By the time the UK’s lockdown restrictions were enforced, AECC University College had already been busy. As well as producing guidelines on teaching continuity while working remotely, they had also run a focus group with students and IT to identify technology solutions for remote learning, and surveyed students still on campus to understand why they hadn’t left yet (crucially, it was because many had no wifi at home).
Collaboration and communication
Close collaboration between staff and students has been central to how AECC University College has navigated the impact of COVID-19 locking down its campus and moving teaching, learning and assessment entirely online.
A newly-formed partnership project between the vice-chancellor, head of library and student services and the student union executive and representatives helped the flow of communications between the university and its students – helping to disseminate important information as well as understand what students wanted to know and what they were concerned about.
“This helped us to realise that students valued regular communications even when there was nothing specific to update on,” says head of library and student services Caroline Cooke. With so much changing day-by-day at the height of lockdown nationally and globally, just the act of regular communication provided reassurance.”
Preparing for the new academic year
As AECC University College now prepares for the autumn term, still with question marks around when and how many students will be on campus at once, the student experience is in the spotlight even more than normal and the partnership work will continue well into the autumn term.
“We take our lead from the student voice. The stronger the student voice, the more digital capabilities you’re going to have. When you ask students about their experience and really listen to what they want and expect, it makes it very difficult not to change and not to do more things online.
Practical classes are a major part of what we do so simply teaching by livestream lectures wouldn’t work but, that said, we also need to be adaptable. We’re exploring the idea of having practical bubbles where students’ practical sessions are timetabled for specific days and times of the week and that’s the only time they would have to come onto campus.”
As part of the preparations for the new term, Caroline has been leading a project, to produce institutional guidelines for online teaching. They cover the principles of online and blended learning, ideas for creating student connectedness, synchronous and asynchronous delivery, accessibility, and importantly debunks the myths about “digital natives”.
Like other universities during lockdown, the University College also faced the challenge of what to do about assessment. For their school of chiropractic this meant first considering whether assessment needed to go ahead for final year students, and second if they did, what form would they take.
It was, again, from engaging students that the school got its answer.
“As soon as we spoke to the students about whether assessments should go ahead, we got the answer and it was a resounding ‘yes’,”
says clinical tutor Victoria Wheeldon.
“Final assessments are an important rite of passage and our students were clear that they didn’t want to be the cohort that never sat their final assessments.”
By this point students were now located all across the world from Norway to Mayalsia to the Comoros Islands. Together with her colleague, Victoria called more than 100 students across multiple time zones on Zoom and Skype to assess whether they had access to a suitable device, the necessary platforms and an adequate connection, as well as to answer any questions about the assessment formats.
“It was an understandably a stressful time for students,”
“but all were grateful to be contacted personally and that they would be able to complete their final assessment as normally as possible in circumstances.
We spent time making sure staff overseeing the assessments as well as the students were comfortable using the technology and despite a couple of teething problems, we were able to recreate clinical chiropractic case scenarios virtually over Skype and Zoom.
Long term, whether we’re talking about assessment or learning and teaching, I think it would be a shame if we went back completely to how things were before the pandemic.
We need to be conscious that these are not students who have chosen to do an online course, they’ve chosen to come to university for a university experience and we have to maintain that in some way. This is an opportunity to build a middle ground so not wholly online for lectures and seminars and not only on-campus for practical but somewhere in-between,”
For more examples of how innovation during lockdown is inspiring long-term change in higher education, take a look at the learning and teaching reimagined initiative.