This article is more than 3 years old

Can we plan for a socially distanced campus?

As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, universities may have to implement social distancing on campus. Graham Scott thinks through the implications.
This article is more than 3 years old

Graham Scott is Director of the Teaching Excellence Academy at the University of Hull.

As we move from the reactive phase of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic and turn our focus to planning for an as yet unclear future we need to consider a range of possibilities.

For many of us our recent focus has been the rapid transition to an off-campus mode of programme delivery and assessment. Our focus now needs to be how we plan for an as-yet-uncertain future.

At one extreme lockdown might continue and the new academic session might involve a continuation of the current position: no students on campus and all teaching and assessment being completed online. This is something that we probably consider ourselves more able to contemplate today than we did a few months ago, always assuming that students continue to enrol on our courses. The other extreme could be a return to “business as usual” and the resumption for many of a wholly on-campus educational experience.

At the moment however it seems far more likely that we will find ourselves occupying a new middle ground – on-campus tuition with social distancing still in place, punctuated by periods of focused and perhaps geographically localised lockdown involving a temporary resumption of mandatory off-campus working.

We know how to operate a traditional on-campus model, and we are very quickly developing a better understanding of how to facilitate off-campus working and learning, but how can we best support social distancing on a functioning campus?

Solution scanning

In a recently published paper Professor William Sutherland and a team of international experts have explained the use of Solution Scanning as a research method to develop a non-exhaustive inventory of potential non-pharmaceutical options to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. At the time of writing the inventory includes 273 potential actions, but the papers’ authors encourage the identification and addition of further actions here.

Their hope is that planners can use this methodology, and their inventory, to achieve what they have called a Responsible Transition by which actions can be implemented to enable the softening of current stringent lockdown measures.

In our context solution scanning and many of the potential actions highlighted by Sutherland et al can be used to develop a framework to enable a responsible transition to post-Covid campus-based education that is resilient to potential future restrictions.

I concede that some of the actions proposed might be difficult to achieve in all settings and I am also aware that inclusivity and the wider needs of a diverse student and staff body must be taken into account when implementing any of them.

On-campus behaviour

As a society we have quickly adapted to social distancing in daily life: the wearing of masks and gloves, an increase in hand-washing and surface hygiene, ensuring sufficient personal-physical space, limiting the numbers of people in confined spaces and groups, and limiting unnecessary travel.

All of these actions could continue to be implemented on a functioning campus. Staff and students could wear masks to limit potential virus transmission and when speaking in a classroom setting the use of microphones by teachers, and audience response systems by students could minimise the need to “project” potentially reducing the production of viral aerosols.

Personal physical contact could be minimised and gloves might be worn in libraries to minimise the risk of contamination of books handled by several persons in close succession. Regular cleaning of surfaces that are touched could continue. But could we go further?

Sutherland et al suggest that limiting unnecessary travel and minimising the size of networks within which individuals interact could both be appropriate actions to take. So perhaps we should revisit out timetables?

By blocking the on-campus teaching for each programme into parts of a week rather than spreading it throughout the week we would reduce the numbers of days each student needed to travel to campus.

By phasing the on-campus time for disciplinary areas across the week we could reduce networks of potential social contact and perhaps at the same time reduce the size of gatherings across our estate. Varying the start times of sessions, breaks and access to libraries and other resource areas for different groups of students might reduce crowding at class switchover times.

If fewer classes of students are waiting to gain access to teaching spaces it may become possible for supermarket style queues with associated physical spacing cues (visual and tactile) to be implemented along corridors. Within classrooms and study spaces physical spacing cues could also be put in place to ensure the required social distancing of individuals (2m or 6 feet).

The (familiar) elephant in the room

Although adapting individual and group behaviour on campus in these ways will be difficult, it is certainly possible. But what about the interacting problems of large class sizes and finite learning space (often designed to maximise rather than minimise occupancy)?

