#LTHEChat195 ‘Appreciating the centrality of relationships to university learning; how should that inform our next steps?’ with hosts Sarah Dyer @se_dyer and Lisa Harris @lisaharris

Early on in the pandemic there was a tweet doing the rounds which seemed to sum it up nicely “You’re not ‘working from home’. You are home during a crisis trying to work.” Indeed, we have been trying to manage new ways of working – and teaching – as well as take care of ourselves, our families, communities, and students. It can feel as if we have all been part of a huge nightmare-ish change management experiment. As well as recognising how difficult it has been, we can also see the positives that have emerged – how decisions that would take years to go through university committees have been taken quickly; that some students are benefiting from increased flexibility and accessibility; how conferences and seminars are newly accessible (with a hugely reduced carbon footprint). Whilst the pandemic has certainly not gone away, the need for intense crisis management has subsided. And in this context universities are clearly turning their attention to writing their next strategy documents, with the aim of creating new drivers of, and direction for, change.

With this in mind, we are asking you, the #LTHE community, to turn your attention to relationships. It feels important that we make visible how central relationships and communities are to us as educators and think through what we need from university strategies, and new ways of working, to support these. In learning from the previous 12 months; building on what has worked well (and avoid sliding back into old routines); and planning for the near future, understanding and appreciating relationships needs to be central. 

Students have faced huge challenges over the last year. These cannot be reduced to pedagogy, but the deficit framing of online learning circulating has been cartoonish and has helped no one. We know, not least from previous LTHE chats, the expertise and creativity with which educators have supported students and their learning. We have challenged elsewhere the common view that online learning is distant and remote without the possibility of the learning community and student/educator relationship needed for learning (Dyer and Harris 2020). Understanding how students are experiencing online learning communities and how best to support them to build such communities online, and in hybrid spaces, is central to evaluating and planning for next year.

It is equally true that online is new to many educators who have been experiencing the vulnerability (and exhaustion) that learning something new can entail. Recognising and attending to these experiences is equally important in moving forward productively. We have seen exciting examples of university leadership which emphasises care and compassion. For example, Dilly Fung reminded us in a tweet that teaching is a relationship, not performance. She has also  tweeted recently that our primary goal is to keep ourselves and our loved ones ‘safe and well’ and then to do our best to support each other. This follows Simone Buitendijk’s blogs which have included a call to recognise that it is ok that we can’t fix everything as well as the need for compassion to be central to universities. (It hasn’t escaped our notice that these were communicated online.) We ourselves have valued the opportunities we have had as educators this year, to meet people from across the world by attending seminars we never would have got to in person. We have personally benefited too from new ways of working, such as online synchronous writing (Dyer and Harris 2020).

We will be using our #LTHEchat to discuss opportunities and hopes for building relationships for learning (for students, with students, and with colleagues) using the affordances of online, hybrid, and in person. We will be using an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) framework. This asks us about what is working and what is good first (discover) before exploring what we hope for (dream). We then move to asking about what it looks like in practice (design) and how we can make that work (deliver). We have found that AI is a really productive and enjoyable way of structuring conversations (Dyer 2014) and we hope that you are able to take part and find it so too.

You can view the Wakelet for this chat.

Sarah Dyer and Lisa Harris

Sarah Dyer is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Exeter. She is a human geographer with research interests in education, work, and gender and the inaugural director of the Exeter Education Incubator. Her work investigates how Higher Education can better create transformative learning, both for its students and within it own structures and relationships.

Lisa Harris is Director of Digital Learning at the University of Exeter. She is a Fellow of the Exeter Education Incubator. Lisa has led the development and implementation of innovative degree programmes in three UK Universities, utilising cross-faculty expertise supported by industry projects and online learning pedagogies.


Buitendijk, S. (2020) COVID: we can’t fix everything, and that should be OK | by Simone Buitendijk | University of Leeds | Medium 

Buitendijk, S. (2020) Compassion can change the world | by Simone Buitendijk | University of Leeds (medium.com)

Dyer (2014) Appreciate HEA

Dyer and Harris (2020) Let’s take the remote out of online learning | Wonkhe

Dyer and Harris (2020 Developing Inclusive Learning Environments Online – Dartington Online Writing Retreat Blogs #1 (wordpress.com) 

Ethics in Bricks (2020) Tweet https://twitter.com/EthicsInBricks/status/1315623182406242304?s=20

Fung, D (2020) https://twitter.com/DevonDilly/status/1354339167770181640?s=20

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