Today’s blog was kindly contributed by Professor Emma McCoy, Interim Vice-Provost (Education and Student Experience) at Imperial College London. You can find the Imperial Learning and Teaching on Twitter @Imperial_LT
With the latest stage of lockdown restrictions having been lifted in May, universities’ campuses have welcomed back students who have had limited face-to-face teaching since last March and are now wrapping up the year. While the past year has been challenging, I have been amazed at how resilient and innovative both staff and students have been in meeting the demands of teaching and learning during COVID-19.
Crises have a tendency to spur innovation and accelerate progress. As students and staff prepare to settle in to the ‘new normal’ of university education, the lessons we have learnt during the pandemic must be taken forward and built upon.
As the only major university in the UK to teach solely STEM subjects at undergraduate level, we have faced particular challenges in delivering remote learning due to the high proportion of learning which traditionally requires a practical element. As set out in a recent interactive article, though, our ‘Ed Tech’ teams have been remarkably inventive in adjusting delivery: whether it is our portable ‘lab-in-the-boxes’ which allow first-year experiments to be done remotely anywhere in the world or virtual field trips for geology students.
While the relaxation of social distancing measures will mean many of these initiatives can be replaced again by in-person practical teaching and learning, undoubtedly there are many processes and innovations which should be maintained and developed. For instance, rethinking how assessment can be best designed to capture the potential of learners and how new feedback mechanisms can support students to consolidate their learning. It is undeniable that the pandemic and subsequent move to multi-mode delivery did allow (or indeed require) us to move faster and innovate in these areas – resulting in changes which we will want to maintain to some degree following the end of lockdown.
Universities will face unprecedented challenges in the coming months and years to support students whose learning has been affected by the pandemic. This includes not only existing students, but also new students who have seen over a year of disrupted studies at sixth form. A survey by exam board OCR published in March found that in nearly a third of schools surveyed, it was estimated that GCSE and A-level students had lost more than half of their teaching time over their course. Despite the hard work of teachers to reduce attainment gaps, these challenges are be most acute for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is incumbent on universities to provide additional, tailored support for both existing and incoming students. At Imperial, our mA*ths online programme is helping to support sixth form students to develop the skills and confidence they need to achieve an A* in A-level Mathematics, with a focus on prioritising students who are under-represented in higher education.
For current students, additional resources and support have been made available through our library services and staff pastoral network. We know that students also garner skills and confidence from others in their own cohort and beyond. Therefore, we have encouraged our community to continue mentoring opportunities and maintain the link between newer and older students.
Already, Imperial has provided additional support for over a hundred students who lost their place on courses as a result of the A-level examinations U-turn last year. Our Mandated Deferral Support Package gives access to Maths and Business School MOOCs, a live module of ‘Creativity for Academic Purposes’, a mentor from their future department, live sessions from student services such as the Library and Careers Service and associate membership to the Imperial College Union – meaning they can join and participate in student societies and activities.
I have no doubt, though, that supporting multiple cohorts with specific needs simultaneously will require further investment and attention. As well as educational challenges, universities will need to continue to be mindful of the impact of the last year on students’ wellbeing, with different cohorts and groups of students needing tailored support. These challenges accentuate the importance of proper evaluation of interventions and sharing of best practice across higher education.
At the same time, universities will need to consider how to best support their students who are graduating into an uncertain job market, as well as how they can support lifelong learning. While this latter objective has been a priority area for many institutions in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought to the fore the importance of upskilling and reskilling due to shocks to the labour market. Despite this, data from the CBI shows that there has been a sharp rise in the number of businesses cutting training expenditure since the pandemic hit.
It is crucial that universities work proactively with employers and individual workers to expand opportunities for upskilling and reskilling. The Industrial Strategy Council has shown that 80 per cent of the 2030 workforce is already working today, so upskilling and retraining is essential to the UK’s future prosperity. At Imperial, we are responding to these trends: our new two years part-time Master’s in machine learning and data science will be admitting its first cohort this coming year, helping to upskill and reskill those who are wanting to enter or progress in this increasingly important field of technology.
Regulators and the government also have a part to play in this space. While the planned introduction of Lifelong Loan Entitlement is to be welcomed, there is still some work to be done before many universities are able to offer modular and other flexible courses to learners in the way envisaged in the Augar Review. It is clear that the effects of COVID-19 will be felt by universities and students for years, if not decades, to come. But building on the innovations and lessons of the pandemic, the ‘new normal’ is also an opportunity to reassess our educational offer and drive forward progress in a way that benefits learners of all stages and backgrounds.