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University of Northampton: The impact of COVID-19 on digital delivery - initial trend analysis

Nick PetfordRob HoweChris Forward

The speed and intensity of transitioning to mass online delivery of teaching has left in its wake a unique digital record, the patterns and trends of which reveal the story of the sector grappling to respond.

At the University of Northampton, we use initial data from three online delivery vehicles; Blackboard and its virtual classroom Collaborate, Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx, to chart the growth and extent of uptake by the students and staff at the university, pre and post pandemic.

The data presented compare usage rates between 2019 and 2020, with emphasis on the period from 1 March to 27 December 2020 to correspond with the periods of national lockdowns and regional tier restrictions which impacted on university operations.

While the longer-term impact on the student and staff experience of this unprecedented shift remains uncertain, by analysing and decoding these data sets, universities can gain new insight into the efficiency of their IT services, along with fresh insight into supplier and consumer behaviours.  

Blackboard

Page views

Blackboard SaaS powers the Northampton Interactive Learning Environment (NILE). Each time someone loads (or reloads) a page in a browser, it is recorded as a page view. Page views show a ‘seasonal’ trend, highest at the start of the academic year, falling towards December with a marked summer dip.

Overall there is not much difference in page views between 2019 and 2020. Although this might seem surprising, the NILE site has been embedded in our Active Blended Learning (ABL) model since it was introduced in 2014, and so was already in frequent use, hence the modest increase (c. 10%) on 2020 compared to 2019.

We take this as evidence that our digital transformation underpinning the move to the Waterside Campus in 2018 put us ahead of the curve in digital delivery. Total page view statistics are impressive nonetheless, with over 60 million hits in two years. Page views to access online content have a weekly cycle, with dips defining the weekends, although only a few times in the year does this drop below 5,000 views. Average page views were 49,000/day in 2019, increasing to 52,000/day in 2020. 

Blackboard page views 2020 vs 2019

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Comparison of weekly 2019 (orange) v 2020 (blue) page views in Blackboard.
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Text description of Blackboard page views graph

A graph comparing the difference in number of page views on Blackboard between 1 March to 27 December 2019 and the same period in 2020.

The graph shows that there is no significant difference between to two years but does show the annual trend of an increase in page views between September and December and a noticeable decrease between June and August.

Shift to online delivery

Blackboard Collaborate session data tells a very different story to the daily page views. The move away from face-to-face tuition, an essential component of our active-based learning model, due to the pandemic is seen most strikingly in the data on usage for Collaborate. Growth from March 2020 is meteoric, reflecting the shift to online teaching and staff meetings.

The growth is exceptional. Over the same period in 2019, 5,621 Collaborate sessions were logged, at a rate of 25 per day. By December 2020 over 130,000 sessions had been logged, a 2,307% percent increase on the previous year, averaging at 369 sessions/day.

Blackboard Collaborate online sessions 2020 vs 2019

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Number of logged online sessions using Blackboard Collaborate 2019 (orange) and 2020 (blue)
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Text description of Blackboard Collaborate graph

A graph comparing the difference in number of Blackboard Collaborate sessions between 1 March to 27 December 2019 and the same period in 2020.

The graph shows the significant increase in 2020 sessions compared to 2019 – peaking in September 2020 and remaining at similarly high levels throughout October to December.

The timing of a Collaborate session will vary widely depending on the use. Tutors using it for sessions with students may run to 60 minutes and longer. More general meetings range generally from 15 minutes to two hours.

From the recording interface we cannot yet distinguish between different types of sessions but are working with Blackboard to improve the granularity. However, assuming a conservative estimate of 30 minutes per session equates to 4 million minutes, or 7.7 years’ worth of cumulative screen time.

“The university supported an exceptional growth in the use of our online systems during the pandemic but the student experience remained paramount. Quality was maintained through the previous institutional work on ABL; intensive staff activity; and the use of scalable hosted systems to cater for demand.”
Rob Howe (head of learning technology)

Lockdown signal in the data

It is interesting to correlate the data on switching to online teaching with the build up to national lockdown. The exact timing of UK lockdown remains in dispute.

According to some, lockdown began on 16 March 2020, when Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that all unnecessary social contact should cease. Schools in the UK were closed on March 20, but it was not until March 23, seven days later, that Boris Johnson told the country to stay at home and that some businesses must close. However, from our data we can see a shift to online delivery pre-dates March 16. 

