Is partnership really possible over Covid-19?

It seems clear that Covid-19 will be with us for some time yet and, as such, the academic year and our educational programmes as we know them, will need to be fine-tuned accordingly. Students rightly expect and deserve an excellent educational experience.

But this goes “hand in hand” with an excellent university or campus experience. The two are not mutually exclusive. As a university with a singular focus on medicine and health sciences, and with a large international student cohort, we are now faced with multiple challenges – not least continuity of education (which includes contact with patients and healthcare settings) while also maintaining a safe environment for our students to work in and thrive.

How do we reassure our students that it is safe to return to campus? Are there potential quarantine or other restrictions that may impact on semester start dates? How are we going to successfully deliver our educational programmes? Can we put measures in place for face to face teaching while maintaining social distancing? How do we maintain a spirit of community, while being physically apart? Ultimately, our objective is to continue to deliver on our educational goals while maintaining an excellent student experience in this, the new norm.

Partnership matters

So, where does student partnership enter this equation? First, it is important to understand what student partnership truly means. There is no one definition to be found in the literature. A partnership is undoubtedly one in which two or more parties work together to advance their mutual interests.

Taking this one step further, a student partnership specifically revolves around staff and students working collaboratively where the expertise and experiences of both students and staff are equally valued. For example, if we want to develop a particular element of our educational programmes, we may tap into the expertise of our staff as “teachers” but also that of our students as “learners”.

Ultimately, an authentic student partnership is where students and staff work with and benefit from each other’s expertise and perspectives and the end result will lead to some positive change.

In this time of Covid-19, and as we prepare for our next academic year, we wanted to share three examples of how RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences is using the expertise of students as illustrations of how and where student engagement and partnership can guide decisions for universities in the next academic year.

1. Partnership pre-arrival

We have yet to fully determine the impact on our students of moving so quickly to remote education. While some have adapted well, from a student census that RCSI conducted, we have found that others have struggled. Students are now facing a summer of uncertainty, both those returning and those who are newly registered students.

Will their universities reopen on time? Will all teaching be via digital platforms? How can they return safely to their country of study? Will they need to go into quarantine? If the course is online, can it be completed remotely without the costs of moving to the university location? How will practical classes, and in healthcare courses, access to patients and clinical care settings, be organised? These are just some of the questions that students are raising and that need to be urgently addressed.

Aware of the many uncertainties and potential anxieties of its students, RCSI has established a Student Retention and Engagement Working Group comprising academic and professional staff as well as students to review ways in which to reach out to our student body during the summer months, to provide up to date information and reassurance about the nature, safety and value of attending university in the coming year and to update them on how their programmes of study are going to be delivered, in light of ongoing restrictions imposed by the government arising from Covid-19.

Parallel but different engagement approaches will be required to meet the needs of our existing students who are returning to RCSI and those who are newly registered. The insight and expertise of students in this regard will be instrumental in determining the format and content of the weekly communications to be sent to students to keep them abreast of developments as they plan their return or move to University following their summer vacations.

2. Student safety on arrival

A Student Health and Safety Working Group has been established to put in place a pragmatic and workable health management plan to deliver our core student services and manage effectively any health and other implications arising from COVID 19 once the University reopens its physical doors.

Having a student representative on this working group will allow for the actual users of this plan to voice their ideas on how they would like their health to be managed. Furthermore, students have other safety concerns, as well as social and cultural norms; by having a student representative on this group, we ensure that the management plan takes these social, cultural and even economic factors into account.

Expected outputs from this Group will include communications with students informing them of any necessary preparations they will need to make prior to returning to campus, including any relevant local requirements regarding self-isolation for students crossing international borders, such as use of face masks, and university plans and funding arrangements regarding testing.

A critical task of this Working Group will also revolve around putting a management plan in place to isolate and support students who may become exposed to the virus or become ill.

3. Teaching and Learning environment

It would be naïve to think that we will not be reliant on digitally enhanced learning platforms in some form to support our teaching and assessments going forward. While limited face to face teaching may still be an option, a more blended approach to teaching and learning will no doubt be required.

Ironically, students have long advocated for the use of more online teaching methods, as evidenced by the demand for recorded lectures, the significant uptake of online learning resources such as AMBOSS and, most recently, in RCSI, the online tutorship programme for medical students.

In the wake of Covid-19, we had to quickly adapt our teaching methodologies by employing additional online platforms to engage with our students. It is now timely to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t with a view to selecting a digital platform that best suits the needs of both our students and staff as well as putting the necessary training and pedagogical supports in place to assist staff with the development of these more blended elements.

Our virtual learning environment (VLE) may also need to be restructured to facilitate greater flexibility in our programmes, so a review and updating of our VLE will also be necessary.

A Digital Enhanced Learning Working Group, comprising staff and students, has been established to address the above needs. It will be particularly important to garner feedback and suggestions from students and staff who have immersed themselves in our “virtual campus” over the past weeks. Working collaboratively, staff and students will rebuild our learning environment with all of the positive features of a physical and a virtual campus, thereby taking our university into a new era of diverse and blended learning opportunities.

Benefits

These are just three examples of student partnership projects taking place in RCSI as we plan for our next academic year. RCSI will benefit from these partnerships with an improvement in overall student and staff experiences. Staff will likewise benefit by being afforded a unique opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the student perspective which will better inform projects under development. They will also be exposed to new ways of thinking and different perspectives which may stimulate new ideas for future projects.

Students will benefit also by being afforded the opportunity to play a key role in contributing to the ethos and mission of RCSI and, in so doing, develop a deeper insight into Institutional management. They will also expand their knowledge of teaching and learning pedagogies in higher education. Another key benefit for students is the experience they will gain as leaders or ‘change agents’ while broadening their communication, management, and collaboration skills as well as increasing their networks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken higher education institutions to their core across the world. Significant rebuilding needs to be done in order to rise to the ongoing and significant challenges in its aftermath. Working with students, for students, will allow us to gain a deeper insight into their educational and personal needs during this most challenging of times.

By working in partnership, we can seize the opportunity to safeguard our universities against this pandemic and other future emergency situations, and, by adapting our programmes and support systems, we can deliver on our education mission, ushering in a new and exciting era in higher education.

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