This week we saw new Covid measures put into place across the UK to try and reverse the increase in coronavirus infections over the last few weeks. The impact of these coronavirus restrictions on the student experience is starting to surface, from the students breaching social distancing at an open air cinema at Exeter to Abertay in Dundee in Scotland where hundreds of students are being told to isolate. Public health officials at NHS Lothian were investigating a coronavirus cluster at Edinburgh Napier University’s Bainfield student accommodation. A number of people tested positive and contacts were being traced and told to isolate for two weeks. But the university remained open though, with students and staff who haven’t been asked to self-isolate have been told to attend as normal.
This must be causing challenges for universities as they respond to new restrictions and need to adapt their curriculum delivery models as a result, as well as ensuring the wellbeing of those students affected.
The Government are clear about what they expect from the sector:
We will introduce new restrictions in England, but not a return to the lockdown in March; we’ll ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open.
It was back in June I wrote a blog post asking if we needed to worry so much about the immediate future. Then, things were starting to look a little more positive. 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. However 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.
Then in August I discussed the uncertainty that the higher education sector were facing was causing real challenges for planning and preparation.
Chatting with a few people, 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 recent local lockdowns now happening regionally, has demonstrated once more the need for effective flexible, responsive curriculum planning. Though we may see a national lockdown if there is a critical second wave, the current thinking from government appears to be to control local spikes with local lockdowns.
At the time of writing that post, universities were concerned about falling student numbers, expecting many students to defer for a year. Then we had the exams algorithm fiasco, so suddenly universities which were worrying about not enough students, faced having more students than they planned for, with more students then places achieving the required grades. This has caused additional planning headaches for many universities, combined with putting in safeguards for social distancing.
So now we’re in a new, but just as, uncertain place where we have new restrictions, local lockdowns and the threat of a second wave which could result in a second national lockdown.
This uncertainty means that universities will still need to be responsive in how they deal with the various restrictions that are in place, but also responding to pockets of infection and isolation of parts of their student population.
I have written about implementing a hybrid curriculum that could help universities deal with these new levels of 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), students self-isolating then sessions can move to or from online or a physical location.
This needs to be more than the emergency response we saw in March and April and universities have recognised this and undertake huge amounts of effort and work to ensure that courses are better orgaised and planned. Their students will be expecting more than simple translation of physical face to face sessions to remote online formats. The online sessions need to be reflect the fact they are online and not in a physical space.
Alas designing flexible, responsive, hybrid curriculum does take not just time, but also expertise. Term has started, so time is limited. 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? There are subject and cohort differences. A model that fits one university, may for various reasons not fit another.
Another big issues for universities will be dealing with the non-academic side of student life, for those who are self-isolating. Back in March students were told to go home, now they are being told so self-isolate in their accommodation. There are questions there about how they will get food and will they cook, can they still use shared kitchens? It’s one thing to be in the family home, another to be stuck in a single room in halls. How are you going to support student wellbeing in such an environment. Then there is the issue of non-compliance, how will universities deal with that? Will they want to?
As I said back in August, what we do know is that the future is uncertain and that we probably will still need to wash our hands just as often.