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Authenticity and connection online

Authenticity and connection online - The impact of exploring the psychological aspects of online learning on engagement and a sense of belonging for students and staff

Gillian Proctor (School of Healthcare)


Project Overview

This project is about how the online environment shapes our self-awareness and relating to others: our authenticity, identity, sense of connection, engagement, belonging and consequent ability to learn. Factors such as telepresence (Turkle 2004), self-consciousness (of own image), unnatural frontality, bonding and body visibility, implications of no videos on trust and engagement, the online disinhibition effect, abrupt transitions, the blurring of public and private space and digital inequalities are crucial to navigate in ways which promote inclusion and belonging for all students and staff.

This project will research the application of these factors to online learning environments to support staff to develop pedagogically informed digital practices and facilitate students’ learning.


The research approach

The project will explore the aspects of belonging, authenticity and inclusion within the online learning space through a range of methods including:

  • An evaluation of an online seminar with staff to explore staff engagement, sense of belonging and inclusion online and staff’s confidence to facilitate students’ engagement, sense of belonging, inclusion and learning online.
  • To offer this same online seminar to several groups of students, particularly to students who are at risk of feeling exclusion. To evaluate the impact of this seminar on students’ engagement, sense of belonging, inclusion and learning online.
  • To facilitate a series of two self-selecting cooperative inquiry participatory action research groups: one of teaching staff across the university and one of students. These groups will discuss how to apply these ideas to the education context, to facilitate student engagement, sense of belonging, inclusion and learning online and develop guidance.
  • To develop a framework for the continuous evaluation and improvement of online environments to make them engaging and inclusive.

Project progress

Two action research groups were facilitated between September 2022 and March 2023; one of students and one of educators.  All participants/co-researchers had experience of teaching or learning in online synchronous sessions. Each group met on six occasions for two hours each time.  Themes discussed were: contact, authenticity, connection and inclusion.  Theo Bedford, the project student intern did a fantastic job pulling together extant publications about the psychology of synchronous online learning and creating engaging presentations for each group to introduce each theme. Gillian then facilitated a discussion about the relevant psychological issues which was recorded. Later, Gillian then pulled out the themes and recommendations from the discussions with help from LITE research assistants.  These were presented in the final groups and adapted in response to feedback from co-researchers and became the recommendations. Co-researchers were overwhelmingly positive about their participation, reporting enjoying the groups, feeling involved in the creation of the research output and reporting that participation had changed their practice in online learning and teaching.

The biggest recommendation was to set explicit expectations for online learning culture and how to use synchronous sessions to best promote active learning and engagement.  A sway for educators is an output of the research which includes principles for how to use synchronous sessions and includes tips for promoting student engagement.  An online learning protocol template for modules or programmes to adapt and then share with students has also been produced. There are two documents which accompany these resources to provide further background information.  One is a summary of the psychological paradoxes in online relating.  The second is a summary of pedagogical approaches and how these link to online synchronous learning.

These resources are available for anyone who would find them useful and Gillian would really like any feedback about these resources either by contacting her directly or by completing a feedback form.


To find out more about the project contact Gillian (G.M.Proctor@leeds.ac.uk).

Each fellowship has a project sponsor that helps the fellows achieve impact across the institution. The sponsor for this fellowship is Alice O'Grady.

Project start date: January 2022