This is the first of many posts regarding how our member institutions are responding to the new challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. UALL's hope is that by sharing these practices, we can provide new approaches and tips to all our members and colleagues during these difficult times.
New Approaches at Leeds
The University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre (LLC) has responded very quickly in developing models of delivery for all its programme provision as well as its work in outreach, academic skills, general student support and student/staff wellbeing. We are also keen to contribute to the University’s impressive civic engagement at this time.
A key aspect of the LLC’s work with its students, outreach participants and indeed staff has always been and remains the importance of community and engendering a sense of belonging and wellbeing. We are continually seeking ways to problem solve issues of digital exclusion which are particularly pertinent for our part-time and mature learners from under-represented communities.
At present, the main platforms for the work of the LLC are i) Microsoft Teams for staff and student engagement ii) Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for teaching, group and external participant activity. However, we are flexible about how we are in contact with individual students as we strive to support their study at this time. Our student cohort includes those who are key workers as well as many with caring and other responsibilities.
Below are some examples of the activity that has been undertaken by the LLC over the past two weeks. This concludes with reflections from Nadine Cavigioli, one of our teaching staff on the changed teaching and learning environment.
Student support and wellbeing:
· Our preparatory academic-skills Kickstart provision for all LLC students is now delivered online.
· In order to address student isolation, we have developed a yammer group to enhance peer support and an informal lunchtime drop-in with the Student Support Officer entitled ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’.
· Established a daily, alternate daytime/evening, Academic Skills Room for students to gather, ask questions and discuss issues alongside the flexible 1-1 support over the telephone and online via Teams.
· Bespoke academic webinars for mature students using Blackboard Collaborate.
· Development of a guide to online learning targeted at both LLC and other mature students at the University of Leeds.
· Synchronous Sessions on ‘Introduction to Student Finance’, ‘Studying as a Mature Student’ and curriculum tasters have already been delivered and recorded. These were well attended and well received. Feedback indicated that participants appreciated the interactivity, immediate response to questions and friendly staff. Lessons learnt include:
o Facilitators to ensure clear and concise introductory guidelines
o Sessions best kept short to retain interest when not face to face
o Dedicated member of staff present throughout to support with technology
o Develop additional activity to build participant’s digital confidence
· Maintaining an engaged social media presence across all main platforms and piloting live interactive sessions on Facebook and Instagram. Seeking many ways of interacting as possible in addition to being an information hub for adult learners and local organisations
· Using our staffing and online resource capacity to support local partner organisations in any appropriate way. We are now responding to requests from the third sector which include; volunteer training, developing sessions relevant to staff in community settings and bespoke impartial Information, Advice and Guidance sessions for specific groups. In addition, we have developed a weekly newsletter which offers organisations a platform to increase their profile and awareness of the services they are offering at this time.
Staff Wellbeing and Community Building
· A ‘fun and chat’ channel in Microsoft teams
· A periodic lunchtime get together for a) games and b) craft and chat
· A weekly, evening, virtual ‘pub quiz’ for staff and students, promoting an informal and fun sense of continued community.
The following are areas of work that we are now considering:
· Online Learning Community activity for current and potential students over the summer
· Preparing prospective mature and part-time students for online learning
· Identifying ways of increasing support for mature student graduates into post graduate study or employment
Nadine’s reflections on Foundation Degree and BA Learning and Teaching:
Having face-to-face sessions quickly shifted to being online during this global pandemic has been a challenge for both staff and students. A high number of the mature students on our part-time learning and teaching degree are also key workers. Whilst I do not have the formal training to be an online educator, my MA and EdD in education both focused on the social and emotional dimensions of blended learning. In considering the student experience, the following present a few examples of what have been foremost in my mind during these last few weeks:
1. Feeling overwhelmed: Creating a supportive and empathetic online atmosphere.
The use of humour and modelling imperfection (e.g. it’s fine to make a ‘mistake’ during this new unplanned mode of learning). Consideration of barriers to learning for students interacting online (e.g. fears about public writing and the permanence of online text). Giving reassurance that spelling/grammatical errors are not a concern.
2. Multiple distractions at home: Keeping it simple.
Organising learning activities into small chunks, with a clear link to the learning objectives. Being flexible in our expectations.
3. Increased life commitments and responsibilities: Clear communication
Regular updates/ reminders. Clearly sign posting online learning, with direct links to resources (so students don’t need to find them). Avoiding text heavy communications; a 3-5-minute audio clip can create added reassurance whilst breaking down the details of a task/ assessment. Consideration of tutor to student and student to student modes of communication, such as offering choice in the mode of personal tutorials (e.g. phone/ video conferencing).
4. The digital divide and self-doubt: Checking access to technology and student feelings related to learning online.
Mature students are often sharing their desktop/laptop with multiple others (e.g. children studying online). Also, not all students will have a reliable internet connection. New learning activities, such as synchronous sessions, may not be accessible for all and there is a need to keep the introduction to new software to a minimum.
5. Feeling isolated: informal online peer support community, fostering connectedness and a sense of belonging.
An informal (non-cognitive) online space. Recent examples from our OPSC include:
· Buddhify meditation app (reducing anxiety)
· learningonscreen.ac.uk (access to programme content)
· live streams (member of staff reading poetry; link to the National Theatre productions).
· Online mental health support
· Online yoga classes
· Podcasts (BBC Radio 3 Slow Radio)
· Sly and The Family Stone – Dance to the Music (motivation) · www.actionforhappiness.org – a daily reminder of how to cope during April 2020.
Many of us in the lifelong learning sector have not been trained as online educators. Similarly, most of our mature and part-time students did not sign up to be online learners.
But we can share good practice whilst having empathy and compassion in supporting our peers, students and ourselves during these unprecedented times.
We would really welcome the opportunity to discuss practice with UALL colleagues.