In our academic world, we have been used to the slowness of change.
Committees, governance, consultations, the bureaucracy of the academic cycle, and a general reluctance to reflect on process and examine entrenched habits usually means that a minimum period of 18 months is needed to move from A to B.
And then came Covid-19. For most of us, we moved – first, from the workplace to home-working, and then from face to face to digital – at a dizzying pace. At my own institution, De Montfort University, we put our curriculum online in three days and, once online, within a day had to close our campus.
We taught our last two weeks of term entirely online, guiding students with no equipment, no support, no other accommodation, and no preparedness (why should they be prepared?) to finish their practical and lab-based work remotely.
We reconceived our approaching exam period so it could work remotely, wrote necessary exam guidance, agonised over what would be the fairest while still achievable No Detriment approach possible, tried as much as we could to keep staff and students fully informed (making mistakes in this respect and failing better the next time).
Colleagues produced, in emergency and crisis circumstances, remarkable online variants of their usual teaching; students rose magnificently to the challenge.
Our Easter breaks arrived, and we stopped, took a breath – and realised that crisis had become business as usual. What had been an amazingly quick schedule of change in an emergency situation, producing amazing results, could not be sustained.
How to prepare for a new academic year where few, in any, of our usual markers would be visible? How to make ready proactively rather than reactively, and how to ensure that voices were heard and perspectives represented?
Like many universities, we regularly survey our students at module level and factor their responses into our annual reflections on enhancement. Lockdown hit just as we had started this process, and it has had a significant impact. But this vital group has essential “user” knowledge that we need, institutionally and within programmes, to delve into. The student experience of learning in an emergency remote environment can provide us with expert knowledge of how things had gone when we were in a rush, to inform how things have to go now that we have, relatively speaking, time.
Across the sector, we accept that what had been incredible in an emergency will need to develop and stabilise if it is to be what students expect, need and are entitled to over the course of a term or a year. It needs to reflect what staff can do, want to do, and need to learn how to do. And we need to understand what our campuses will and won’t allow, and to be able to explain how this underpins decisions about the balance between on-campus and online teaching.
Returning students and offer-holders can help us to develop our thinking and, in particular, contribute to the conversation around balancing health and the campus community’s wellbeing with providing the best possible student experience within Covid constraints. But gaining their perspectives can be a bigger challenge when we step outside our usual structures.
Technology facilitates student voice
Over the past couple of years, DMU has been working hard on turning up the volume of the student voice, not only via good relations with the students’ union, but also by creating new roles for students as advocates, consultants, and advisors to our various educational initiatives.
So even in our lockdown rush, we worked with these groups to learn more about what our students needed in the short term: digital poverty, for instance, swiftly – within days – became apparent. We regularly convene an Ask the Experts panel to allow students to put questions directly to senior academic and professional services leaders, and the April event, unsurprisingly, was Covid-dominated.
Students want to feed in, and we have found the online environment conducive to this. Live online events are immediate in a way that student module questionnaires are not. A live Q&A I hosted, for instance, drew several hundred students and the contributions ranged from particular questions over specific courses to wide-ranging and well-informed comments on the plans we have been developing for a blended start to term.
As a result, we have adapted our language to make it clearer – which has benefitted staff as well – and have been able to better understand the differing needs of our diverse student body in a blended environment. They are not all digital natives!
Moreover, student voice work, led by our students’ union academic executive, Laura Flowers, has ensured that students’ contributions continue to feed directly into staff preparations for the coming year. Her students’ union-sponsored survey reached more than 500 respondents, roughly equally split across our four Faculties, and revealed the levels of anxiety and stress felt by our students when we all rushed to the online environment. This reinforces for me that, in the coming year, we must use our technologies creatively both in teaching and in student support.
Our conversations with students have also made clear that while our students want to know, now, what’s going to happen, there are nonetheless areas where an early answer would mean a flawed answer.
In our planning work, we have considered how important sequencing is. We couldn’t begin to make decisions about on-campus delivery without first evaluating the capacity of the estate in a two-metre, suddenly one-metre-plus, world. We couldn’t make decisions about training either staff or students without feeling fully confident we understood the full capacity of our chosen platforms and the digital needs of both groups. We couldn’t develop our pedagogical approach until we understood what our IT allowed and our training could cover.
So the other end of listening to students is learning how to pace our communications. There is no such thing as a bad question – and with each iteration we learn a better answer and our planning undergoes a further nuance. Where an answer isn’t ready or a decision paused so that new information can be incorporated, we have told our students this.
We’ve found that both returning students and offer-holders have understood that no news is better than faulty news. And we have learned that the more times we convey information, even if little has changed, the better!
By seeking our students’ views, we have been able to craft our developing offer using terms that make sense to our learners as well as ourselves.
Planning for the coming year has therefore turned into something that is much more reciprocal than we often allow ourselves to be. Interestingly, this has developed alongside a speed of change that, in normal times, we would consider to be unfeasible.
So, as the sector prepares for the new academic year, and sees out this one out, I’d suggest we have learned some important lessons:
- We can do things very quickly
- Change is not destructive
- We must seek out the perspectives of the full community: both in reaction to things proposed, and informing the direction of travel for things needed
- Because being “done to” isn’t good enough
Right now, we don’t have the luxury of an 18-month change cycle. But then, when we went into lockdown, we didn’t even have 18 days. We are lucky that we have such a willing pool of experts in what it feels like to learn (and to teach) in a blended environment.