this immersive experience online was intimidating.

Nevertheless, we rose to the challenge. The scheme was extended from three days to a month, with shadows attending several evening events a week — these ranged from informative talks and workshops to social events, games, book readings, quizzes and more. Opportunities for informal chats between shadows and their mentors were also built into the schedule, to complement messages and forum posts on a secure online platform. The session content was designed and delivered by students, and it paid off.

By students for students

In many ways, the scheme’s virtual format actually enhanced its success. In the post-scheme survey, 93 per cent of participants agreed that they would feel part of a community if they attended Cambridge, and 58 per cent said talking to their mentor and attending informal events with other students helped them understand what it would be like to live and study at Cambridge.

This was thanks to the students, who worked tirelessly to create opportunities for group conversations in workshops and breakout rooms, cultivating a meaningful level of interaction with current students and a sense of belonging. They anticipated participants’ reluctance to come out of their shell and turn cameras on — drawing on their own experiences of online learning — by innovating games and icebreakers to coax them out from behind the blank boxes. The use of breakout rooms also worked as a replacement for more casual chats and were extremely lively. Students seemed to work harder than ever before to generate a genuine sense of community.

Naturally, access schemes also need to deliver key information to prospective students – it is crucial to empower participants with the knowledge and skills to make a competitive application to university. This is what they want, with shadows always tending to identify the admissions talk as especially useful — the talk helped 90 per cent of this year’s shadows feel prepared to make a strong application to Cambridge.

What the scheme also confirmed, though, was that this information is most effectively delivered when it is consolidated and contextualised by authentic student perspectives. Students relaying their own experiences makes the information directly relevant to participants, and the benefit to shadows was particularly noticeable in conversations about how students’ experiences of Cambridge are inflected by their race, class, sexuality or disability.

The extended online scheme allowed for a more steady absorption of information, and emphasised to us that this process is most effective when guided by students. The online format gave students the space to be creative, engaging and inspiring — it was a success precisely because it was online, not in spite of it.

Accessible access

Online schemes are also more accessible, because they overcome a lot of the geographical and cultural barriers that often prevent students from visiting open days or residentials. It’s not a coincidence that students from areas of the UK that aren’t London or the South are chronically underrepresented at Cambridge, as there are a combination of factors (such as financial hardship or transport links) which result in them slipping through the net of outreach efforts. This includes the tendency of WP-focused initiatives to mostly recruit participants from London.

The pandemic has forced a realisation that online access work can solve these issues, with the new ClickCambridge scheme, run by a group of colleges, exemplifying a scheme which aims to reach beyond London. It targets year 10 Black students and year 12 BPA students, intending to support home students from across the UK.

Although the availability of digital technology and internet connection is not a given for everyone, particularly target students, there are ways to ensure that people can participate, for example collaboration with schools or local councils. For the shadowing scheme, we were able to support all participants to access the sessions, which indicates that this is certainly possible.

Let students lead

In short, running an online access scheme showed us the huge benefits continuing to use online elements in our future projects will have. It also highlighted the importance of student leadership to ensure that access schemes have a meaningful impact.

Universities have an obligation to be honest to prospective students, and shouldn’t shy away from letting their current students lead on access. It’s often the more nuanced presentations of student life that are the most compelling precisely because they’re authentic, allowing for an understanding of the simultaneous challenges and joys of claiming space at university — Somalinimo, a documentary created by British-Somali students at Cambridge, is a perfect example of this kind of insight which is both unflinchingly frank and deeply inspiring.

If universities genuinely care about access, they should take steps to actively empower prospective students to make informed decisions about their applications. A successful application isn’t just one that gets students in, but one that is made because students have weighed up the information provided and decided that they feel encouraged and excited to study in a particular environment. To achieve this, universities must draw on the power of their students and let them lead.

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