If all of the steps I have outlined are taken but we continue to teach in our traditional on-campus manner the likely situation is that classes would have to be repeated, sometimes many times, and the timetabled day/week would need to be stretched. I suspect that neither of these is a desirable proposition from the perspective of students, staff or managers.

In response to the elephant in the room we need to adopt those active learning pedagogies that facilitate socially isolated – or perhaps more properly physically separated but intellectually connected – learning to a far greater extent than has previously been the case.

To ensure equity and consistency this needs to be done in a coordinated way at an institutional level and it needs to involve students, managers, teachers, estates teams and all of those colleagues who ensure that our students have an excellent learning experience. This needs to include an assurance that our students and staff are able to access and be supported to use effectively the equipment and infrastructure that is required for effective digital education.

The digital space should not be seen as an alternative to on-campus provision, rather it should be seen as being an essential part of a purposefully designed blended learning experience that brings together physical and digital learning on-campus and remote learning off-campus. We have an opportunity here to properly embed within our “standard” provision the physically distant practices that so many more of us have now experienced first-hand as a result of Covid-19.

Flipped learning, group-based and problem-based learning, social learning facilitated by social media connectivity, authentic assessment as an alternative to traditional examination, and a shift towards competence-based higher education focusing on what students can do rather than on what they can show us they know, all have the potential to enable us to change the way we teach and the way our students learn.

They will enable a different use of physical learning space and a use of space that is consistent with a responsible transition to post-Covid campus-based education.



4 responses to “Can we plan for a socially distanced campus?

  1. Interesting food for thought, Graham. A couple of things:

    1. There are lots of ideas flying around at the moment. I think it might be a useful exercise for us (sector stakeholders) to run our own solution scanning exercise.

    2. You said “we need to adopt those active learning pedagogies that facilitate socially isolated – or perhaps more properly physically separated but intellectually connected – learning to a far greater extent than has previously been the case.”. Do you have an practical examples of these that we might consider?

  2. Thank you Simon.

    Yes I agree that solution scanning at an institutional, discipline or sector level would be extremely useful. At a practical level I think that those pedagogies that foster student ownership of learning, that focus on problem solving, and that involve collaboration and cooperation (between peers and with tutors) are the most likely to succeed.

  3. I remain highly skeptical that any arrangement of teaching on campus will be responsible before a vaccine is widely available because of the findings of this study:

    Weeden, Kim A and Cornwell, Benjamin (2020) The small world network of college classes: Implications for epidemic spread on a university campus.

    ‘In March 2020, many universities shifted to on-line instruction to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and many now face the decision of how to resume in-person instruction. This article uses transcript data from a medium-sized residential American university to map the two-mode network that connects students and classes through course enrollments. The enrollment networks are “small-world” networks, characterized by high clustering and short average path lengths where most students can reach each other in two steps. Although students from different majors tend to be clustered together, gateway courses and distributional requirements create cross-major integration. We find that course networks remain highly connected even if one excludes the largest courses from a face-to-face enrollment network. This implies that a hybrid model of instruction, wherein large courses are taught online and smaller courses are taught face-to-face cannot resolve the challenge of course co-enrollment as a potential means of transmission.’

  4. I taught online versions of campus courses on film, childhood studies, and Asian studies, in Western Australia in the late 1990s. It was blended learning in the sense that different student cohorts engaged in different ways with the material. What was crucial then, and remains crucial now, is that materials (visual, textual, audio) were distributed well in advance and in formats that did not assume excellent wifi (in those days – just internet ). Principles of access, appropriate timescales (for staff and students), and non-platform or-mode specific learning outcomes made the process fair and energising. The best results often came from isolated mature students in rural and remote areas. I know this is not ‘new’ but it does indicate that there is plenty of experience in the sector worldwide that could be re-visited now. As Gavin Moodie comments above, we need to be ready to work at distance, without integrated pathways to infection. So now is the time for metropolitan universities and educators to learn from the successes of institutions that have long experience in delivering to rural and remote individuals and communities.

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