Seven key insights from the transition to university online learning

Sharon Azam, managing director at GovNet Events, offers her analysis of a webinar on higher education’s response to Covid-19

As preparations continue ahead of The Higher Education Conference & Exhibition in October, we recently hosted a free online webinar to learn more about the challenges of switching to university online learning.

The event – “Ensuring Quality of Teaching and Learning: Higher Education’s Response to Covid-19” – featured an expert panel comprising Prof Susan Orr, dean of learning, teaching and enhancement at University of the Arts London; Val Yates, director of access and inclusion at University of Worcester; and Andrea Fitzgerald, regional head at the Crown Commercial Service.

More than 140 people logged in for the session, which was chaired by Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy, Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

These are the seven key insights from the session.

1. Preparing for a new world of learning and beyond

Firstly, Prof. Orr explained how UAL prepared for the transition by hosting a series of staff development sessions focusing on online inclusive pedagogies. These online sessions were attended by more than 700 people in the week before lockdown, with a further 700 taking part since. “The staff development series was quite purposefully created to generate non-hierarchical networks of digital inclusive pedagogy experts to share work in a distributive way across the university,” she said. “Our staff development focused on two very simple concepts – what would contact look like and what would content look like – and how we were going to deliver the learning outcomes rather than how we normally do things in a face-to-face environment.”

However, Prof. Orr explained any approach had to extend beyond teaching, and that “checking-in was essential”, especially in light of the difficult circumstances students are currently facing. “It is not just online learning, it is online learning in a pandemic – and we couldn’t lose sight of that, in terms of wellbeing.”

2. Understanding the key challenges to university online learning

Providing an insight into the University of Worcester, Val outlined eight key challenges and common themes with regards to the transition to online learning: digital and environmental poverty (the lack of access to equipment, as well as Wi-Fi, space and comfortable working areas); differing technical abilities; familiarity and confidence in using different approaches; the equality of impact for these approaches (so there’s a parity across the entire student population); the impact on student choice; clarity (especially over objectives and expectations from both staff and students); adequate support; and time.

3. The importance of new technologies

Val told the audience that for the last four years, she’s been leading on a pilot scheme called Reach that is designed to support teaching and learning through the use of digital technology – with those students taking part being issued with a Samsung tablet, whilst receiving their core reading materials in e-book form, plus having access to a range of online resources. She explained the experiences gained from piloting Reach had been hugely beneficial following lockdown.

“The students had become very familiar with their devices and we were really confident that cohort of learners could be quickly adapted to an online learning environment. They had the technological tools and resources to engage with online delivery and immediate access to the reading materials, which was an obvious advantage when social distancing restricted access to hard copies. [The scheme] did aid and definitely speed up the smooth transition into online learning.”

4. Impressed by students’ creative approach

During the event, Prof Orr explained some colleagues and students started lockdown being very concerned about what the students might be missing out on in relation to access to on site professional studio environments. However, as the term has progressed it was clear that many students were finding ways to excel creatively within the constraints of lockdown. The students’ creativity is matched by the creativity within the creative industries as well. Industry is flexing and changing, and those graduating students who have been forced to be agile themselves will be best positioned to thrive in this new environment. “It will be the entrepreneurial ones, who are creating the most innovative approaches to their practices, that will thrive,” she added.

5. Time is of the essence

Moving forwards, time will be a major consideration when it comes to increasing university online learning in the future. “Preparation time for online delivery can be considerably longer than normal face-to-face delivery – setting up the stage, making sure that you’re managing the interactive functions, that your camera and audio works as you move around the room, the inevitable technological issues and the need to follow up with students when that does happen. Therefore, time is a big issue and one we need to consider,” Val said.

6. Processing feedback from students

With a focus on wellbeing, Prof Orr was asked how students have responded to online learning. She explained that whilst there was some initial anxiety there have been numerous anecdotes from students and staff reporting that students are attending and contributing to lecturers and seminars in ways they’ve never done so before. Prof Orr added that whilst students have responded positively to the online learning, it is important to remember there are students that are finding this very hard, and the university is using all feedback from staff and students to shape its evolving hybrid learning environment next term.

7. The importance of efficient procurement

Andrea explained her organisation is part of the Cabinet Office, where it works with all public sector organisations to support them with procurement frameworks to ensure there is a complaint and fair route to market for all purchasing. She revealed that HE institutions procure over £7.5bn of services and goods per annum, “covering everything from a stamp to a brand-new building”.

She added that “better procurement has the potential to deliver significant efficiencies by releasing resources for HE institutions to use for their core activities”, which will be particularly critical post COVID-19. Andrea highlighted the importance of renegotiating contracts where possible in order to focus on cost savings during this turbulent period.

Discussing what benefits can HE procurement bring to society in the “new world”, Andrea said universities will be able to “kick start the economy by working with their SME supplier base, so we [CCS] are supporting SME organisations to become more commercially ready to work with larger public sector organisations and deliver social value”.

The Higher Education Conference & Exhibition 2020

As highlighted by our expert panel, the HE sector is going through a period of unprecedented change that will have long-term ramifications and shape the future of learning for many years to come. This topic will take centre stage as we host the Higher Education Conference & Exhibition in London this October, and I’m excited to hear how more universities are innovating in exciting and novel ways to engage, communicate and provide the best possible environments for their students in these uncertain times.

The Higher Education Conference & Exhibition 2020, organised by GovNet, and takes place on 8th October at the QEII Centre in London.

Sharon Azam is managing director at GovNet Events.

Read more: The Edtech Summit 2020 to take place at the NEC, Birmingham in November

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