In my last blog, I reflected on our response to Covid-19 in terms of capturing the student voice and the direction of travel we have been developing to amplify that voice. The level of prioritisation given to this activity has certainly evolved – and what we are clear on is that the student voice has a vital role to play in ensuring the rapid-response move to online teaching is ultimately delivering educational value to students.
When Covid-19 hit we had to work quickly and, in many cases, we had to make decisions in advance of fully consulting with our students. However, I would say that many of the decisions we made were in response to student concerns, worries, anxieties and really well-argued points that we were capturing through communications with the Students’ Union, monitoring social media and through talking with our colleagues to see what students were saying to them as module or programme leaders.
We became aware very quickly, for instance, of students’ anxieties around the sudden lack of access to many of the labs, workshops and studios that they relied on in order to complete their practical work. However, the mitigations we worked on to try and address this loss also led to anxiety: changing the mode of assessment or perhaps asking them to think about something in terms of reflection or theory as opposed to actually doing it felt like a big risk to some students. And of course these were big asks, and while they felt necessary because we could not get students into labs, workshops and studios once we had to close buildings, at the same time it required students to think in a very different kind of way, and very quickly.
From an academic point of view, we were probably a little complacent, thinking ‘well, all you need to do is this’, but what we really needed to do was stop and listen our students who were saying ‘that is all well and good, but I just cannot get my head around that’. This was a wake-up call to remind us, across the board, that while clarity of message is really important, so too is advice and guidance on how to carry it out.
Our decision to introduce a blanket extension was in response to that. If we are going to ask students to reassess their own approach to assessment we needed to give them extra time to do exactly that. This was also the point in time that we got much better at not only reactive listening, but proactively seeking out of points of view, and this is very much informing how we are approaching things for the next academic year.
Our student voice workstream, for example, is all about asking our students to advise and guide us on not only what went well and what they liked and did not like about the past couple of months, but also what they expect and need in any non-traditional or online environment in the coming academic year. This work is being led by our Students’ Union Academic Executive officer, Laura Flowers, who has pulled together a team that is a combination of Union officers and student representatives of various constituencies. They are running online focus groups and have developed a wide-ranging questionnaire that seeks to capture as far as possible what it really feels like to be a student in the sudden shift to remote learning, and what students need us to know as we move into possibly carrying on with this in the Autumn.
This workstream is entirely student-led and student-focused: they are not trying to meet any pre-conceived expectations, but rather are genuinely discussing with themselves what they need to see. It is planned to be completed by early June, so that as we think about potentially re-designing our programmes, we are doing that with this student advice and guidance in mind. We need to ensure that students are not just passive recipients of something, and that they are actively engaged in the conversation.
We also have a separate workstream around student engagement and community. We are very aware that next year may well be so different for returning students and quite difficult for new students looking at a mixed-economy university education. We have to keep in mind that we will need to develop new and interesting ways to keep their attention, and ask them to feed back on what these might look like. With both these highlighted workstreams we are considering that our students will continue to need advice, guidance and probably bespoke training on what it means to learn in an online environment and what it means to access their learning remotely, digitally or through unfamiliar platforms. Again, this is in response to what we have learned from our students in the recent period.
The interesting thing about how to engage students when you are not face-to-face is that, for a lot of students in the 18-21 demographic, this is a kind of normal mode because of the way online and social media tends to work. I have a first-year student at home with me, and the way she has kept up her friendship groups, as well as her learning, is entirely in an online environment. This is not as foreign to some of our students, perhaps, as it is to some staff. Indeed, in some areas we have actually seen students feel a little more comfortable in engaging their tutors or other parts of the University in this online world.
On the other hand, for many mature and disadvantaged students, multiple challenges remain, which reminds us that our student community is a very diverse one, and that even as in ‘business as usual’ we need to account for difference in learning, in a Covid-19 world we also need to account for differences in access and accessibility.
Across the sector, we have done amazing things in this emergency situation, but we will need to do even better as we prepare for the next academic year. One of the best ways to do so is to listen to our students on what they need and what they will engage with. At De Montfort we are considering our approach to module level feedback in the next year, understanding that it is going to be such an unusual year. We want to make sure we develop our feedback mechanisms so that these reflect what the year is likely to look like – and that students are asked to feed back on their actual experiences as opposed to some theoretical experience they might have had, if we were not in the situation we will almost certainly find ourselves in.
Professor Jackie Labbe is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at De Montfort 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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