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Rachel Gowers, Director of Staffordshire University London, shares her insights on how they have responded to the coronavirus crisis and how the higher education sector must adapt to support students in the months to come

Higher education is changing. Universities around the UK are having to think on their feet and completely change the way that they are operating. Even as the Director of a university centred on digital education, this is unchartered territory.

At this point no one knows what the situation will be in September. The only thing that is for certain is that we will be opening our doors, whether physically or otherwise, and we must prepare for what that will look like.

Here are some of the scenarios we are working towards for 2021 and what we need to be doing to ensure we do the best to support students. 

Business as usual

In the first instance, we could go back to business as usual. Restrictions might be fully lifted, there may be testing, and we may be better able to safeguard our staff and students under the existing structures of the university.

In this eventuality, we will need to make sure everything can be in place as normal, from course timetables and Freshers week (or Welcome week as we call it) to allocating accommodation and keeping open communal spaces.

However, even in this outcome, there is always the chance that restrictions will be put back in place. As is already predicted, there will likely be another spike in cases, potentially leading to another lockdown, and we will need to adapt in order to ensure that we are fully prepared for this eventuality.

It’s highly unlikely that this will be the scenario that will take place. We need to be flexible going into the next academic year.

Fully virtual 

The next scenario is the complete opposite – we could look at a campus which was student free and everything online. In the event that strict rules are still in place and we have to remain isolated, universities will need to operate as we have been doing now by being fully online.

When we first went digital, this meant creating new systems for how we teach and connect. For lecturers, we created ‘how to’ videos to upskill colleagues in technologies like Blackboard Collaborate so they could continue to deliver lessons. We also made sure students had access to laptops and extra dongles if they had trouble with their Wi-Fi. At the moment this means we are able to hold live lessons and record them so students can catch up later – but they are encouraged to join live so they can interact with the material.

Outside of class, we offer online support sessions and virtual counselling as well as organising virtual activities like games tournaments to keep our community connected. Recently, we also held virtual open and taster days, where prospective students could go on virtual tours; take classes to meet the staff; chat with other applicants and understand what the year might be like.

All of this has been a useful exercise in preparing for the possibility of a fully virtual year next year and universities need to use this time wisely to figure out what works and what doesn’t. In particular, this means keeping a constant dialogue going with our students to understand how they are feeling and address any concerns they might have. We are also ensuring that we are being open and honest with them about what we can do to help.

Blended learning

This is going to be the most likely scenario we find ourselves in. This will be a situation where we will still need to keep up some level of social distancing, but we can have a mixture of some classes online and some in person. I call this a blended learning approach.

In this instance, for example, we could organise rotas which would look at some days where a number of students are allowed on campus and times where classes are completely delivered virtually. One way we could do this is front load the theoretical parts of the course digitally for the first part of the year, where the threat will be highest, and structure the second semester in blocks of ‘practical bootcamps’ so smaller groups can come in and learn in the classrooms and studios.

In the case of our Welcome week, we could arrange for welcome lectures to be delivered online and then alternate days for subjects and for the students to come in and meet each other.

There’s no denying coming together is a huge part of university life and we want to do our best to offer that to our students – when and where it is safe to do so.

In any eventuality, universities need to be preparing for multiple scenarios as we cannot predict which one will be a reality. There is a lot of work involved in this – of course – but this is also a clear opportunity for higher education to adapt and use this to our advantage. It’s time to innovate.

At Staffordshire University London, it has always been a focus of ours to ensure our students are equipped with the skills they need to enter the job market after their degree. We are preparing students to work in a digital age and what better way to do that than teach online and challenge them to adapt?

This is a difficult time for everyone, no matter what your background. But I hope that as a sector, we take what we have learnt throughout this period and use it to innovate and create new experiences for our students. I’m confident that if we embrace the changes then we will emerge from this global crisis with a fresh mindset that gives us the confidence to take on any challenge that comes our way.


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