At some moment in our lives there are times when we have felt like we ‘belonged’ or not. It is something we might know when we are experiencing it. Depending on our point of view and/or character, Sense of Belonging (SoB) might mean: a sense of comfort; when we can be ourselves; when we feel confident; when we know we can make mistakes and that is okay; when we feel supported and valued and so on.
ITQ: Think back to a time when you felt like you belonged? What did it feel like? Conversely, what did it feel like if you were ever in a situation where you did not belong?
Translating a collection of subjective feelings into something mutable, something we can create and develop in higher education is therefore a tricky task. This is made more difficult when we try to do this in an online and distance learning context. Nevertheless, it is something that we have striven to do in this Toolkit. To help us deal with the complexity we decided that the definition offered by Goodenow (1993) would be our starting point:
“(B)eing accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. More than simple perceived liking or warmth, it also involves support and respect for personal autonomy and for the student as an individual (p.25)”.
This toolkit then offers a number of ways in which we can help nurture a Sense of Belonging with our online and distance learning students. It also provides case study examples where SoB was deliberately built into the design and delivery of courses, some video testimony from tutors and a student discussing SoB and a short literature review. Finally, a tool has been developed that aims to help course teams and tutors evaluate their own provision and practice.
We hope that this work will provide some interesting pointers for practice and stimulate discussion about how to create a SoB in online and distance learning that can be built upon and developed as the field matures.
This toolkit was created by a project team comprising of staff from four higher education institutions in Scotland, the University of Dundee, the Open University in Scotland, Queen Margaret University and the University of the Highland and Islands. Funding for the work was provided by QAA Scotland as part of their Enhancement Theme Collaborative Cluster programme.