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Consent Matters: How can online training help tackle sexual violence on campus?

In the wake of the NUS Hidden Marks report, which highlighted the immensity of the sexual harassment problem in UK universities, Business Secretary Sajid Javid called on Universities UK to set up a task-force in 2015, aimed at combatting violence against women on university campuses.

We at Epigeum looked at the available resources on the subject, and realised there was a real need for good quality learning materials for students, especially in the area of bystander intervention. We felt we could help with this need, drawing upon our experience in creating learning tools for higher education. We knew that existing workshops were difficult to scale, and that students were restricted in time. As a result, we started working on Consent Matters: an interactive and flexible online course covering the areas of consent, communication and relationships, bystander intervention, and support pathways. By this point, we had been developing interactive online courses for 10 years – the company, now part of Oxford University Press, was founded in 2005 as a spin-out from Imperial College London.

Given the sensitive nature of the project, it was vital that we had the best people on board. Consent Matters was authored by Brook — the sexual health and wellbeing charity, who have a wealth of experience on the subject, and Dr. Alan Berkowitz, who is renowned in the field of bystander intervention research. Dr. Berkowitz had already consulted for similar projects in the US.

The project attracted a great deal of interest from the start: our review panel included academics from the fields of psychology, law, gender studies, student services experts and most importantly — students.

Student input proved invaluable: the student reviewers gave honest, constructive feedback on the content plans and drafts, and we made numerous changes to the original plans as a result. We also interviewed students for the animations and interactive activities that occur throughout the course. The ‘student voice’ is something we find to be one of the most important aspects of the course, and we continue to encourage students to submit feedback through an optional course survey.

Shortly after releasing Consent Matters, we also developed a staff-facing course, entitled Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence. This course focuses on appropriate responses to sexual violence from the perspective of staff and student leaders, providing the tools for universities to ensure they respond in a way that is consistent as well as empathetic. It also encourages the responder to consider their own wellbeing and boundaries when supporting survivors of sexual violence.

We were very proud to see our hard work rewarded in 2017, when Consent Matters was awarded Gold in ‘Excellence in the Design of Learning Content’ for UK Commercial sector category in the Learning Technologies Awards. The judges praised the course for its well-researched content and authentic narrative.

Over 60 universities now use either Consent Matters or Responding to Disclosures, or both — primarily in the UK, Ireland, and Australia, but also in mainland Europe. The wide range of institutions (and their student populations) means participating institutions have taken very different approaches to implementing the courses and encouraging engagement.

These courses are intended to be used in conjunction with other initiatives to raise awareness and tackle sexual violence on campus. We also give institutions access to a range of tools specifically designed for implementing a blended learning approach.

Universities have taken many different approaches to using the courses in conjunction with other initiatives. Some universities find that running follow-up sessions with students who have completed the Consent Matters course works particularly well; face-to-face workshops allow students to present questions and have insightful conversations about consent and respect.

Many universities have developed their own projects and materials around consent. They have successfully used our courses as an integral part of these initiatives, alongside awareness campaigns, workshops, peer-to-peer training events, and volunteering activities. It has been interesting to witness how there are as many ways to use the courses as there are universities using them!