While COVID-19 continues to pose unprecedented challenges for our sector, staff and students at Staffordshire University are driving innovations that look set to strengthen future operations
As I enter my nineteenth day in self-isolation, with only my faithful Labrador for companionship, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible spirit and amazing initiatives that the Staffordshire University community has achieved in such a short space of time.
The last few weeks have felt like a lifetime and the world has changed beyond recognition, and this started me thinking about the historic challenges that higher education has faced. In the past, our sector has received criticism for failing to move with the times and being slow on the uptake – accusations that are becoming harder to justify with each passing day of the COVID-19 crisis.
We are currently living through change at pace the likes we’ve never seen before, which is why we asked people from across the Staffordshire University community to tell us what they have been doing differently as part of our ‘Act. Change. Thrive.’ (ACT) campaign. What is this experience teaching us about our ways of working, and which innovations can be retained after the COVID-19 crisis to inform a new and agile sector that can move forward with fresh eyes? One thing is certain: we cannot afford to return to ‘business as usual’.
Our preparations for homeworking started way before the transition actually happened. Our Senior Leadership Team could see what was to come and tasked areas to start planning the delivery of a ‘Virtual University’. It should therefore come as no surprise that the first ACT initiative came from our Planning and Business Intelligence Unit.
Liam Hassett, Senior Business Intelligence Analyst at Staffordshire University, said: “Our team were very proactive as we anticipated the need for homeworking for several weeks before the event. We had already tested our ability to work from home, and ensured that all staff were able to do this. Laptops [and other equipment] were sorted [and allocated] before our University officially began to work remotely.”
In addition to facilitating this transition, acting early to ensure that staff had access to the equipment needed to work remotely also offered an opportunity to upskill those who were less confident using this technology. Our approach has been a significant advantage in terms of the seamless continuation of lectures, seminars and assessment support required by our students.
Dr Rachel Bolton-King, Associate Professor of Forensic Science at Staffordshire University’s School of Law, Policing and Forensics, said: “Our team had a consistent, positive and completely open mindset when embarking on this journey, which enabled us to adopt innovative ways of working and always put our students at the forefront of our minds.
“For example, we quickly created ‘how to’ videos to upskill our colleagues, with instructions for the delivery of pre-recorded lectures in the form of videos within Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, assessment and engagement with online activities through Blackboard, and live teaching using Collaborate.”
Francesca Cornwall, a Lecturer within the Education Department at Staffordshire University’s School of Life Sciences and Education, has found the transition to online teaching was only a small step for some staff. “I was already using Microsoft Teams, so the swift move over to using this as the primary mode of learning rather than just a supplement has not been too difficult,” she explained. “I have ensured digital learning materials can be picked up and put down at a time and place suitable for the students. Rather than broadcasting live, I have pre-recorded onto PowerPoint presentations and embedded interactive tasks such as forms and links within these channels and resources. Once stored and uploaded, these files act as the main points from which all other activities can branch.
“Something that has come into sharp focus is the need to keep learning ‘human’, so tutorials are largely audio-visual in nature. Feedback from students has been positive; they have enjoyed the interactive tasks and found them really helpful for their assessments.”
Debra Hayes, Personal Assistant to the Dean of Staffordshire University’s School of Life Sciences and Education, added: “Some areas within our School were already using Microsoft Teams to great effect. While others had resisted digital change in the past, within two days, all 90 staff were online and those with more experience of the system were paired with less experienced colleagues. It is the best ‘buddy’ system I’ve seen.”
From the moment the prospect of remote learning was proposed, we knew that one of biggest challenges was going to be around the delivery of practical sessions. As is the case for most modern higher education institutions, Staffordshire University offers lots of these opportunities, as we have always focused on the development of skills that our students need in the real world.
Matt Lewis, a Technical Specialist in Digital Media Production from Staffordshire University’s Technical Services department, explained how his team tackled the challenge of retaining live projects with our Journalism students. “Our Journalism students take part in weekly broadcast news days to simulate the types of industry environment they’ll encounter during their careers. On a typical news day, students make use of our specialist broadcast facilities, such as radio studios and television news sets, participating in morning editorial meetings, script-writing sessions, editing audio and video interviews, compiling running orders, and broadcasting TV and radio bulletins.
“To ensure that our students can continue their studies and don’t miss out on these experiences, we’ve set up an online equivalent. We’ve used Blackboard Collaborate to create an online newsroom for editorial meetings and conversations, and students are continuing to edit audio and video with the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, which has been made available for free until 31 May 2020.
“We’ve also set up a central upload and download repository so that scripts and audio-visual files can be added, ready for broadcast. Students are presenting radio bulletins from their homes using Skype, which is managed by technical specialists who cue up pre-recorded files. Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) allows students to stream to YouTube, and private YouTube links are enabling academic staff to listen to and assess broadcasts, with feedback being provided via Blackboard Online Newsroom. Last week, our students presented from locations as disparate as India, rural Ireland and Surrey, and the broadcast proved just as successful when we use our on-site facilities.”
Our University research communities have also devised innovative ways to keep going through the COVID-19 crisis. Dr Claire Gwinnett, Professor of Forensic and Environmental Science at Staffordshire University’s School of Law Policing and Forensics and member of the Forensic Fibre and Microplastic Research Group, said: “The research group’s work is primarily lab and field based so COVID-19’s lockdown could have caused a huge issue in terms of continuing experiments, current research projects and the creation of learning experiences for students and external stakeholders.
