As I reflect on the weeks following the significant measures announced by the Prime Minister on 23rd March to protect us all against the spread of coronavirus, and the closure of our campuses and subsequent move to teaching and learning online, it is fair to say that we have all had to move very quickly – and did not have much notice to meet the challenge head on.
We had to be decisive and directive, and it was our call to move online when we did. We felt it was the right thing to do and we wanted to rise to the challenge, which I think we have done. Having made the shift, we developed that further and responded in terms of providing students with extra time for assessments, extensions, deferrals and implementing a ‘no-detriment’ policy of our creation, which students had called for.
The challenge has not just been the ‘day-to-day’, but the individual circumstances that our students have found themselves in, and being a widening participation university how we support such students: some of whom had gone home, some of whom were staying in Coventry because they had to – international students, for example, and people who at the start of lockdown were not able to get home due to restrictions on movement. Also dealing with the particular environment that students have had – broadband, IT, software etc – and ensuring that the quality of provision has been effective as we have moved online, including how we capture the student voice as part of that.
In terms of the latter, during this period we have had a continuum of the formal and informal channels that we were already using, the representative voice through to individual voices, and also the reactive and dynamic forms of communication. All the time, we are trying to get access to the authentic voice or voices, grappling with issues of representativeness in some respects, but recognising that everyone’s voice is authentic and valuable. Part of the challenge is pleasing everyone, all of the time, which is impossible.
There have been a number of things that we have formally continued – not least the National Student Survey (NSS), which was still happening to an extent as we moved into lockdown. Students contributed to the NSS so that will make for an interesting set of data, if and when we get the results. We progressed with our module and course evaluations, all delivered by expert and experienced colleagues at the University.
What we also instigated were more frequent surveys – ‘Spot’ questions on different topics, which students could quickly respond ‘yes or no’ to, on a weekly basis. Initially these were about finding out from students how they were experiencing the shift to remote learning. We then moved into questions on preparedness and effectiveness of assessment online, and we are now considering ones for new and returning students who are continuing in various stages of their education. We are going to be looking at the effectiveness of online induction and other preparedness ahead of the next round of delivery. We had some debate about whether these surveys were useful or not, but our view was some data is better than no data and you treat this with intelligence as opposed to simplistically.
In addition, we have continued to work very closely with the Students’ Union, ensuring that we have student representatives for each course, school and faculty, and that they are very much involved in governance structures. We have had Q&As facilitated by the Union, our most recent one attracting 680 participants, which was an excellent response. I have continued to lead a taskforce on the re-focusing of the student experience that we started at the beginning of the academic year. We set in place various structures and forums, very much working in partnership with the Union and both the full-time staff and elected sabbatical officers have been, and will continue to be, integral to that.
In all of these activities, we have continued to use various mechanisms at our disposal to capture the student perspective, all within a culture and raison d’être as a higher education provider where the student always has a voice. That relationship is one of equality and co-production for the most part, in which all parties bring different things to the table, and we will endeavour to continue enhancing what we do.
For example, one issue we have been wrestling with is around BAME and other under-represented groups in higher education. To date we have been mostly thinking about the impact of the new approach to education as opposed to ensuring we capture those constituencies’ voices, so we have still got some work to do on that. Related to that is developing the analytics side, which is still in early-ish days and is something we will look to use to ensure that our students are engaged and that teaching and learning is being delivered, and delivered effectively. We do not wish to move into an audit and policing culture, but at the same time we do want to make sure we are delivering what we say we are going to deliver, and that this is done as effectively as possible.
This clearly will continue in some way, shape or form in the new academic year, and we are thinking about how it can be even better than what we have done so far, but on 27th May the University announced that it is fully committed to delivering as much face-to-face teaching and the widest university experience as possible in 2020-21. Students and others will be less forgiving from September than in their response to the quick set of arrangements we made this time, and we must ensure that ‘extracurricular’ or ‘paracurricular’ encounters and conversations outside the classroom happen.
We must also not lose sight of the importance of communicating with our staff. Having leaders across the University group down to Faculty-based Associate Deans and School-based Associate Heads of Schools with responsibility for Student Experience and Quality Assurance, who work with course directors and other colleagues, has been really beneficial. We have brought those people together on a bi-weekly basis to both provide information, get feedback and perspectives from, and share intelligence. Their ongoing contribution will be crucial in quality assuring our offer and maintaining the integrity and depth of the educational experience.
Professor Guy Daly is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Students) at Coventry University, and was a panellist on Explorance’s ‘How can we capture the student voice in a time of Coronavirus?’ webinar on 13th May 2020.
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