Much of the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on the delivery of higher education has focussed on full-time undergraduate provision.
But imagine you’re running a blended learning MBA. Should we have strained every sinew within the law to provide an on-campus experience?
You might assume that given the only face to face contact is through residentials held twice a year, the loss of those due to a pandemic would be pretty critical.
Yet having agonised over how to approach the situation, we’ve discovered interesting things about what students value – both from the delivery of a true, traditional “residential” and a “non-residential residential” (NRR).
In September 2020 I started a new career in academia at 57 – specifically as Programme Director for the MBA in Innovation in Sustainable Food and Agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University, Gloucestershire. It has a unique role in providing a generic senior management passport, shot through with the critical issues facing food and agriculture in the UK.
There I was, pretty old dog, distinctly new tricks – a new culture, strange systems… and Covid. I was in a slightly squally wind that was in turns invigorating, unsettling and worth leaning into.
Shortly after my arrival our “autumn residential” was due to take place, the inauguration of this year’s MBA. Oh great, we thought, we are legally allowed to do this on campus, as planned. That’s much better than doing it remotely.
Except of course it wasn’t “normal”. To all those visually impaired – I realised how much masks slowed down my sense of getting to know people. Teachers’ transparent visors showed our faces but obscured our speech. And socially distanced desks made a graduate programme look like A level exam time.
On the first day of the residential, my first serious outing in my new job, I had to isolate due to a grandchild running a temperature and couldn’t even get to this quasi-exam room. Things felt edgy and distanced in every sense. Enforcement (“please put your masks back on at dinner if you are staying to chat after eating and drinking”) didn’t always work and sat badly with the non-directive, grown-up atmosphere you’d want with an MBA. We did not land the group as well as we might at the get go.
We got through it – the feedback was okay, but not great. Then in February our second residential had to become the “NRR” or non-residential residential. Some students had two intensive weeks entirely online – module teaching, industry-led sessions and (optional) socials (book club, cooking). Zoom fatigue was my fear by that stage in the pandemic, although I needed to remember that this course was always going to be mostly distance.
With around six hours online a day I was sceptical that we would improve the feedback from the first residential. But it was extraordinarily good, with 88 per cent of students giving it 4 or 5 stars out of 5. How can a non-residential residential trump a residential one? What did I learn?
First – luck. By February the mood was caution, resignation and some degree of appreciation towards the digital – students were now in favour of a well-run online experience and staff were better able to provide it. Expectations could match reality, when in the previous October they could not.
Next, we worked out that you can and should land a virtual residential with a strong, content-rich, pacey start. We set the scene and advised on how to maintain sanity through the next two weeks. Then there was a “state of sustainable food and farming” mini conference – a morning of punchy presentations and pertinent questions.
To address the potential for fatigue, we broke up teaching sessions throughout the day and not all days were the same timetable – all to work with staff and student preferences.
For the second, non-residential residential, the response to feedback was to provide quality and quantity in industry input – retailers, farmers, civil servants, funders all made fantastic contributions. Being seen not just to maintain but improve the programme, despite constraints, generates trust and goodwill. That’s the sweet spot with feedback – where the response is swift, related to what has been said and is delivered for the current cohort.
And during that period a daily email at 0830 provided information equity – it laid out the timetable, gave Zoom links in one place, allowed us to thank those who were sharing the leadership that day. Surely that’s something to do even in a residential residential?
So I was much encouraged by how well it had worked. Maybe we overstate the residential experience when conditions allow it, but don’t foster relaxed and deep interaction. Perhaps also we underestimate the adaptability and the appreciation of our efforts on the part of students.
But here’s the final twist – our students do want another face to face experience and even our best efforts on the second residential could not compensate for that. It’s a mantra we can confirm as true – a postgraduate course is as much about learning from each other as it is about the course content.
So we plan to have an extra residential in early July – the last of the year, but the first to provide what one actually hopes for, from a residential, with no masks, no distancing, some fun and some learning that only comes through the spontaneous development of a group working with each other in the same space.
But perhaps we will also capture senior international leaders who can’t get to us, through a Zoom or two, use digital links to students in the same boat due to quarantining, and send morning “Happy Campers” emails, even if everyone is there.