How do you provide the same learning experience to a student overseas as one located in the UK? It was a question many universities grappled with at the onset of the pandemic.
As ‘the digital divide’ among domestic students made headlines, similar digital inequities facing those international students unable to travel to the UK, were also being tackled by innovative teams across the sector of multi-disciplinary experts.
The particular challenge for UCL’s head of digital student experience David Goddard was getting students in China, who would normally have been on campus in London, access to the university’s digital teaching and learning resources in time for the start of term.
More than 18 months later and now into the second academic year with travel restrictions in place, UCL’s solution China Connect, developed using Jisc’s global education access framework, is still recording more than a thousand active users a day.
“Quite early on we agreed that our aim would be to get as close to experiential parity as we could, and say to students, if you are unable to join us in London, we'll do our best to give you an experience as close as possible to as if you were, or to that of a student in the UK who was studying remotely.”
As preparation got underway for the start of the 2020/21 academic year, David and his team estimated that around 5,500 UCL students might still be in China when the term started and would need to access systems remotely.
“While there was a lot of uncertainty about what exactly we were going to need and where students were going to be, we knew we had to have a solution in place for institutional insurance. We couldn't afford not to have a contingency up and running by the start of term that would allow us to provide a viable experience for our students in China.
“To understand fully what was required, we needed a strong strategic steer and institutional buy-in – and so assembling the right team was vital for that.
“This wasn’t a technology problem, we needed experts in library, registry, networking, information security, digital education, and student wellbeing, as well as the experience of our international office. We needed that multi-disciplinary team so we could understand all the needs of stakeholders which would steer us in the right direction of an eventual solution.
“We were exploring lots of different avenues, such as moving Moodle to the cloud so that it was more available globally, and also whether we could shift our data centre for Blackboard Collaborate from Europe over to Australasia. Some avenues ultimately didn’t pan out but we wanted to have as many insurance policies lined up as we could.”
David and his colleagues as UCL also pooled their expertise with other HE institutions as part of a Jisc pilot for a new service to support students in China.
Collaborating with Alibaba Cloud, the pilot explored how students in China could access virtual learning environments regardless of whether these were hosted at a UK university campus or on a third-party provider’s network.
In conclusion David says:
“The pilot gave us an opportunity to test our services in China. Early on, we had access to a virtual machine in Shanghai which meant we could try for ourselves what the experience was like.
“We discovered a lot of variability depending on the time of day. Sometimes you could have a really good experience, and at other times it would be unusable. And that was important because latency was a particular priority for us.
“We wanted students to be able to have a similar synchronous teaching experience to students in the UK and if that latency goes up above 250 milliseconds, synchronous teaching just doesn’t work.
“That was one of the reasons why the pilot was such a valuable process. It highlighted what was important and what we would need from the service proper.
“It’s also a good example of the importance of pilots and iteration more generally. If we'd gone live with the solution we initially started with in the pilot, it wouldn't have been any good. It didn't scale. It wasn't manageable. It wasn't secure enough. The performance wasn't there. That’s not to say it was a bad start, but we needed to go through that, and four or five other iterations, in order to arrive at the service that was commissioned and is now available.
“At the point when China Connect went live and students were first able to experience reliable access to the resources they needed, we were ready and prepared for a spike in support tickets. Thankfully, that never really materialised. We had fewer than 90 calls in in the first term and in the feedback survey, 85% of users said that the speed and reliability compared to their normal internet connection was either ‘better’ or ‘much better’ so we took that as a positive sign.
“We needed to have China Connect up-and-running for staff and students by the start of term and thanks to the huge effort of everyone in the team, we just nailed it. Thanks goes to Jisc for getting the framework in place, and also to the Alibaba team who were always on hand and extremely helpful.
“My advice to others reviewing their options for connecting students overseas is to not treat this as a technology problem. It isn’t. Having the input of all those stakeholders was key for us in shaping how China Connect worked.”