Creating a safe space for Leeds University students using Differ.Chat app

Written by:
Lars Willner

Authored by Jenni Whitfield of the Lifelong Learning Centre at University of Leeds.

University of Leeds is one of the partners in the Edubots project, with participants from different disciplines. The Lifelong Learning Centre (LLC) at the University of Leeds has a diverse student body and a variety of programmes from foundation years to part-time degrees. The LLC also offers a service to support mature students in schools across the institution. 

The pandemic exacerbated the need for an online space to recreate the physical space our incoming students would initially miss out on, at the start of their studies. After some research looking into different online platforms we found Differ.Chat app. We chose this for its functionality and the fact students do not have to share any personal details or their telephone number. This app also appealed to us over other platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp because it was designed with university students in mind.

We wanted the space to be student-led with no tutor presence so that they felt comfortable asking questions and getting to know each other informally.

Photo by Midas Hofstra on Unsplash

Getting started

We recruited Digital Student Mentors (DSM) to monitor the communities and provided training in July 2020 before inviting new students to join in September. Once the invitations were sent out we enjoyed watching the communities grow and the questions start being asked. It was great to see student’s worries disappear as others shared similar concerns and friendships started to develop.

Speed friending

During one of our weekly planning meetings with DSMs we suggested using the Chat bot (Bo) in Differ to hold some speed friending events to allow students to meet each other. It was lovely to hear that students who had been introduced by Bo actually went on to meet face to face at study sessions held on campus. This made students feel more comfortable starting those initial conversations.

New communities

After the first week of teaching at the beginning of October, we decided to invite all mature students across campus to join Differ. We had seen that many of these students were trying to find each other on a Facebook group. Many students joined this community but we soon realised that these students wanted to find other mature students on their programme so chat was very hard for people to follow. We would need to think this through if we did this again.

It was good to see in the time we used Differ that several new communities were started by students including a music club, wellbeing group and ones for different modules.

Community success

Our most successful community was our Preparation for Higher Education (PHE) programme. This is a part-time foundation year aimed at adults in the local area. Most of the students joined and were really active during the first semester. We asked the students if they would like to continue using Differ into semester 2. They all agreed this is something they would want to continue using once the pilot finished in December. 

The community is still being used for day to day questions and sharing experiences.

What have we learned about using Differ?

We learned so much about Differ once the project started and we could see students interacting with the app. The additional functions Differ has compared to other platforms really does offer a safe platform for students to ask those ‘silly’ questions they may prefer not to ask in a classroom. We would definitely need to give a bit more guidance for students on how to use the space so they could get the most out of it in future.

The app definitely helps with making those initial connections with each other. We think that mature students definitely found the app more appealing and the general feeling was that current students would have appreciated something like Differ when they started. So it was a thumbs up from the LLC!