Category Archives: news

Then the lights went out…

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

The news is full of stories on the possibility of winter blackouts as the energy crisis continues to hit home.

So I wrote a blog post exploring this.

When I posted the link to my blog post on the Twitter, I did get this response.

I don’t disagree with people spending three hours staring at a flickering candle, but it would be nice if students had a choice about how to spend that three hours. It did though get me thinking, could I last three hours without coffee? Should I get a camping stove and use my stovetop espresso maker?

stove espresso maker
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

I also ordered a new power bank.

So, would the power just cut out? Well, I later read this from the Guardian: How would three-hour power cuts work if enacted in Great Britain? on how power cuts would work across England, Scotland and Wales.

People in England, Scotland and Wales are braced for the possibility of rolling power cuts this winter after a warning on Thursday from National Grid. The electricity and gas system operator has said households could face a series of three-hour power cuts

So how it would work is as follows:

… consumers in different parts of the country would be notified a day in advance of a three-hour block of time during which they would lose power. Households in different areas would then be cut off at different times or days, with the frequency rising depending on the severity of the supply shortage.

As a result if this is how it happens, then students probably would get notice that when they would lose power, that would given them time to charge up devices and download activities, resources and other content.

Of course the risk of this happening, according to the National Grid, is low, and dependent on a range of circumstances. Or another way of looking at, it will happen, and probably happen more often than is being reported. Or is that my just being a little too cynical?

When everything goes dark

Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

So how do students do online and digital learning without electricity or even connectivity?

The news is full of stories on the possibility of winter blackouts as the energy crisis continues to hit home. With the continuing prospect of restrictions in gas supplies across Europe, there is a strong chance with a extreme cold spell in the UK that there will be power rationing. This means that some parts of the UK will be dark. Students will face learning without light, power, heat or connectivity.

What can universities do to prepare for this potential likelihood?

How can you deliver high quality online learning without power or connectivity?

When the power goes out, this means no lights, no power, potentially no heating and no broadband. Of course a blackout also means as well no mobile signal, so no 4G. So though you may have a mobile device with enough battery power to use it, it you won’t be able to use the internet.

This means that if learning is to take place during a power cut, then it needs to be offline (downloaded), so it can be accessed without the internet.

It is important that any such learning activities are able to take place on (probably) a mobile device, with no connectivity. Mobile devices will have limited battery life, so though the idea of downloadable video content (recorded lectures) may be attractive, watching these can dramatically reduce the battery life of a device, so curtailing the amount of time it can be used for learning.

So how can universities prepare for low power asynchronous learning activities?

The obvious solution is to revert back to paper and candlelight as many students did in the 1970s. 

However fully charged devices with their own power source (batteries) provide the potential for digital learning despite there been no electricity.

It is likely that areas of the UK at risk of blackout will have some advance warning (as they did in the 1970s) of the risk of blackout, so allowing students a chance to download activities before the power cuts out.

If you’re not using video, you don’t have to be constrained by text, downloaded audio recordings and podcasts are possible options. Audio also means that the screen can be turned off (or turn the brightness down) again increasing battery life.

For example the high end iPhone 14 Pro on a full charge can deliver 29 hours of video playback. On a full charge it could also deliver 95 hours of audio playback. Of course those figures aren’t real-life experiences, and assumes the phone was fully charged when the power was cut.

Audio also doesn’t require light, so less need for lots of candles or torches.

Delivering audio as a subscribed podcast, means that the device will probably have downloaded the content already in the background, so will be available for listening when the power cuts out.

There will probably still need to be a reliance on contingency planning to ensure that students are aware of what they can do, and are able to do when everything goes dark.

They may not want to actually learn whilst it is dark.

There is the further challenge of what to do when the campus goes dark.

Learning during a blackout is always going to be a challenge, and for many students it will be something that they don’t do until the power comes back on. However universities can do some things that make at least some learning possible, so diminishing the impact of the blackout.

