Student sense of belonging in distance learning: inclusion for autistic and ethnically diverse students ​

Sibbett, Lorna; Bhandari, Renu; Salih, Nadiah; Ferdinand, Sarah; Webster, Andrew and McKernan, Sarah (2023). Student sense of belonging in distance learning: inclusion for autistic and ethnically diverse students ​. In: International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL, 23), 8-11 Nov 2023, Utrecht University, Netherlands.


Student sense of integration into university life (Dubet, 1994) and sense of belonging are considered important in development of strong student engagement (Bryson, 2014). Developing student sense of belonging is reported as a key contributor to improving learner experience and success in under-represented groups (Cureton and Gravestock, 2019). However, Open University distance learners do not necessarily see the development of a sense of belonging as either a priority or valid goal. While online discussion forums (ODFs) are a commonly employed mechanism in attempting to create a sense of belonging, many students have little time to engage with these. For students who are autistic there is additional challenge with posting in ODFs. For students from ethnic minority groups, the names and icons of posters may engender feelings of otherness. Although intended as a positive intervention, ODFs may alienate students who do not see people like themselves in that space.

In the Belong, United Diverse (BUD) project, two student interns were appointed to act as a student ‘buddies’ within Access student ODFs and to collaborate with academic staff in the development of recommendations for more inclusive practice in distance education. One student represented Black ethnicity and English-as-a-second-language; the other had lived experience of autism.

Our two interns authentically presented themselves via their forum interactions, with one displaying a formal style, embedded with emoticons that helped autistic students interpret nuance of tone; and one demonstrating the value of grammatical flexibility when not everyone is a native speaker of English.

The positive role of student buddies in development of student sense of belonging was evidenced by survey responses and via metrics on numbers of forum posts compared to previous presentations. We provide evidence that, while appointment of experienced student buddies is a boon to new students, buddies who represent diverse student identities enrich the learning community.

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