Omicron is here!

laptop user wearing a mask
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Things move quickly when it comes to Covid variants and infection rates. Yesterday saw the highest recorded infection rate for Covid so far. With rates doubling every two days, in theory the entire population of the UK will be infected by early 2022 due to the exponential growth of the infection rate.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I published a blog post, Omicron on our doorstep, time to prepare for another lockdown, that said:

What we do know about the Omicron variant is that it is highly transmissible and with some of the population deciding to refuse to wear masks, I think it will only be a matter of time before we see rising infection rates and the possibility of another lockdown.

We now have new restrictions in place, with advice being to work from home and we have to wear masks on transport and in retail outlets.

Despite the government insistence that there won’t be a lockdown, universities do have a responsibility to their students for their health and welfare.

It was only at the beginning of November that I wrote about the possibilities of in-person teaching now that 90% of university students had had at least one Covid jab. Of course this means that many students are not double vaccinated and very few will have or be able to have the booster. We do know from the evidence that the medical impact of Covid on young people is not as severe as it is on the older generation, however not all students are in that young age group and the staff they interact with are usually older as well.

We may not go into another lockdown situation, but are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching?

I do wonder if any university designed their courses to be responsive (or as I called them back in the day hybrid).

With a responsive 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.

These responsive courses will allow universities to easily clarify with students about their experience and how they potentially could change as restrictions are either lifted or enforced. It helps staff plan their teaching and assessments to take into account the environment and changes to the situation.

Of course this is all challenging and makes many assumptions about staff digital skills and fluency, as well as their pedagogical capabilities. 

Designing an in-person programme of study is challenging enough, but if you have been doing for some time (as in years) you have some idea of what works and what doesn’t work. Despite the emergency response to the first lockdowns, it was evident from the discussion I had with academics that most found it very challenging to designing an online programme of study, it didn’t help of course that we were in the middle of a global pandemic. We know that the student experience for many students was poor, despite the fact that academic staff were working hard and were exhausted. Some of this was down to merely translating or digitalisation of existing in-person programmes to an online format, which we know can work, but in most cases loses the nuances of what made that in-person experience so effective and doesn’t take advantage fo the affordance of what digital and online can bring to the student experience.

What can be done is to prepare staff in the possible move to online, with support, guidance and importantly clarity about where to get help if and when studying moves online.

Support can take many forms, from the technical where something isn’t working. The application, how do I do this, using this tool? Also pedagogically, I want to do this, how do I do this online? Guidance is only part of the solution, access to help when required is also essential.

Finally now would be a good time to a manage student expectations and also what the university will expect from them.

Hopefully this surge in cases is controlled by changes in behaviour and mask wearing, and that the medical impact of Omicron is minimised through vaccination, boosters and the fact that it may not be as nasty as other variants. However not to prepare, just in case, would be foolish.

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