OfS launches new strategy targeting quality and standards

The Office for Students (OfS) is today launching its strategy for 2022 to 2025.

The strategy confirms two main areas of focus for the OfS’s work: quality and standards, and equality of opportunity.

The OfS’s work on quality and standards aims to ensure that students receive a high quality academic experience which improves their knowledge and skills. Much provision in the English higher education sector is excellent – the focus of the OfS will be on challenging provision that falls short, and taking action as needed.

On access and participation work, the OfS will encourage higher education providers to work in partnership with schools to raise attainment.

These two areas of focus are mutually reinforcing, with effective regulation of quality helping to ensure that students from all backgrounds have the support they need to succeed in and beyond higher education.

Speaking ahead of the launch of the strategy at a Parliamentary event later today [Wednesday], Lord Wharton, Chair of the OfS, said:

‘Our new strategy sets out a clear plan of action to achieve our goal of ensuring all students, regardless of their background, have a quality education and achieve successful outcomes.

‘Over the next three years we will take action to challenge universities and colleges offering students poor academic experiences. Courses that fall below our minimum requirements damage the quality of English higher education and harm the prospects of students from all backgrounds.

‘This new strategy will guide how the OfS will regulate in students’ interests over the next three years. Our focus on quality and equality of opportunity reflects the issues that are important to students, and which have the greatest impact on their experience. The strategy also sets out how we will support providers in their actions to address student mental health and prevent harassment and sexual misconduct.

‘We are committed to engaging with students as we deliver the strategy and will shortly be publishing refreshed student engagement priorities.’

Office for Students Strategy 2022 to 2025

Predicting is hard, and we can get it wrong

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

HEPI published a blog post on Five common predictions about COVID and education that now appear to be wrong.

No one would dispute that COVID-19 has severely disrupted the education of millions of people. Our polling with Advance HE, for example, shows an unprecedented proportion of undergraduate students think they have received ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value for money and twice as many as usual feel their experiences have been worse than their prior expectations.

This is not surprising, given full-time students on three-year courses graduating this summer will have had every one of their years at university disrupted. Those leaving school / college this summer have seen both their GCSEs and their school-leaving qualifications (A-Level / BTECs) affected. But it is also true that most of the really big predictions about how COVID would affect education have (fortunately) turned out to be wrong.

It makes for interesting reading. Predictions about fewer students, or higher drop-outs were wrong as it turned out.

Why does this matter, well the article summarises with this comment.

It is worth flagging how poor the predictions about education in a pandemic have turned out to be because it acts as a reminder about how hard it is to predict the future, because it could serve as a useful guide in future crises and because it shows the importance that hard counter-intuitive evidence should play in policymaking.

This is something that we can reflect upon.

One prediction made at the start of the pandemic by many involved in education technology was that the forced working from home would (post-pandemic) be a catalyst for more blended and online learning in higher education. The prediction was that following people being forced to use tools such as the VLE, Teams, Zoom, lecture capture, that this would embed such technologies into future teaching and learning. Well we know from the press this week that this may not be the case, with  Nadhim Zahawi talking in the Daily Mail that “Students made to pay tuition fees for Zoom lectures should revolt”. This kind of rhetoric makes any (current and future) use of online technologies challenging for universities. Benefits of online will be missed, as students will “revolt” regardless.

Later a more reasoned open letter was published on the Education Department website.

Many of our universities and colleges have been working hard to ensure Covid-secure face-to-face teaching is offered and I know that, for many of you, this face-to-face teaching is a vital part of getting a high-quality student experience. As you know, whilst the country was implementing wide-spread restrictions, the majority of teaching had to be moved online. There are some great examples of effective and innovative online teaching, and universities and colleges have been delivering a high-quality blended approach since before the pandemic. Maintaining the option of online teaching for those who are vulnerable or isolating is to be encouraged. However, face-to-face teaching should remain the norm and the pandemic and must not be used as an opportunity for cost saving or for convenience. I know that students expect and deserve face-to-face teaching and support, and you have my full backing.

