In an entirely expected move, the country faced a second wave of covid-19 and as a result there is now a second lockdown in place (in England to the 3rd December. Unlike the first lockdown where universities across the UK initially unilaterally closed their campuses and sent students home, this time the Government has said universities should remain open. Despite that guidance a fair few universities have moved their provision back online as they did back in March.
It’s interesting to see how things keep changing adding much more to an uncertain future across the higher education sector. Back at the end of June as we started to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown I wrote a blog post wondering if we needed to worry so much about planning for online delivery for September.
Over the last couple of months in lockdown I have written various blog posts about the challenges that universities and colleges have faced with their emergency response to dealing with the coronavirus lockdown and planning for a new academic year amidst, translation and transformation, hybrid curriculum, social distanced campuses and a huge helping of uncertainty. That uncertainty is certainly a big challenge and in the last few days we have seen the government make big changes to the lockdown restrictions in place, and have planned further easing of lockdown.
In that blog post I was certainly overtly cautious about might happen.
Much has changed this week, and this means universities and colleges need to be more flexible and responsive as restrictions flex and change. We might see (hopefully) further easing of restrictions, but if the infection rate rises, then we might see a potential second wave and more restrictions imposed.
As the weeks went by and we saw gyms, cinemas, restaurants and barbers reopen, as well as none-essential shops. I did think that by September that universities would be a good position to have relatively open campuses, face to face teaching with some elements of their programmes online. So overall creating a positive student experience. Maybe, just maybe, universities wouldn’t need to worry as much as thought they might in designing and delivering courses online in the next academic year. Then again maybe they needed to.
I also knew that covid-19 hadn’t vanished, it was still there and as the cases grew in August I did start to think that we probably would, as predicted by many scientists, that there would be a second wave. Chatting with a few people in August, it was apparent that across many universities where was still concerns about social distancing and reducing the risk of infection, so plans were still being made to deliver blended or hybrid programmes, at least until January. The local lockdowns then happening regionally, demonstrated once more the need for effective flexible, responsive curriculum planning.
With the return of students to university in September, sadly we saw a huge spike in cases at many universities across the UK.
Initially there were a few cases as I shared in this blog post about the situation in the middle of September. We saw major news stories on a halls of residence in Dundee, but as the week progressed more infections were being reported.
Within a week it all went crazy and I wrote about that situation in this blog post. Thousands of students across the UK were being forced to self-isolate as infections rose across the student population.
Initial press coverage was quite negative and I did write the following
So the higher education sector is facing real challenges as covid-19 infections result in self-isolation, local lockdowns and the resulting impact on learning and teaching, what they need now is support and help in working through this.
Wonkhe went into more detail about what is happening at universities right now, and why?
The anti-student sentiment continued, so much so, that Johnson in a press conference actually was quite sympathetic towards the student situation.
One result of the increased number of infections and self-isolation was a lot of universities were moving back to online teaching.
… the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University both said they will move more learning online. The University of Sheffield said all teaching will move online … Sheffield Hallam said it will increase the proportion of online teaching, but keep some on-campus.
Both universities (Newcastle and Northumbria) said they had extensive plans in place to support students. Earlier today they said they would move most of their teaching online in response to the outbreaks.
The two main universities in Manchester are teaching online until “at least” the end of the month after a coronavirus outbreak among students. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and the University of Manchester (UM) said it was a “collaborative decision” with public health bosses and “won’t impact” on teaching quality.
The situation over the next few weeks didn’t get any better, and alas across the country as a whole, there were more cases, more hospital admissions and sadly more deaths.
At the end of October the crisis resulted in a new second national lockdown to reduce the rising cases and deaths. However unlike the first lockdown schools, colleges and universities were to remain open.
Many universities, as noted above, have moved their provision back online, but are still keeping their campuses open, so the students can remain in halls. However before the lockdown started the BBC reported that a mass exodus of students was expected as lockdown starts.
Students in cities across England could begin a mass exodus back to their families ahead of new lockdown measures coming into force on Thursday. Hilary Gyebi-Ababio, National Union of Students vice president for higher education, said students were “really wanting to go home”.
The UCU said last week that universities must move online for new national lockdown.
This has implications for universities which were already struggling with delivering a blended curriculum in and around strict social distancing and mask requirements. They will need to think carefully about how the curriculum will need to change if face to face teaching is no longer possible or viable. This isn’t just about the students, the teaching staff (who may be more at risk of serious complications with covid-19) may also not want to be on campus during the lockdown.
Though the Government has said that the lockdown will stop on 3rd December, if it doesn’t then that adds more uncertainty, even if it does, certain areas will remain in Tier 3.
As I have written before about implementing a hybrid curriculum will help universities deal with this uncertainty. With a hybrid course, some sessions are physical face to face sessions. There are live online sessions and there are asynchronous online sessions. In addition there could be asynchronous offline sessions as well. You may not want to be online all the time! Some sessions could be easily switched from one format to another. So if there is a change in lockdown restrictions (tightening or easing) then sessions can move to or from online or a physical location. Alas designing flexible, responsive, hybrid curriculum does take not just time, but also expertise. I don’t think you can easily assume staff have the relevant digital skills, capabilities and experience to design, develop and build such curriculum models. There is a lot more to this then merely providing the guidance, training and support. Where do you start for example? What works and what doesn’t? Trying to do this all during a national lockdown just creates even more headaches. I am going to review the hybrid blog post soon and publish an updated version.
We’re in an uncertain world in which the situation appears to be constantly changing creating planning headaches for universities, not just in terms of learning, teaching and assessment, but the entire student experience.
As I said back in June and again in September, what we do know is that the future is uncertain and this uncertainty looks like it is going to last sometimes.