Vice-Provost’s View: What the coronavirus pandemic has taught us about UCL education

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs) reflects on education during the coronavirus pandemic, what we’ve learned, and what a UCL education might look in the future.

Writing this Vice-Provost’s View during the third national lockdown, it is still way too early to stand back from the last 12 months and seek to put into perspective what this pandemic has meant for UCL education. What from these past months will stay with us and shape the future and what we will deem unsuccessful and quietly forget. But this is a moment to look back on the last year and begin to build a picture of what has gone well, sometimes surprisingly so, and what has not gone so well.  

We all know a lot more about viruses than we did a year ago and words and phrases like lockdown and social-distancing will remain in our memories forever. Words have also been annoyingly overused for stating the obvious - unprecedented comes to mind. But one thing is clear, we have all been impacted by the pandemic in myriad different ways - uncertainty, loneliness, home schooling, and complex caring responsibilities to name but a few of the challenges.  

The response from staff and students has been phenomenal and inspiring, demonstrating extraordinary commitment, creativity and resilience. 

Some things we’ve observed

Blended learning
UCL, like most of the higher education sector around the world, has delivered the majority of its programmes remotely with face-to-face interactions severely limited. Blended learning, combining online learning and interactions with face-to-face teaching, can be very effective, and we know what we need to do to make it even better. This is not only about providing tools, training and resources, but crucially, staff planning and thinking time.  Blended learning accommodates the diverse learning styles of our students and some students have really appreciated aspects of online learning, such as being able to study at their own pace. But we’ve also found that students need guidance early on in their studies to know when to stop studying and how to manage their workloads. Not studying alongside friends and peers, not only removes the sense of community and camaraderie, but it also takes away those checks and balances by which we all intuitively measure our progress.

Assessment 2019-2020
The rapid switch from face to face written invigilated assessments to online remote assessment went well, despite some anxiety about the pace of change. Through our June pulse survey, we learned that students valued the greater authenticity offered by open book and capstone formats, and reduced the stress that many felt travelling to an off campus location to sit their exams. Their performance in their modules confirmed the evidence from many staff that students had produced exceptionally good work.  The adaptations made by staff, the hard work of students and the emergency ’no detriment’ safety net meant that an unusually large number of First class and Distinction awards were made. In addition, a number of elements within the BAME awarding gap were closed or eliminated. This has encouraged us to look into the fine-grained detail of what caused the better outcomes for BAME students to see what elements of this assessment practice we can continue.

Thank you again to all staff who adapted 3,300 assessments that replaced all first year examinations with a single capstone assessment and to our students, who rose to the challenge of remote assessment much better than they had anticipated and feared

Assessment 2020-2021
While the Moodle performed well under loads never experienced before, it became clear that we needed to accelerate plans for a dedicated  digital assessment platform. In summer 2020 we began the search for a robust system capable of delivering the many benefits of digital assessment. We completed testing in January and all centrally managed assessments will go through the new platform this year. Appreciating the pressure that staff and students are under, we will operate the AssessmentUCL platform in the most straightforward way possible, replicating last year’s operation as far as we can, with a few enhancements prioritised by staff. The central examinations team will manage the production of the exam timetable and the uploading of exam papers, and will ensure that students have the right access to the right papers. All exams will be open-book and while many will be taken within a 24-hour window, the new platform means we can support some exams of a shorter timeframe. Staff can use the enhanced set of AssessmentUCL tools for marking, or download scripts and mark using the same tools that were available last year.

In future, the new platform will give us much greater flexibility to design exams and assessments using a wider range of assessment types. Our students will be able to sit exams using their own electronic devices, remotely or in a face to face environment using a lock down browser. The platform will also help us to streamline marking and feedback and, in time, seamlessly integrate grades with our student records system. We will continue to pilot its use in 2021 for any department who wishes to use it.

What our students are telling us
Our students are really missing life on campus - not only access to our libraries and study spaces, but also the chance to cement friendships, build networks and get involved in all the fantastic opportunities to develop their skills and experience outside their programmes. As restrictions due to the pandemic ease, they want us to prioritise interactive teaching and learning activities for the return to campus.  

Nevertheless, some things we offer as part of university life have seen increased engagement since our pivot online. Our Careers Service, for example, reports better and broader engagement, and more students have joined student enterprise events during this period. 

We need to understand better the formats that work best for our students, whether within their programmes or alongside them.

Here, as in all our work, student partnership has been and remains critical. The Students’ Union sabbatical officers have played a central role in our response throughout the pandemic, providing challenge and advice as we formulated policy and approach to education and the student experience. There has been wider engagement too, from student reps raising issues with departments and working in partnership to solve them, to transition mentors supporting our new students through their first months, and Connected Learning interns, students recruited to work with their departments to enhance online learning. 

Continuing support

Assessment continues to be a focus for enhancement across UCL, especially at programme level. This year, in consultation with the Faculties, the Arena Centre for Research-based Education (Arena) has produced new guidance on assessment types that capture the full range of learning outcomes and how to design an appropriate student assessment load whilst avoiding assessment bunching - an issue that students raised in this year’s Students Union report. The pilot Transforming Experience for Students Through Assessment (TESTA) initiative showed a largely positive experience, but also revealed a clear picture of other issues that need further work, including diversifying assessment, reducing volume of assessment on some programmes and clarifying our expectations of standards.

Arena is offering Programme design workshops for new programmes ahead of PMAP approval. These workshops are also available for programmes that want to review their learning, teaching and assessment patterns.  They have been used successfully across UCL this year in supporting new UG and PG programmes, especially at UCL East. Speak to your faculty’s Arena Advisor to arrange.

Other support from Arena includes Connected Learning Essentials (soon to be updated) and associated live sessions , including sessions from digital education and student support and wellbeing; and online courses on UCL eXtend for research supervisors and personal tutors. Each faculty has support from named individuals in Arena and in Digital education - do get in touch if there is some aspect of your practice you want to change and would appreciate input on possible approaches.

The next Education Strategy

Everyone is working extraordinarily hard and I am acutely aware that there is little or no capacity for new initiatives right now. In normal times, this year would be the final one for the Education Strategy 2016 - 2021 and we would be discussing together what UCL education should look like over the next 5 years. I have agreed with Academic Board and Council that we should pause this for 12 months, to give everyone a chance to re-group and recover.  

The next Education Strategy needs to reflect all the progress that has been made and of course the ideas and thinking that our new President and Provost, Dr Michael Spence, brings to UCL. It also needs to capture the positive experiences for students and staff of the last twelve months and our increasing confidence with changing pedagogical and social approaches. 

We are clear about our ambition for our students - that they have an excellent education that stretches and challenges them to create and use knowledge wisely in their careers - but what are their aspirations? The voices of our students will be key to our thinking. We’re embarking on some work to find out from our recent alumni what they think was distinctive about the education they received at UCL, and just as importantly, what they think was missing. As I prepare to step away from the Education portfolio, I look forward to working with my successor and hope that a hallmark of the next UCL Education Strategy will be that it is co-created with our students.


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