“We therefore took the decision to create ‘lockdown labs’ at home, which we link together digitally via Microsoft Teams, allowing us to collaborate in our virtual lab. Our lockdown labs are safe environments that contain microscopes, lab consumables, camera set-ups and audio equipment to record lab sessions and create learning materials while also analysing fibre and microplastic samples.
“We have a variety of lockdown lab types, including converted shed that is being used to assess the effect of microplastics on crop growth. We’ve produced ‘how-to’ videos in our lockdown labs to enable students and external researchers to learn more about our research. We’ve also created virtual reality-based activities using images of our samples to immerse students in our research at the University, and we are currently creating an interactive VR activity that showcases samples from our most recent publication in forensic hair examination.”
While it was difficult to gauge how our students would adapt to online teaching, teams from across our University have reported extremely positive engagement since our transition to remote learning.
Edward Stanhope and Rebecca Warnett, who run the Staffordshire University Sports Therapy Clinic that Lecturer Steve Batmen set up in 2011, providing students with the skills and confidence to practice after graduation, explained: “The SUST Clinic is extremely popular and, for many individuals, offers a vital service that allows them to continue with activities related to both daily living and sport. The impact of COVID-19 posed a threat to this service and, without the action of the Sport Therapy team and clinic supervisors, many of our service users would have felt increased isolation and could have seen their conditions worsen.
“To ensure continuity of our service, we now run a daily interactive neuromusculoskeletal advice clinic using Microsoft Teams. The technology allows our students to continue to interact face-to-face – or at least screen-to-screen – with patients experiencing difficulties, and to continue to offer advice and guidance when people may it most. The service has proven extremely popular and we are proud to be able to continue offering support to our users.
“While online consultation has its limitations, students have risen to the challenge, not only by adapting to our new environment but also by broadening their communication skills and developing new ways of providing advice and guidance remotely. This unfortunate situation has presented students with new opportunities that previously may have been overlooked. For example, many are now administering exercise and treatment plans digitally, which has made the service accessible to individuals who may previously have been unable to attend our clinic in person. Furthermore, it has provided a sense of support to those within our community who rely on these services to function pain-free and without anxiety.”
Staffordshire University students come in many forms and, over the last few years, we’ve welcomed an ever-growing community of degree apprentices. These students, who work in real-world jobs for 80 percent of their time, are juggling their studies with demanding careers. The team behind the Institute of Policing, which includes Craig Smith and Martin Steventon, have taken what was a face-to-face induction process for the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship programme and – in only two days – turned it into an online service known as COACH.
“COACH stands for Course Onboarding and Communications Hub, and is facilitated solely by Microsoft Teams,” John explained. “Within COACH, students go through the entire induction via a series of videos, which use screen capture to show students exactly how to access materials and operate University systems. It saves time, effort and, most importantly, has drastically improved our student experience. I can’t see us changing back to face-to-face inductions once COVID-19 has passed, as this system is simple, effective and fantastic.”
Dr Alyson Nicholds, Associate Professor of Business Management at Staffordshire Business School (SBS) and Programme Lead for the Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship, adapted classes to focus on a topic all apprentices are currently facing.
“Our students are all in senior leadership positions, so we used the class to reflect critically on how they were leading and managing change within their respective organisations, while drawing on theories of change, leadership and learning,” Alyson commented. “Key workers from across the public, private and third sectors shared their real-life stories about the types of challenges they were facing, how it made them feel and what it was taking to thrive in these unprecedented times. The session brought alive theories of change, leadership and learning, and led to a rich discussion which made their time online together absolutely fly.”
Staffordshire University remains firmly committed to maintaining learning throughout the COVID-19 crisis, but we also understand that some students require ongoing help and support. Rachel Thompson from the Student Guidance Team, told us how her team were adjusting. “We understood the importance of still being able to offer a quality service to our students and advise them during these uncertain times. We are therefore offering students online support appointments through Microsoft Teams, telephone appointments or contact via email through our team inbox. We have also adapted our bookings page so that students can arrange appointments from home.”
Although life at our University is now almost unrecognisable compared to even a month ago, our essential on-site operations continue – albeit in a very different form – as a number of our students remain on campus. Without the dedication and support of our Campus Life and Catering teams, they would no doubt be feeling pretty isolated by now.
Louise Chatfield, our Catering Operations Manager, and her colleagues Philip Olivant, Joanne Grannon and Gary Hunt, have organised the delivery of food parcels for students that remain on campus.
“When we were asked to look at something to help, my team came out of isolation and returned to campus to put these parcels together, enabling our students to receive the provisions they need to cook fresh and healthy meals,” Louise commented. “This service will continue on a weekly basis, ensuring that our students are fed and looked after while away from their families at a very hard time. This is a true example of what it means to be #ProudToBeStaffs.”
COVID-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges for sectors, industries and societies around the world. The submissions received as part of Staffordshire University’s ACT campaign demonstrate not only our collective ability to alter how we work, but also how the innovations pioneered during this pandemic can serve to strengthen our operations in the future.
So, as the Easter break kicks in and our students approach their final assessments, I feel sure that this year will go down in history as one of great sadness, but I hope we also emerge from this global crisis with a fresh mindset that gives us the confidence to take on any challenge that comes our way.
Rachel Gowers, Director of Staffordshire University London