But if universities were in any doubt about what they could do and what they should be doing, we had this from the Universities Minister.

The reality is that universities are now under pressure from Government and students to focus on and prioritise in-person face to face teaching.

So, the prediction that the pandemic restrictions and lockdowns would have a positive impact on the use of online and digital learning technologies across the board, may have been slightly off the mark.

I might predict that the job of embedding digital into higher education is now more difficult than it was before the pandemic.

What do you think?

Short, sharp, break

Big Ben
Image by Andreas H. from Pixabay

So no new measures being imposed today. Rumour has it though that the government will introduce a short sharp lockdown after Christmas to try and reduce the rate of increase in covid infections, and as a result lessen the impact on the NHS. 

I have read that one part of this is about Higher Education moving to remote (online) teaching, so that students stay at “home” rather than returning to campus. 

Due to the length of the rumoured lockdown, probably means that this will have less of an impact on the student experience than a longer lockdown we have experienced.

Will we see more effective delivery during this time? Let’s hope so, though there is even less of an impact than if there wasn’t. 

I have written a series of guides, I know guidance not help, that may be useful to those planning for this circuit breaker lockdown.

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.

Omicron on our doorstep, time to prepare for another lockdown

discarded mask
Image by Roksana Helscher from Pixabay

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about the possibilities of in-person teaching now that 90% of university students had had at least one Covid jab.

One thing we do need to recognise though, is that the pandemic is far from over. We may not go into another lockdown situation, but are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching? Hopefully we will start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we do need to be prepared, as that light may be further away than we think it is.

I also wrote

Also new variants can reduce the efficacy of the vaccines, as well as the fact that the efficacy of the vaccine declines over time.

On Saturday morning I was reading the news about the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

I posted this tweet.

By the afternoon the government announced that mask wearing in shops and on public transport would become mandatory again on Tuesday the 30th November.

The government also announced that face masks would be compulsory in educational institutions.

The measure, which applies from Monday, covers all education establishments including universities, as well as childcare settings such as early years care.

That light at the end of the tunnel now seems a litter further away than it did back at the beginning of November.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I also wrote in that earlier blog post:

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

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.

So I ask again are universities prepared to pivot again to online delivery and teaching?

Are we in a better position than we were before?

Well much of those early teething issues will have been resolved, and people will have a better idea of what to do. However I still think we will see just more translation, or lift and shift of existing in-person practice to remote delivery. What we won’t see is the transformation to what is possible, taking full advantage of the affordances of online and digital delivery. With a lift and shift approach it shouldn’t be a surprise that we will see complaints from students, zoom fatigue and so on…

Hopefully the vaccination rollout and mask wearing will reduce the chance of lockdown, but I would still be preparing for the possibilities of another lockdown regardless.

Supporting student transition to HE in a covid context

Published this week was the report from a workshop I worked on with the University of Cumbria and Advance HE.

The pandemic forced a swift move to online learning in March 2020 which for many was the first experience of teaching and/or learning in the virtual environment. The sector news focussed in the educational aspect of the move in that initial phase reporting on concerns of quality, parity and applauding the pace of change with the digital skills agenda. The announcement of further lockdowns meant the initial, emergency, move now needed to be re-shaped into a more considered response that would potentially lead to sustained change across the sector.

Supporting Student Transitions into HE was an excellent event in which many generously shared viewpoints and challenges and having such a variety of institutions and roles added to the richness of the content. A little later than expected, we have published a resource pack we have created as an output from the event. We hope you find is useful in drawing up plans for the new start of term in September and/or January.

No, no, no, yes, no, maybe

Earlier this week the BBC reported how the University of Manchester remote learning plan was being criticised by students.

A university’s plans to continue online lectures with no reduction in tuition fees has been criticised by students. The University of Manchester said remote learning, which it has used during the Covid-19 pandemic, would become permanent as part of a “blended learning” approach.

What is interesting is that most (if not all) universities are going down a similar road.

