In my last blog I referenced the University of Portsmouth’s implementation of a new curriculum framework and, as part of that, we introduced new internal course and module surveys. These were completely online for the first time.
Within our curriculum work we had already developed a way of thinking about transition into university life throughout the whole of the first year – now, as part of the learning and teaching workstream developing our plans for the new academic year, we have a work strand on induction and transition. We are thinking about transition not just into Higher Education but from year to year and also out into the workplace or further study, and we are also focusing on creating a sense of belonging for students.
We are developing new content and a delivery mechanism to help students be prepared for learning and teaching ahead of joining us, and what that might look like in a blended and connected learning environment. We are also looking at what that means for our new personal tutoring and development framework being implemented for September. It is important that within all of this we are trying to make sure that students feel that their feedback has created something of which they are firmly a part.
Students are at the heart of everything we do, so we are practising what we preach. This extends into our learning and teaching workstream in which we have developed a template for our modules on our VLE, which provides colleagues with a pedagogical model for creating interactive opportunities and engagement for students, and guidance and training for staff to use the template and develop the content.
The guidance makes the point that we do not want everything to be synchronous. We want students to be able to undertake a variety of different activities at their own pace as much as possible, and build on very good practice going on in the University and across the sector. For example, instead of long lectures, we want staff to break them down into smaller chunks, and for students to then engage in activities around the lecture chunks. We want to make sure that the experience is consistent across the institution, so students feel there is a joined-up approach across all modules and that they can fully engage with their whole course. We also need to work with the Students’ Union to get this message across, and work with them to both listen and respond to feedback.
This ethos also extends to our work around accessibility. There are two types of accessibility to address – the first is around digital poverty and considering whether students have access to the equipment or kit that allows them to use any of our services. We have been working hard as a university to make sure that students have access to laptops and dongles and other relevant accessories, and have developed a loan scheme for students to help with that.
The second type of accessibility we have focused on is working to ensure that we can capture the core content of taught sessions – content capture, which is what we are calling it at Portsmouth, because it is not just about lectures it is about all taught content in a variety of teaching sessions. We will use content capture technology that allows us to provide captioning on our sessions, and also make sure that each of our modules have an accessibility statement on the VLE. For example, this asks students to let us know if there is anything else we need to provide for them – and points them in the direction of additional support, which is key.
We have also taken part in a project on equality, diversity and inclusivity in the curriculum and the good practice and outputs from this is something that we are ensuring is embedded in all modules and courses as we make changes for the new academic year.
It also extends to a very personal level. ‘Haver with Harriet’, which I mentioned in my last blog, was designed with precisely the objective of engaging ‘harder to reach’ students. The ‘havers’ are face-to-face, informal drop-in sessions, where I make myself available in the library and students can meet me without making any appointment, and talk about anything related to their student experience. One of the things that worked particularly well was that my dog was with me and people would stop and pat him and start to chat, rather than perhaps talk directly to the Dean of Learning and Teaching. That used to break down the barriers really well.
Already I had been developing that student voice mechanism with a virtual element, so students were able to contact me through a Google form and pose their questions if they were not able to meet in person; this will now be needed in our blended and connected learning environment and further developed for the new academic year.
The other thing that will be directly useful is our new personal tutoring and development framework where we have provided staff with an example curriculum for personal tutoring, including how they can deliver this using online mechanisms. We want staff to be able to think about how they will carry on personal tutoring in whichever mechanism they find most appropriate. One of the things we did in the first pivot to online was personal tutors contacted all of their students to check in with them; and we coupled that with a welfare call made by professional services staff. That personal contact with students is very important. Staff reported that they made a different connection with students through those mechanisms than through normal personal tutoring one-to-one or group sessions. We want to encourage that authentic conversation, and some of the mechanisms we are using now definitely support that.
Finally, we have incorporated formative assessment, feedback and evaluation throughout the teaching block (this is what we call semesters at Portsmouth), not just at the end of the module, into our template. We have given staff suggestions on how they can build this into their modules and courses for the coming year: a good use of quizzes and activities to help students develop in that area, and means to think about what they have done in a module in different ways. As part of the changes to the curriculum, we introduced a new assessment for learning policy – which included asking staff to think about more formative assessment in co-creation with students – so we are really building on that work, and doing more in a virtual way for the new academic year.
Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris is Dean of Learning and Teaching at the University of Portsmouth, and was a panellist on Explorance’s ‘Preparing for our ‘new normal’: how can effective student feedback help universities to survive and thrive in the next academic year?’ webinar on 24th June.
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