Power to the people through automation of peer support programmes

The management of large institution-wide programmes such as peer support can be improved and scaled with the help of automation, as Amanda Pocklington explains

Amanda Pocklington's avatar
6 Jun 2023
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

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Peer support challenge

Peer support has long been recognised as an effective means to engage students in their learning journey as well as building a sense of community, inclusion and connectedness. It involves students helping students in structured, university supported schemes drawing on the experiences of higher year students (mentors) to provide academic and pastoral support to lower year students.

The challenge is organising, running and administering this ever-growing number of peer schemes and peer mentors. As the administrative burden grows, it becomes ever more pressing to find an efficient and effective process. Thankfully, widely available online tools provide a solution.

Hub and spoke peer support

Each institution has its own processes to guide and support participants in order to maximise the benefits of peer support and manage the administrative burden.

Part of this formalised arrangement involves providing training and development for peer mentors, with the associated record keeping that this entails. The University of Exeter has developed a “hub and spoke” system for peer support whereby a central team provides advice, guidance, mentor development and communications for all peer schemes. The spoke aspect comprises the disciplines or departments where the individual schemes are homed.  

An audit trail of mentor training and activities to ensure consistent quality and opportunity is vital. Initially this was a time-consuming process involving spreadsheets compiled and updated by discipline and central team staff. As the number and extent of schemes expanded there was a concomitant increase in the number of mentors from about 60 to more than 700. The increasing number of mentors posed an administrative challenge. Accurate records of the mentor journey were needed to support them to achieve the Higher Education Achievement Record (HEAR) and other accreditations. 

We needed something more streamlined and automated.

Scalable online admin tools

We developed an online workflow for our mentors on Microsoft PowerAutomate, which comes as part of the Office 365 package, enables users to create automated workflows with little or no coding knowledge and provides a user-friendly interface. It connects Microsoft applications to work seamlessly together; for our workflow this is mainly based on forms that populate Excel spreadsheets with the data.

The mentors complete a set of steps that comprise the online workflow to fit their personal schedule and the peer scheme they are involved in.

Initial steps centre around developing the skills and abilities to effectively lead a peer support session – so, basic peer mentor training addressing responsibilities, boundaries, session planning and so on. Student mentors can book this synchronous online training from a range of dates and times via the online workflow.

Later stages of the workflow offer the opportunity for development, evaluation and reflection. The aim is to ensure mentors benefit from their experience by identifying transferable skills they have developed and their application to other areas of study, personal activities and potential careers. To this end, there is an additional workflow to support mentors in applying for Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA), now Advance HE.

The online and partially automated framework of the workflow provides an efficient means of record-keeping while giving mentors updates on their progress via notices from the central team or via their own records. This online approach offers scalability for the ever-growing number of mentors involved.

Flexible accessibility

A self-paced online approach can be especially helpful for those with busy schedules such as mature student mentors who can accommodate other commitments more easily. Similarly, distance mentors can overcome geographic constraints resulting in participation by mentors while they are away from campus, including those in other countries. Mentors thus complete steps on the workflow when it works for them, with some undertaking the synchronous training during term breaks such as Christmas, Easter and summer, or while they are on work experience or placements. All they need is an internet connection and a device that can access the site – many join via their mobile phones or tablets.

Added value

Peer mentors are volunteers and while they do this for mostly altruistic reasons, the role deserves some formal acknowledgement. Our initial solution was to connect the completion of the workflow with recognition on the HEAR. However, it became clear that this was not a well-used platform by potential employers. So, having investigated alternative recognition avenues which would be more widely recognised, we developed a pathway towards gaining the AFHEA accreditation. This involved liaison and collaboration with colleagues and agreement from Advance HE, plus an additional optional workflow to support mentors through the AFHEA awarding process.

Efficient, effective and user friendly

The online workflow has transformed mentors’ experience of central support into user-friendly and user-driven activities. They can monitor their own progress and plan their work to ensure they meet deadlines for HEAR and AFHEA recognition. Feedback from mentors indicates that they find it easy to use and appreciate the oversight of their progress.

The previously burdensome and resource intensive administrative processes are streamlined and automated. This encourages greater take-up by different disciplines and reduces time commitment by the central team so they can focus on other areas of work. Incorporating automated workflows is a potential means of enabling students to progress through a self-paced learning journey for other aspects of their student experience.

Amanda Pocklington is an academic skills adviser and peer programmes support manager at the University of Exeter.

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