Online engagement and building community during the pandemic

Our fourth dialogue brought Emma-Jane Batchelor, Dr. Mark Carrigan, Angela Cutts and Simone Eringfeld together for a discussion of online engagement and building community during the pandemic. Dr. Tyler Denmead chaired and opened the session by reflecting on the emergence of iChat, Apple’s discontinued instant messaging system, which was launched in 2002. He experimented with it for reflective conversation in the studio he worked in at the time, enabling students at different workstations to engage in an ongoing dialogue about their practice. He explained how he had thought back to this experience a lot after the pandemic hit, as he turned to instant messaging in order to replicate the informal and spontaneous conversations with students which were suddenly disrupted. The immediacy, informality and intertextuality of instant messaging opens up modes of interaction which are difficult through e-mail and which proved valuable during this crisis. For him instant messaging was a practice he began during the pandemic which he intended to continue afterwards, inviting participants to reflect on what they would sustain after the crisis.  

Mark discussed a podcasting initiative undertaken with Dr. Liz Maber for the Knowledge Power Politics MPhil route. This has invited students to produce a podcast as part of their second essay, involving a shorter piece of work which is tied to this digital artefact. Only a few of the students have taken up this opportunity but it has nonetheless been an interesting experiment, raising a whole range of institutional and intellectual questions about how making can become part of assessment. He pointed to David Gauntlett’s Making is Connecting as a possible source of inspiration for incorporating practical activity into our assessments. Collaboration can be a powerful way to build community when we’re working under conditions which leave us fragmented and isolated. Furthermore, these artefacts can operate as records of the intellectual activity of past cohorts which can help build a community over time as they’re made available to future students. 

Angela talked about how the library team has adapted to the pandemic. The chat functionality of Microsoft Teams has proved essential for keeping a strong connection, with the norm being to leave it open throughout the working day as they coordinate the service. This has compensated for the lack of physical contact with each other. In fact, explained Angela, it has increased the amount of interaction they have with many academic staff who would not typically enter the physical space of the library. This physical space was crucial to how they’d built community over time, for example through creating displays in the library and sharing pictures through social media. This hasn’t been possible during the pandemic but Teams has enabled other forms of interaction such as library office hours and virtual one-to-ones. Emma-Jane stressed how helpful students on part time and distance courses had found this, enabling them to access support from the library without the necessity of visiting the campus. She explained how this was an issue of equity of service, counterbalancing the tendency to frame the move online as necessarily constraining access.

Simone reflected on her experience of creating Cambridge Quaranchats. This series of 20 podcasts was developed as part of her MPhil dissertation project, which was awarded the British Educational Research Association’s annual Masters Dissertation Award. These podcasts explored life at Cambridge during the pandemic, including interviews with people ranging from undergraduate students, the Head of Department, porters, academic staff and postgraduate researchers. It created a platform which was part of the Faculty but outside of it, opening a space for reflection which was intimate and emotional. Simone explained how she was also developing data poems from these interviews, setting their words to music in an album which will be released in mid-March on her YouTube channel, a year after the first lockdown began. This was a further way of generating meaning from a project which created a community of listeners and followers who found support through Cambridge Quaranchats. 

Tools discussed during this session:

Practical challenges:

  • How do we find room for creative practice within the fixed structures of examination and assessment? 
  • How do we operationalise rigour when it comes to creative forms of assessment? 


  • Working online can increase our connectedness with colleagues
  • If students are given freedom to explore, we can learn from their experience
  • Sharing what we’ve made can generate chains of inspiration through which new practices spread  

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