Collaborate sessions ramp up exponentially from March 11, reaching 43 times the daily 2019 average by 24 March. Corollary similar in form to the exponential increase in COVID-19 cases over the same period.

Online lectures (Collaborate)

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Graph showing exponential increase in online sessions (blue) coinciding with UK national lockdown window (16-24 March 2020)
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Text description of online lectures (collaborate) graph

A graph showing the increase in Collaborate sessions in March 2020 which starts to diverge from the March 2019 use trend on 11 March.

The graph highlights how this is ahead of the UK lockdown window which is also plotted on the graph from 16-24 March.

Microsoft Teams

Data on Microsoft Teams is extracted from Microsoft 365 usage analytics in Power BI. Usage is confined to the last 180 days (to June 2020). It seems that Teams is being used predominantly as a chat messaging system. With the application being agnostic of device type, it has allowed for more accessibility to a wider range of customers.

With further enhancements being made to Teams it is expected to see continued growth of the product within our estate. Data only start from March 2020 we so can’t see the pre-COVID trend. The Microsoft Teams usage graph summarises user count and client access.

Microsoft Teams usage

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A graph showing the daily usage of MS Teams at the University of Northampton in 2020
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Text description of Microsoft Teams usage graph

A graph showing the increase in use of Microsoft Teams from March 2020 to February 2021.

The increase is relatively steady from March to August, then jumps initially in September and then more significantly in January.

Cisco WebEx

WebEx usage follows a similar pattern. We only have records from 1 February 2020 but see a clear COVID-19 signal in the data from March onwards. The usage graph below shows 11 months of WebEx data for video and total meeting counts.

The total count pre-COVID, between 1 February and 16 March 2020, was 349. In the five days to 20 March, that count is 1,008 (Fig. 6). The total count to 31 December 2020, was 34,177 with an average of 50 sessions a day, a potential (extrapolated) increase of over 2,000% against pre-COVID use.

Cisco WebEx usage

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Cisco WebEx usage from February 2020 to January 2021. The switch on-line from the March 2020 UK lockdown is clear in the data, as is the Christmas 2020 break
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Text description of Cisco WebEx usage graph

A bar graph showing the usage of Cisco WebEx from February 2020 to January 2021 broken down by ‘all meetings’ and ‘video’.

The graph shows a significant increase in use on 16 March which remains high for the rest of the period shown – excluding over the Christmas break where usage is almost zero.

Cisco WebEx online meetings

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Cisco WebEx meetings, video only (blue) and all meetings (yellow) from March 1 to March 20, 2020. The pattern reflects weekend drops in usage
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Text description of Cisco WebEx meetings graph

Alt text: A bar graph showing the usage of Cisco WebEx from 1 March 2020 to 31 March 2020 broken down by ‘all meetings’ and ‘video’.

The graph shows a significant increase in use from 16 March which relatively remains high for the rest of that week and spikes again on 22 March.

Governance

Finally, the move to mass online learning brings with it new data governance, cyber security and potential reputational issues. At the University of Northampton, we have made significant steps in decreasing our vectors of cyber-attack by changing our processes, methods of authentication, technologies to deliver applications and introducing better controls.

With access to online platforms being ever more available, striking the right work life balance is as important as ever. Now students and staff can connect and access materials seamlessly, at any time and from virtually any place, we’re encouraging them to study and work the hours that are right for them, without undue pressure to do otherwise.

Planning for today and into the future 

Because of our investment in IT and introduction of ABL long before the pandemic struck, the move online was perhaps an easier transition at Northampton than for other HEIs not so well equipped. We already had the platforms in place, such as Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Teams, ready for the significant increase in users, and were able to rely on tools such as Blackboard which were already central to the student’s active-based learning. 

Nonetheless, the shift has placed significant pressure on teaching, IT, and support staff (as can well be inferred from the data), as well as students, some whom did not initially have the equipment for mass remote learning. To help overcome that particular challenge, we provided laptops to staff and students where possible and developed our loan laptop environment to significantly increase loan periods, as well as providing a hardship fund where students can receive funding towards a laptop.  

The shift to digital also provides a useful insight into how data, captured as part of the delivery process can be used, not just as a record of an extraordinary perturbation to the traditional model, but as a robust evidence base. As IT services and learning technologists migrate to a new normal, the data we are able to capture will help promote best practice across the university, influence investment decisions in digital technology, and provide fresh insight into students’ preferences and behaviours. 

Further reading