We need to reinvent no detriment for January 2021

Students in their thousands are signing new petitions calling for "no detriment" policies for this part of the pandemic. Jim Dickinson assesses the demands.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the things I’m really interested in is the structural mitigations that providers are putting in for struggling students over this part of the pandemic.

Or, put another and more accurate way – one of the things I’m surprised about is the relative absence so far of meaningful responses to student demands for new types of “no detriment” policies.

I say this because I spent days a few weeks back buried in qual from real students declaring not that they are unhappy and “want a refund”, but are struggling academically – and are worried they’ve not learned enough. Maybe the lack of social connection means they’re overcooking this, and just don’t have others to bounce their worries off. But it seems more likely that an actual proportion of them really have been impacted by the disruption caused by the global pandemic.

I also say this because of that work that the Office for Students (OfS) cryptically announced back in October on this very issue:

In light of the disruption some students have experienced at the start of this academic year, we will be discussing with representative bodies the potential impact of changes in teaching and learning on students’ preparedness for assessment during, and at the end of, this academic year. We want to make sure that the necessary steps are taken to ensure that assessment will lead to reliable qualifications for all students this year.

And I say it because I can see a growing number of students signing petitions and commenting on SU forums that they are amazed that “no detriment” policies have generally not survived the summer, and are angry that poor performance this term might end up framed in institutional terms as something that is individual – and somehow their fault.

When we say we are maintaining “quality and standards” we may be hiding debates – about whether we mean the standard of that which universities might reasonably provide during a massively disruptive global pandemic, or the standard of attainment we might reasonably expect students to achieve during a massively disruptive global pandemic.

The struggle is real

Some students have never set foot on campus. They’re lonely. Many modules that used to have lots of summative exams have piled on the coursework instead. Asynchronous packages of material are overwhelming. Some academic choices and pathways have been culled or combined to ensure delivery.

We’re all suffering from screen fatigue, and students are too – studies suggest that attention spans online decrease to 15 minutes but in a face to face environment they range from 50-90 minutes. And have any of us not had some kind of tech issue, with microphones, or cameras, or networks, or wifi, or platform reliability? Do we think they’ll be better or worse for students, trying to study from halls kitchens or damp bedrooms?

Are academic staff working harder than ever? Of course they are. But even watching the latest five star blockbuster would probably be spoiled if you were trying to watch it on a phone from 10 years ago using train wifi – particularly if it was live streamed and you kept missing bits. And even with the best efforts of those staff, online interaction with peers on that kind of platform would be frustrating at best.

Some students are really struggling with online. This article sums up some of the frustrations:

Every ‘stupid question’ you ask is on record for everyone on your course to watch over and over again.

Your teacher can’t look at your work properly because you’re separated by a computer screen.

Discussion is impossible because only one person can speak at a time on Zoom.

And independent study is tough too:

Plummeting grades are also not being helped by insufficient working spaces. For many students, their uni flats are not designed to become full-time study spaces. They don’t have desks, they are cold and wifi is patchy at best. Universities employ interior designers and ergonomic experts to make sure that learning environments are designed to optimise productivity and student learning experiences. I strongly doubt that every student’s landlord is taking the same measures.

Campuses are “open” but many students are reluctant to go because of risk:

My lecturer told me to avoid campus where possible because cases are spreading like wild-fire” Millie, Archaeology

Campuses are hotspots for virus spreading without even considering students may have to take public transport to get onto campus. All of these unnecessary exposures are very real deterrents for many students considering their study options.

Also, libraries and public study spaces ask you to wear a face-covering at all times, if you haven’t already tried, go away and put a mask on and try concentrating for in excess of 2 hours. It doesn’t happen. Every 30 seconds you’re distracted by your wheezy breathing and steamed glasses.

Library spaces are also like gold dust. They are difficult to book, hard to come by and when they are available they are for such a short amount of time that it provokes the question ‘Is it worth trekking to campus and putting myself at risk?”

Group work is a problem:

It has become almost impossible to meet up with your fellow presenters to plan your project unless you do so over Zoom. In case we weren’t already being bogged down by excessive screen time why not go and have some more?

Trying to discuss articles, plan speeches and make learning materials remotely is a nightmare and if you do manage to book one of the elusive group study spaces on campus you’ll only have an hour-long slot, so good luck trying to get everything done in that time.

It seems pretty evident that no one has even thought about the consequences of group work of summative assessments. Considering group work is virtually impossible to do well, how is it fair that some students are having their final grades determined by it?

Oh – and many will have spent weeks this term self-isolating. In some cases that might have increased their engagement. But in some cases it means they’ve missed in-person teaching, lab work, slices of studio time or placement hours – and all because they followed the rules.

Maintaining the standards

Let’s take an obvious implication. To meet the necessary Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) standards, student nurses need to complete a minimum number of hours on placement. But hundreds have lost hours because they’ve had to self isolate this term. The official position remains that universities and placement providers will somehow support students individually to meet the requirements. How?

