While many universities are currently writing their responses to missing their widening access targets, and Widening Access and Participation teams across the country are scrambling around working out how to do outreach without any physical interventions, we need to remember the purpose of outreach.
In the current situation it is hard to envisage a world where we’ll be back to “normal” either in schools or delivering campus-based activity. When we do regain some level of normality, it may be too late for some students.
Some already disadvantaged students will be the most negatively impacted by the current situation. These are the students who would have been getting support and encouragement from school teachers to consider university, but due to school closures, they haven’t been getting that.
Parents who lack the knowledge of the university system (through no fault of their own!) are less likely to be pushing their children to consider university. Where they are, they are unlikely to be pushing beyond the universities they know about. It is important therefore that we as a sector are prepared and willing to support students at a distance.
We must embrace online spaces to help us to reach and support these students. Although we still rely on schools as gatekeepers, we must ensure that we provide useful and engaging content that teachers can embed within their digital teaching.
Schools are struggling to adjust in the same way as universities are and are looking for support and content to embed within their digital teaching. At the University of Bath we have, like many other universities, started with the easy things. We’ve filmed versions of content that would normally be delivered in schools and on campus and put it online. It’s a start, but not the end.
As universities begin to plan for the coming months, many (like us) have taken the decision to cancel summer residential courses. We know that residentials are one of the most impactful and well received pieces of outreach the sector undertakes. Without them many WP teams will have lost an opportunity for large scale engagement of students. Although we have cancelled these events, we must continue to engage with and support the students who have engaged with us.
Is digital outreach possible?
For over a year at Bath, we have run some digital outreach programmes, one of which is a sustained programme based on a physical programme we run for local students. Through this process we’ve learnt a few things and I wanted to share some of our learnings.
Pick your method of delivery carefully. We have a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for our current students, the purpose of this VLE is not to teach online (although I’m sure it is being used that way now) it is used as a supplement to current teaching. The first thing to do is find out if non-students can have access to your VLE and then build the content so it is engaging and navigable for students undertaking self-directed study.
Following discussions with our IT team, we chose Microsoft Teams to deliver our programme, it allows for collaboration and detailed, safe interactions between groups of students and student ambassadors. The content is the most important thing; duplication of a summer school programme that would usually be delivered in person will only end up in disappointment. Before moving content online, we defined the aims including key skills and knowledge content we wanted to engage students with. Once we have the aims we can build the best method of delivery for each.
We must also consider the students who are engaging with this content and think about their other commitments. With the closure of schools, it is unlikely schools will allow a students not to undertake work for a week. Therefore, delivering a summer school live is problematic. We found that launching content and then giving students a set period (usually a week or two) to complete it works best for engaging students.
Finally, the most important thing is to ensure that our safeguarding policies are updated to include digital delivery. We should ensure that all team-members are aware of and implement appropriate safeguarding measures.
Not a luxury or optional extra
As we all adjust to the “new normal” it is important that we don’t take the easy route and use this situation as an excuse for no or little action in the world of widening access, the students who we define as WP are the ones who will lose out.
Although outreach can be seen as a luxury rather than a necessity and viewed as an area of money saving in these uncertain times, we must remind our universities of the importance of outreach work in our ability to meet Access and Participation Plan targets. We should not consider outreach as merely imparting information, but as part of preparing students to be successful at university. We must ensure that we have a cohort of students as prepared for study as possible. In a world where schools have little time and space to engage students with as much skill development as they would like, outreach is more important than ever.