Hibernia College has developed and launched Cohort, a new collaborative platform — the first of its kind in an Irish higher education institution. The app was first rolled out to students in April 2021. By the end of 2022, all students will join Cohort from the beginning of their programme.
Cohort’s main aim is to enable students, staff and faculty to work together to complete individual tasks and collaborate on a sustained project or area of focus. Important for blended and online learners, the collaboration platform helps build and sustain communities of learners and communities of practice.
We had the opportunity to hear from PME student Megan Griffiths about her experience using Cohort in her education. Megan is a PME in Post-Primary Education student and a student representative for her cohort. She serves as a student associate with the National Forum, holds a position on the National Student Engagement Programme’s (NStEP’s) student engagement committee and, as part of her student rep responsibilities, sits on Hibernia College’s Academic Board. Megan’s comments were initially presented at the National Forum seminar Using a Digital Collaboration Platform to Enhance Social Teaching and Learning Practices.
Having held the position of student representative for 4 out of the 5 years in higher education, I have had the privilege of experiencing greater levels of communication with staff than the rest of my peers. Even with this privilege, I can still honestly say the first two years of my undergraduate were void of any real communication between students and staff. This lack of interaction, I believe, was due to the sheer size of the classes, with ratios of 1 lecturer to nearly 400 students experienced often, and the lack of appropriate tools to do so… I am sure many of you know the feeling of an inundated email inbox and have experienced the limitations of communication through email. These are not new issues, yet there seems to be an overall lack of progress made to alleviate them. We have only really seen an integration of alternative communication platforms since we were forced online almost 2 years ago and, with that, it was interfaces such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack — which work, yes — but the business-centred nature of these applications mean they can be clumsy when used for educational purposes.
Group work is often the most unwelcoming aspect of education, especially in higher education. Picture it. A group presentation in your least favourite module, made worse by the fact that the other 4 members are complete strangers, and the only means you have of communicating is through WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. While this may not be considered when group assignments are set, the lack of professional virtual platforms forces students to use informal platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, subsequently letting unfamiliar peers into personal spaces in your life. This should not just be accepted as part of college life but used as an example to why we need more professional platforms, specific to education, for students to engage and interact with one another, maintaining privacy. The Cohort app is exactly this — a professional virtual space that supports the formation of connections, promoting collaboration and restoring a sense of authority for students.
The Cohort app is an influential tool for much more than group work and projects. In its current form, it has served as a space for open discussion amongst students, a scaffold for idea development and functioned as a bridge between the students and staff of Hibernia College. One primary example of the benefits of the Cohort app is our Write Way group [which is], comprised of students and staff, where concerns on referencing and assignments have been fleshed out. The real star of this group is the shared workload. Queries are answered by staff and students alike. This not only promotes a greater sense of collaboration and connectedness between students but takes the pressure off staff to respond to every minute query, relieving the strain on staff without hindering the LEARNING experience. I cannot imagine the weight felt by staff, and the difficulty of maintaining open lines of communication with every individual student. However, as a student, one who is prone to overthinking when faced with an assignment [and is] often overwhelmed by the small details which impede my progression, I tend to remain conflicted — not wanting to ‘bother’ my lecturers but needing some consultation. The Cohort app has alleviated that internal tug-o-war, because the prospect of inquiring into a dedicated student support group is much less daunting than pressing send on a detached individual email. There have been many cases where queries have been previously answered by peers, or a sense of confusion on topics has been shared, reducing the feelings of imposter syndrome and isolation. I think it is important to note the important role the Cohort app could have in developing more inclusive spaces in education. Imposter syndrome can often be made light of, but [it is] something [that is] experienced quite intensely by higher ed students, especially those from minority communities.
It’s not just me who has seen the benefits of the Cohort app — the following are quotes from my peers: ‘I think it makes communication and access to information much more easier’; ‘It’s a nice platform that’s still professional but less formal than emails’; ‘it allows group discussions and enables communication’; ‘An online course may be isolating for students but this makes it slightly easier to get to know people’; ‘The assessment groups were a nice touch especially at the beginning when assignments felt really daunting’; ‘Much better than WhatsApp as it’s more focused to the topics being discussed by students’; ‘Easily accessible’; with some students highlighting the reassurance the Cohort app gives for future modules, saying: ‘The idea of having a group with our dissertation supervisor will be extremely helpful too I imagine’; and one comment simply stating, ‘I would say yes, beneficial. Not used enough though’, indicating the need to increase the role the Cohort app has in our course. I feel it necessary to make the point, this feedback was gathered via a Google Form circulated through our cohort group, and I can confidently say that I don’t think I would have gathered as much feedback had the form been circulated through email.
Projects such as the National Forum’s Seven Cs for Embedding Student Success: A Toolkit for Higher Education Institutions and NStEP’s Steps to Partnership are indispensable in furthering higher education. I strongly believe platforms such as the Cohort app can advance such initiatives, opening channels for beneficial dialogue, bolstering a sense of student empowerment, embracing digital technology and using it to drive student success, enhancing teaching and learning.
Few things in life come without challenges, and the Cohort app is no different. By developing such an instant means of communication, there is an automatic nervousness, a concern of it almost being too easy to communicate. One of the most common concerns regarding instant messaging applications is the lack of boundaries that is often associated [with them]. Any communication platform can expose individuals to somewhat harsh tones and words, iterating a sense of unprofessionalism, not just in the language used, but in the message being portrayed. Setting boundaries is a difficult task in any setting, and not exactly a bug we can fix, but I do believe the future promotion and development of the Cohort app will see a shift in culture. As with everything new, a settling period is required, where those involved can have time to adapt. Change is never easy, and switching from the traditional email communication to a more open chat-like communication such as Cohort will have some bumps, but continued integration of the Cohort app into year groups will result in smoother transitions to the style of communication.
I am a firm believer in student engagement, and am ready to jump in where I can; however, this is not the case for all students. I understand why. Many of us are coming from places where our opinions and concerns are heard as part of a tick-the-box exercise and never actually considered. Relationships between higher ups and the student body are often disjointed, fractured, leading to feelings of spitefulness and frustration. The Cohort app can act as a bridge between staff and students, healing the connections and ultimately allow student engagement to flourish — something which I have already seen in the short time Cohort has been integrated into my education.
While the idea of integrating the Cohort app to all higher ed institutions may be wishful thinking at the moment, I do believe such platforms have a place in education, supporting peer learning, communication, inclusivity, connectedness and engagement. Having grown up with the development of technology, watching it come in leaps and bounds, I have experienced the apprehension of every new step taken. Nervousness is understandable, especially when faced with technology; however, it is almost an injustice to refrain from integrating it into education, having seen how successful it can be. The Cohort app is no different.
‘Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.’ — Henry Ford