Creating a learning experience to support everyone
Universities across the UK have faced a huge challenge over the past year. The pandemic has reshaped fundamental parts of university life, from academic collaboration to the campus experience.
We’re sharing stories from university students, researchers, and leaders – to explore how they’ve continued their learning and research in the face of unprecedented restrictions.
We’ll also look at the potential of technology to reshape campus life and university success in the future.
In this blog, Emanuela Tilley, Professor of Engineering Education and Director of the Integrated Engineering Programme at University College London shares how she maintained an inclusive, accessible learning and working environment for all students and staff – no matter where they were based.
Taking learning back to the drawing board
As a campus-based university, UCL has always prided itself on having a vibrant and active physical community. However, during the pandemic, we’ve had to shift focus away from visiting the campus for face-to-face and interactive learning, and instead turn our attention to virtual learning.
Of course, this created a larger reliance on incorporating the right technologies into our teaching, to ensure we’re still providing the same world-class expertise as before. In response, the UCL academic community came together under the leadership and guidance of the central Digi-Ed Team and our UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education. With the incredible support from our dedicated departmental Connected Learning Leads and faculty-based Learning Technologists via our Learning Technology Unit (LTU), we were able to create online courses worthy of our students’ time and tailored to the various delivery styles of teaching that were previously available on campus.
For this we needed a transition that would give us flexibility, which meant providing a range of technical software to suit different teaching and research styles, and releasing guidance as opposed to hard and fast rules.
For us, creating a great range of engaging pre-recorded videos for students and slotting activities in between video links was one of the successful ways to consider the needs of our students and include everyone among our international student cohorts. It meant students could work through the lecture or workshop at their own pace, and international students could work around time zones. We also scheduled in live online learning sessions so students could engage with their academic leaders and peers at a frequency tailored to their learning requirements. The resulting engagement levels have been really high, which is so rewarding.
Travel restrictions associated with the pandemic mean students are learning from different locations around the world. Our primary concern has been that everyone has access to the learning support they need.
Our desire for inclusivity meant students were an integral part of the ongoing conversations around coordinating virtual learning. This is where software has helped us, as virtual forum boards and townhalls via video conferencing have enabled us to collect those points of views. One thing to come out of these discussions was that our heavier use of live online synchronous teaching needed closed captioning and transcription capabilities. This, of course, was also central to the best-practice standards we set out for pre-recorded videos available to students during their asynchronous learning.
Inclusivity is at the heart of this project – and that’s admittedly not always been easy. It’s sometimes hard to say ‘no’ to technology that works well as a whole, but simply isn’t inclusive enough. For example, some collaboration tools weren’t reliable in China or accessible to students with learning disabilities.
Stronger communication skills
Having gone through the transition to virtual teaching, we can see an increase in communication skills. This can seem counter-intuitive, but in many cases lecturers have reported that student engagement with virtual learning has been higher than expected. Being online has created a protective screen that’s enabled students to feel more confident in commenting via the “chat” function in live online learning sessions, rather than in the physical classroom or lecture theatre. In some cases, we’ve noticed that this has levelled the playing field among students particularly in larger cohorts.
This advantage also extends to university staff. Operating in the isolation of their homes and with limited access to libraries, they’ve been pushed into using software to share feedback on research with one another. In some ways we’ve been able to get back to the roots of what makes good research, which is collaboration and having access to a variety of different sources.
From a business perspective, the change management skills of those within the university is also enhanced. Being propelled into a crisis has given UCL exposure to dealing with change in a short space of time – not something that’s traditionally practiced regularly. By focusing on our ‘crisis mode’ we’ve thought more about how we report challenges and what technology should be within this process. We’ve now realised that nothing is permanent, which is underlining the need for us to keep evolving and ensuring we stay up to date with technological innovations. Taking this approach will hopefully forge better sustainability for UCL in any future crises.
Better preparation for the workplace of the future
The pandemic has inadvertently advanced our online capabilities much further than we ever planned.
Having a virtual campus has unlocked new opportunities to develop UCL even further, so it would be unwise to lose these new benefits when normality returns. Going forward, I suspect we won’t go back to the traditional 20-30 hours of contact time per week. There’s certainly a balance to be struck here because there’s so much to be gained from being on campus interacting throughout the week. However, if I were looking into a crystal ball, it might be that 10-15 hours is what would constitute face-to-face contact time between staff and students, with the rest online, carefully designed and curated as part of their newly-formed blended learning experience.
Now with the software we’ve put in place over the past year, I truly believe we have the ability to make education much more tailored, accessible, and inclusive.
This chimes with the overall move within society to a more tech-savvy world. By implementing this approach and helping our students become more digitally literate and adaptive within a virtual educational environment now – we put them in good stead for the workplace of tomorrow.
Learn more about how technology is setting up the world of higher education for success in the future.