Students have answers to the questions about September

Back in November 2019 – before Covid-19 even appeared in the mainstream media – I was tasked with “reimagining the first-year undergraduate experience”.

I’m not a Pro Vice Chancellor or an expert consultant – the task was a component of my degree – my third-year dissertation within my department, the School of Life Sciences at Warwick University.

As the project already identified a myriad of themes, I never imagined that its remit would be flipped on its head by the emergence of a virus. The irony is that viruses and epidemiology are topics I have studied in depth during my Biomedical Science degree, and yet it’s only now that I fully appreciate the global, real-world impact of these pathogens. This gives some weight to the saying “you have to see it to believe it”.

After effects

Having now experienced the effects of the pandemic on my final year, it’s clear that Covid-19 has changed the higher education landscape for the foreseeable future. In a world full of uncertainty, universities are starting to deliberate, coordinate and implement strategies for the next academic year.

Many higher education institutions are facing difficult decisions regarding which taught content can be moved online, how physical teaching can happen with social distancing measures in place, and how authentic assessment structures are maintained whilst eliminating large student gatherings (although this begs the question as to whether sitting in a sweaty gym was ever conducive to student success…).

The list of adaptations required is massive, and it touches upon all the areas that both students and staff have taken for granted over the decades.

We’re getting there

To get to the so-called “new normal”, it’s important first to debunk a vital misconception – that there has previously been a uniform “student experience” and that, both during Covid-19 and after, there will be a different, temporary “student experience” until we can get back to the prized, uniform “student experience”. If nothing else, a student’s university experience is influenced by a multitude of factors and as a result each student has a unique story to tell.

Higher education evolves and students want to be a part of its evolution. That means that if some of the changes that arise from this pandemic can improve inclusivity and accessibility, then this will be good for students. Importantly, us students need to be involved in the decision-making processes. Having spoken to a number of higher education institutions and experienced effective student involvement for myself whilst at Warwick University, this can be achieved.

But it has also previously been highlighted to me by academics that there is a paradox when it comes to universities making decisions and the frequent lack of student involvement – universities pride themselves on teaching students how to become dynamic learners, problem-solvers and strategic thinkers – yet students are still absent from many conversations.

Surely, equipped with the knowledge from our student experiences and these newfound skills, students are ideally placed to lend our universities a helping hand when wading through this current crisis. We are a very valuable resource, so please let us in to your boardroom and virtual coffee meetings.

Many disciplines within universities have been modifying their courses, perhaps only subtly, over the years. It’s therefore no revelation that Covid-19 has pushed through some drastic measures which should arguably become standard practice in the future. I think it important to highlight some pedagogical practices adopted by a variety of universities within the last couple of months to highlight how rapidly changes can be made. And of course, as a biologist, I’ll use the scientific discipline as my working example.

Assessment

The move to online examinations saw a number of institutions abandon their heavily relied upon knowledge recall questions. With the availability of both textbooks and Google, these styles of questions were deemed redundant and there has been a shift to “applied” exam questions. In these, students have to problem-solve and apply the content they have been taught.

These approaches minimise the memory game and authentically examine students’ deeper understanding and associated links between topics – an examination style students have been championing for years.

Teaching

There has been an increased reliance on asynchronous delivery. Different time zones, internet connectivity and Covid-19 health related circumstances has meant that the delivery of material has often not been in “real-time”. This has provided students with the freedom to design their individual learning schedules and has helped them juggle other responsibilities or commitments, while crucially still enabling them to access higher education.

Interestingly, with the ability to participate whenever is most convenient, students are able to dedicate time to digesting content, which facilitates more in-depth and topical discussion later down the line.

Learning

The use of iterative learning techniques is on the rise. With many universities deciding not to teach any new content during the final term of this academic year, they have had to deploy novel techniques to cement content previously taught.

This lends itself well to an iterative model where both a context and an evidence-based approach are most beneficial. Science as a discipline is very iterative and this teaching method seamlessly reflects this.

Regulations

It’s clear that Covid-19 has facilitated a new “relationship” between universities and their students, stripping away some of the traditional staff-student hierarchy seen in schools. The introduction of university-wide extensions, inclusive mitigating circumstances policies and grading safety nets at many universities have been welcomed by students, and these adjustments reinforce the mutual commitment to education during this challenging time.

This shines a light on how student-staff collaboration can be effectively implemented and this open dialogue should, and I believe will, be continued post Covid-19.

Most of these changes are not revolutionary – students have previously highlighted their desire for contextual assessments, blended synchronous/asynchronous teaching and multiple learning environments – and many of these areas have subsequently been researched by academics (for example, problem-based learning has been proven to be beneficial within a university setting).

Perhaps a lesson from hindsight is that if these changes had been employed by universities when they were first advocated by students, the shift to an online term 3 would not have been such a big upheaval – and many key measures would have already been in place.

The 2020/21 academic year will see the University of Buckingham pioneer the first AI-taught degree in Europe, highlighting a continuous shift towards (and our reliance on) technology. In a world in which online learning is now ubiquitous, the task is to integrate face-to-face teaching effortlessly alongside the virtual world.

Previously, there has been a “standard” higher education model favoured by universities, with alternative support and adjustments provided to those students who required them – the classic “deficit” model.

This approach won’t work come September given the spectrum of support that individual students will require both academically and pastorally. This will perhaps, once and for all, help to present the student experience as one which is truly unique to each student. So, a final plea to all universities, please listen to your student voice and collectively we will help our universities emerge from Covid-19 stronger.

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