#Speakout: tackling online harassment in educational contexts

Research at the University of Liverpool enabled our students to ‘speak out’ confidentially about their experiences of online harassment in their peer groups, which has informed interventions that are tackling and de-normalising these practices in this institutional context. More widely, the research is being used by policymakers, professional services and practitioners at the local, regional and national level, to develop initiatives that actively tackle online harassment in educational contexts.

The challenge

The prevalence of online harassment between students on UK university campuses has become a significant issue of concern for the higher education (HE) sector in recent years. The National Union of Students (NUS, 2016) found that students on UK university campuses often consider online shaming, threats and abuse as the ‘norm’ within their daily routine of social media posts and messages, which have played a role in creating a culture of fear and intimidation. The Universities UK Changing the Culture report (UUK, 2016) revealed that digitised spaces, including social media, have become a more prominent vehicle for online harassment among students on university campuses and called for further action to tackle and prevent these practices. 

Research action 

As part of an institution-wide move to address these concerns at the University of Liverpool, two researchers in the Department of Communication and Media, Dr. Craig Haslop and Dr. Fiona O’Rourke, developed a research project, funded by the Office for Students, that critically examined student’s experiences of online harassment in their peer-to-peer interactions on the university campus to determine the extent, nature and impact of these practices. This empirical data was then used to develop locally specific interventions to tackle and prevent online harassment among students on the University campus including:

  • A new centralised information hub on the university website, which aims to raise awareness about institutional policies, reporting procedures and student services that directly address the issue of online harassment on the University campus
  • A student-led anti-harassment campaign, which publicised the University of Liverpool’s and Guild of Student’s commitment to tackling and preventing all forms of harassment, including online forms
  • Training resources for an established Active Bystander Intervention programme that addresses online and offline forms of harassment, which was delivered to 1762 student leaders during the academic year 2018-2019
  • A new training module titled Developing a positive online presence, which aims to equip students with the skills required to become a responsible digital citizen and deal with potential risks they may encounter in online spaces, including harassment. This module is now being used and adapted in other educational contexts at the local and regional level, including sixth form colleges, higher education institutions and student unions. 

Working in partnership

Project partners on the University of Liverpool campus include the Safe and Welcoming Campus Board, Student Support services, The Liverpool Guild of Students and Sport Liverpool. External partners include sixth forms colleges, Higher Education institutions and Student Unions in the UK.

Outputs and outcomes

The #Speakout project led to a range of progressive outcomes on the University of Liverpool campus. An initial evaluation of its research-informed interventions suggest that the interventions heightened student’s critical awareness of online harassment and improved knowledge of reporting procedures on the University’s campus. Key findings from the project have been cited in HE sector-wide guidance and have influenced policy recommendations on how to effectively tackle and prevent online harassment and promote online welfare on university campuses, including those authored by Advance HE and Universities UK

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