Learning to learn: Pivoting towards virtual translingual partnership spaces

By Preeti Vayada, PhD candidate, University of Queensland, Australia

Reflecting in action, I have a unique experience as a mature-aged student navigating the student-staff partnership landscape. I have spent my last year as a PhD student finding alignment between the principles, values and ethos cited in the literature with real-life practices in ‘student as partners’ projects in an Australian university. Drawing inferences from the five propositions of genuine student as partners practices, and the ‘conceptual model of partnership, it is clear that human relationships are the foundation of authentic student-staff partnership practices. It is important now, more than ever, to ‘show, not tell’ how engaging relationships are formed and sustained in the current virtual scholarship.

While putting a façade of ‘business as usual’ in front of this pandemic, I, as a student have a confession to make. It is not the same. I struggle to find a routine, I miss the casual conversation I had with people at the University — I feel vacuumed.

Building human relationships in a virtual world

As sprawling university campuses shift to minuscule mobile devices because of COVID-19, the changing educational landscape has led to an unprecedented demand for building human relationships in a virtual world. With the transition to online learning, issues such as accessibility, affordability and engagement are at the forefront. There has never been a better opportunity to embrace ‘student as partners’ practices holistically. Cook-Sather, Bovill & Felten (2014, p. 6-7), assert that the foundation of a meaningful partnership approach is based on mutual respect, deeper understanding, empathy, informed action and ongoing dialogue.

Being empathetic—having the ability to hear and care about another person’s experience (Bialystok & Kukar, 2018, p.24)—is even more valued in today’s testing times. Fostering empathy and connection in pedagogical partnership practices has now moved into the virtual world for me as I’ve joined a newly formed online community of Higher Education researchers.

Doing partnership online

The students and staff in this online community collaborate, share, discuss and help each other in various areas of research. We aim to stay connected, support each other and work together (at a physical distance) in the face of COVID-19. We remind ourselves: be generous to each other, be accountable to each other, be kind to each other – and to ourselves. This is what an authentic ‘student as partners’ practice can look like. A way of practice that is organic in its true sense — where outcomes are subsidiary and there is courage to accept uncertain results. The asynchronous discussions are not always work related in this online community. Just last week, staff and students shared in the threaded discussion their coping mechanisms in the face of current adversity. This comforts me – connecting with compassion.

Establishing connection by mutually knowing each other incorporates understanding that extends beyond the immediate role as staff or student. This new form of knowing, with virtual everyday conversations, by observing other students interacting, and by reading practice-related stories seems to work for me now. But does it come easy? For a technophobe like me, probably not.

Creating virtual spaces for technology novice users

I have always preferred meeting my advisors face-to-face and they have been available for an open-door meeting whenever needed. Our meetings accommodated translingual interactions and hidden flaws of cross-cultural communication. The translingual spaces we created through openness to co-learning, valuing and respecting cultural-linguistic diversity kept me going. The underlying ethos of student-staff partnership should also be mindful of individuals who may need more time to post anything online. I take a long time to respond to threads – I think and rethink, check and recheck. I fear that my thoughts may be naïve, my culture may not translate, my age and experience may not fit with a young group. While I take solace that it is not uncommon, especially for students who are new to online environments of teaching and learning, the pertinent question is how do we make the practices in the current situation inclusive of these people?

Sharing by ‘reflecting in action’ is a meaningful platform that will enrich learning through lived experiences. It will help to navigate the fear of the unknown together. As Elizabeth Brady states “If human relations is indeed an educational frontier, it is characterised by both the courage and the uncertainties of frontier life. To maintain its hard-won advances, we need to continue to use the knowledge that has been found, and we need to make a cooperative attack on the areas in which we are still ignorant, which we have still failed to explore, and where partnerships are needed.”