Now clearly, not every course has such cut and dried requirements as nursing. But it appears that as it stands, the official position in the majority of providers is that any pandemic impacts are in the realm of individual/particular, and to be handled through the usual procedures.

But there are all sorts of issues with that kind of approach. Let’s imagine that academics doing marking over Christmas find a wider spread of attainment on display than usual. Early indications are that some students are doing better than usual – they’re comfortable and have nothing else to do. And some seem to be doing worse than usual – for well rehearsed Covid-related disruption reasons that obviously are not their fault.

What should the response be, particularly if we’re not looking at outright failure or missed deadlines, but just poor(er than usual) performance? And are university systems smart and nimble enough to pick up that there might be a major access and participation issue hiding in that range?

It takes two to tango

I’m also interested in the “line” we draw between the volume and quality of academic delivery and support, and student “effort”. We have well established procedures that tend to allow mitigations if something goes wrong in a student’s life – but we assert that it’s all been fine on the academic delivery side.

On that “university side of the bargain” there are major problems this year. If a student’s broadband has been ropey (when normally a university provides Eduroam on campus) is that a problem with the student’s personal life, or the quality of the academic delivery?

If a student has a monumentally uncomfortable chair where they used to study on campus, or has a chaotic home life which they used to use the campus to escape from, ditto. If we transfer large chunks of our campus infrastructure into a student’s home, don’t we have to accept responsibility for assuring its safety, suitability and quality – and adjust academic performance expectations if it’s not up to scratch?

In other words – if some students really have fallen behind this term – due to disruption, deteriorating mental health, poor academic and peer support and poor (now personalised) infrastructure – how much of that is on the student “side” and how much is on the university “side” of the outcomes partnership? OIA guidance tends to pretend that judgements on academic quality and the volume of and access to teaching and support are separate circles, but this is surely the year when there’s an uncomfortable crossover on that venn diagram.

Capped expectations

And how do we fix it? I’m assuming that even if we maintain the academic standards of awards, we are going to have to relax lots of things that are currently focused on students reaching those standards by a similar deadline in a similar way. In fact, it feels like the only way that we might do this is from a “learning objectives” point of view rather than a “you did this as fast as usual and against the same deadline as everyone else on the programme” POV.

There’s a big implied question about PSRBs here. They mostly did the sensible thing at the end of last academic year regarding professional practice requirements, but are there resources (given that the QAA is not funded for this work) to bring them together again this year?

We should also worry about grade inflation, but not for the reasons that OfS thinks. If, say, 2/3 of students do better than usual and 1/3 are doing worse, providers at multiple levels are going to be wary about correcting or mitigating that bottom 1/3 because of a fear of grade inflation. But what if the reason that 2/3 do better and 1/3 worse is because the former really are comfortable and bored, but the latter are unfairly impacted by the pandemic and need more attempts or more time? Surely grade inflation monitoring should be officially suspended by OfS to stop it being taken into account at all.

Crucially, if a cohort on a module isn’t doing well, or even a proportion of a cohort is not doing well in comparison to normal, I worry that all the incentives at every level of university delivery are currently stacked towards gaslighting. It just “can’t” be because of a failure on the part of the university, and woe betide anyone that suggests it is so.

It’s a major problem with this “you can complain if the quality isn’t there” but “we judge quality and you can’t challenge our academic judgement” space that our complaints culture has boxed students into. How does a university prove that it’s done or provided enough, if the situation is unprecedented? And how might a failing student prove that the university hasn’t – that the problem really is on the university end of the partnership, not them or their personal life?

Playing catch up

It is perhaps surprising that right now all of the chat over in schools is how you make summative assessment fair, and how you can address catch-up in the run up to next year’s exams when some students are more impacted than others by Covid-19. But there’s hardly any of that in higher education – partly because of that PRish “it’s all fine, no fire here, we’ve been innovative” thing that’s partly been designed to bat off refunds.

It surely just can’t be that students generally, and some groups specifically, haven’t had their progress hit by Covid-19 – and we therefore need to see policies that can recognise that and mitigate for it, en masse and at the university/system level.

What’s very clear is that the comments from students on the forums and petitions should be seen as coalmine canaries – cries for help and exhortations for some empathy. Complex procedures to address individual failure caused by specific circumstances increasingly look tone deaf to a cohort whose only real shared experience is how miserable it’s all been.

Pure “No Detriment” policies may well not fit the bill if there’s not enough pre-pandemic academic performance evidence to establish a floor over. But we’re going to need something after a Christmas of comparisons deepens the disappointment that students are already feeling even further. Context matters – and if we’re so keen on students judging universities by what it’s “reasonable” to achieve during a pandemic, we ought to be just as keen on judging students’ performance with a pandemic test of reasonableness too.

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