Belonging to and beyond the digital university
The pandemic changed the experience of higher education for the vast majority of students, from how they are taught and learn course content to how they interact with faculty, peers and others across the institution.
Alongside this, how students experience the notion of belonging, which is closely related to students wellbeing and success, was also disrupted by Covid-19, resulting in the need to reconsider what ‘belonging’ means.
Findings from a Society for Research in Higher Education study in 2022, which innovatively unpacked the student experience and explored ‘belonging’ post-pandemic, will be brought to life through a website and illustrated resources, to enable educators to better support the learning and wellbeing of future students.
‘Belonging to and beyond higher education in hybrid spaces’ was co-created with students through digital vlog interviews, by the University of Surrey, and Deakin University Australia, to understand the following objectives:
How is the concept of belonging understood within contemporary higher education?
How has belonging and the spaces in which students belong changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the move to online, and now hybrid learning?
How, and in what ways, should educators foster students’ sense of belonging and engagement going forward?
Dr Karen Gravett
Associate Professor in Higher Education; Director of Research; Director of the PG Cert in Learning and Teaching in HE and AFHEA pathway.
I am Associate Professor of Higher Education where my work focuses on the theory-practice of learning and teaching in higher education. I explore how we can think with theory about key areas of HE: for example student engagement, belonging and literacy practices. My work has been funded by the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Economic and Social and Research Council, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the UK Literacy Association, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
My work is published in leading journals including Studies in Higher Education, Teaching in Higher Education, Higher Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, and the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. I am Honorary Associate Professor at the Centre for Digital Learning and Assessment, Deakin University, Australia. I am Co-Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group. I am a member of the editorial board for Learning, Media and Technology, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education. I am also an External Examiner.
My latest books are: Gravett, K. Critical Practice in Higher Education (due 2025), Bloomsbury. Gravett, K. (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education, Bloomsbury. Kinchin, I. M. and Gravett, K. (2022) Dominant discourses in higher education: Critical perspectives, cartographies and practice, Bloomsbury, and Gravett, K., Yakovchuk, N. and Kinchin, I.M. (Eds.) (2020) Enhancing student-centred teaching in higher education: The landscape of student-staff partnerships, Palgrave Macmillan.
My research interests include:
- Mattering and relational pedagogies
- Digital education
- Belonging and non-belonging in HE
- Higher education discourses and narratives
- Space, place, and materialities
- Posthumanist, sociomaterial, postqualitative and affect theory, methodology and research practices
- Time and transition in higher education
- Creative and arts-informed research methods
- Academic writing practices and literacies
Professor Rola Ajjawi
Professor Sarah O'Shea
Charles Sturt University
Discover more about the research findings that this ESRC IAA funded project is helping to take to new audiences:
In both our interviews and vlogs, our data surfaced how participants experienced belonging and non-belonging in multiple, fluid, and shifting ways. These included belonging as micro level interactions, as well as belonging on a broader, macro, level. Our data depicted social space and belonging as processual and fluid, resonating with Mol and Law’s ideas of fluid space and topological multiplicity (1994; 2001). Students described different experiences of belonging in different times and spaces. Similarly, students also walked through their spaces within the vlogs to show the mobility of their belonging experiences.
The materiality of belonging permeated our data. Students told and showed us the significance of space, objects, and the senses, specifically sound and smell, to their conception, curation and enactment of belonging. Some objects were unsurprising such as a laptop; earphones; notebook; water bottle; keyboard; mouse; or screen − while others were more idiosyncratic and variable, for example, a specific outfit; earmuffs; a pet; music; a particular type of pen; a candle; a special perfume; sweets. The belonging space was produced and curated through these objects, which acted to connect students to topographically distant spaces such as the university. Engaging in the different spaces and material settings was often described as a purposeful act of belonging. Other students described the benefits of routine and regularity in purposefully creating belonging in specific spaces and times. Often these curation practices were also connected with feelings of safety and comfort.
Belonging was often integrally connected to the embodied nature of enacting a student identity. For students, belonging was imagined multiply − as both an internal and an external experience. Typical assumptions around spaces of belonging were uncomfortable for some students, and many students spoke of the deliberate choice to not belong or recounted their experiences of experiencing belonging in some spaces and not others. For some students, focusing upon the notion of belonging was a source of particular discomfort, that could even destabilise notions of inclusivity. For other students, a sense of belonging was something that was experienced as temporal, fleeting and flickering.
Our data surfaced how students conceptualise belonging in multiple and divergent ways. Our data show how belonging flows across spaces and dis/continuities. Multiple senses of belonging were depicted, and belonging was shown to be complex, fluid and affective. Belonging flickers and is in flux, it may stick, slip and slide in different times and spaces. Our findings challenge the stability of space for belonging, and the stability of belonging itself as a concept that can be measured in a single item at any one point in time. Belonging is not a fixed entity but instead needs to be considered in relation to the material, the temporal and the spatial.