Today there was an update, the University of Manchester remote learning plan ‘was a misunderstanding’

UoM vice-president April McMahon said the use of the term “blended learning” had caused the confusion. She said most teaching would return to normal once restrictions were eased. Ms McMahon, UoM’s vice president of teaching, learning and students, said it had “never been our intention” to keep teaching online and any such suggestion was “categorically untrue”.

Once more shows the importance of a shared understanding  of key terms such as blended learning. Many now think of the emergency response and shift to remote delivery was blended learning, or even online learning. The reality was that this was remote delivery. Blended learning is something different, as is (good) online learning.

Locked down again

discarded mask
Image by Roksana Helscher from Pixabay

Monday evening saw an announcement from the Prime Minister that England was going to again go into a national lockdown, there were similar announcements from the devolved administrations.

Schools and colleges were to close to all students except for children of key workers and vulnerable children.

Unlike the first lockdown where universities across the UK initially unilaterally closed their campuses and sent students home, this time, as they did in November, the Government has provided guidance to universities on what they should be doing.

Unlike in March, in November universities were able to continue to deliver in-person teaching for specific groups.

This time however, though some students are able to return for in-person face to face teaching, other students were expected to remain at home.

Those students who are undertaking training and study for the following courses should return to face to face learning as planned and be tested twice, upon arrival or self-isolate for ten days:

        • Medicine & dentistry
        • Subjects allied to medicine/health
        • Veterinary science
        • Education (initial teacher training)
        • Socialwork
        • Courses which require Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) assessments and or mandatory activity which is scheduled for January and which cannot be rescheduled (your university will notify you if this applies to you).

Students who do not study these courses should remain where they are wherever possible, and start their term online, as facilitated by their university until at least Mid-February. This includes students on other practical courses not on the list above.

We have previously published ​guidance to universities and students on how students can return safely to higher education in the spring term​. This guidance sets out how we will support higher education providers to enable students that need to return to do so as safely as possible following the winter break.

If you live at university, you should not move back and forward between your permanent home and student home during term time.

For those students who are eligible for face to face teaching, you can meet in groups of more than your household as part of your formal education or training, where necessary. Students should expect to follow the guidance and restrictions. You should socially distance from anyone you do not live with wherever possible.

This third national lockdown isn’t entirely unexpected with the increase in case numbers and hospital admissions, however it does mean that universities will need to move to a remote teaching model as they did back in March.

girl with mask
Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

Will it be easier this time around?

As there was a phased return of students to campus, I suspect a lot of universities will have had their plans in place already. A few extra weeks will need to be added, but there is time (and hopefully the experience) to quickly switch from in-person to online. Staff will have the necessary technical skills now, gained through hard experience the first time Some staff will need to be on campus for in-person teaching and that creates new challenges as well.

I do think,  will they have adjusted their models of delivery to avoid just translating their curriculum, and will ensure that the curriculum takes advantage of the affordances of online delivery. Hopefully discussions would have taken place about what worked well last time and what needed to be improved. Students may also be in a better place, less of a shock this time. There are still issues with digital poverty, do all the students have the right devices and connectivity to learn online>

As with the first lockdown, this isn’t about switching some of the course online, as everything has to be delivered online, no blended learning here for most students. No doing what works well online and doing other parts of the course in-person. In addition we have the stress and pressures of a lockdown as well with social distancing, self-isolation, increased risk of infection from the variant virus, as well as home schooling and a stay at home policy.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

In the first lockdown one of the things I noticed as the education sector moved rapidly to remote delivery was the different models that people used. However what we did see was many people were translating their usual practice to an online version. As part of my work in looking at the challenges in delivering teaching remotely during this crisis period I had been reflecting on how teaching staff can translate their existing practice into new models of delivery that could result in better learning, but also have less of detrimental impact on staff an students. So I decided to write a series of blog posts about translating existing teaching practices into online models of delivery, which proved useful and popular with people.

See the list of blog posts on transforming and translation.