Expecting the Unexpected: What do students need from a flexible education?

On Tuesday 2 June, I was given the opportunity to present to over 250 academic staff at Royal Holloway on the subject of flexible education and what it may mean for students.

This gave me a really good chance to bring up any challenges and opportunities we need to consider before the University gets stuck into planning for next year. Myself and President Jack O’Neill have been heavily involved in this planning and development and are working hard to lobby for an educational experience that best supports all students.

View the presentation

Context

The only thing we know for certain is that there is uncertainty across the Higher Education sector about what September will look like for students. Most universities have been planning for multiple eventualities, with a flexible and resilient approach, so that whatever social distancing requirements are in place come the start of the academic year they can provide a high-quality educational experience. Royal Holloway has always had a very unique student experience, it is centred on community, shared events, and student traditions. This community is a challenge in the pandemic world of social distancing, but equally the nostalgia you are feeling today as you finish your final assessment but can’t go and celebrate with your friends over a drink of Pimm's in South Quad, is also an opportunity. As a student body, we already have an inherent sense of community that will continue no matter our ability to connect in person.

Opportunities

It is these opportunities that I want to focus on. You should never waste a crisis, and the University right now is no different. Digital changes like this have been in the pipeline for a number of years, they may have shifted overnight, but we are still behind the times of other universities who had a head start. Royal Holloway should learn from this and start working one step ahead of the game. There are many aspects of the traditional way of ‘doing’ Higher Education that leaves some students behind, because students no longer ‘fit the mould’ as such – you work part-time, you commute into the institution, you have disabilities, you come from diverse backgrounds, you have caring responsibilities and you all deserve to experience a high-quality education. The fantastic opportunity we have here, to build a new way of learning that supports ALL students from ALL backgrounds, should be the focus of our attention.

Representing your views

Data is really important, both quantitative and qualitative, in understanding what Royal Holloway students need from a flexible education. We ran a survey a few weeks ago to ask you this question, over 1000 of you responded and we are now analysing this significant amount of data to input into these conversations about developing education for next year. I presented some of the very raw findings of this survey to the academic staff, in order to provide a primary understanding of where issues may arise.

  • 77% of you said you have had opportunities to engage with your lecturer or fellow students during online teaching, this is a good start, and some of you even said you felt it was easier to engage than when you are sat in a lecture theatre with 300 other students. However, there are new issues and challenges in this digital experience to make sure that everyone is involved and has the opportunity to voice any questions.
  • 65% of you have had some issue engaging with online study, be it internet connectivity, access to quiet space or family/work commitments. This is really important in understanding what will work and what requires an entirely different approach. As we continue analysing this data, we will be using your voice to feed into discussions and represent you effectively.

Student experience

We also need to consider the surrounding aspects of university that contribute to your engagement within the classroom. Sports clubs, societies, volunteering, and social action projects all need consideration as they all form a part of your university life. The small and coincidental reason that you met someone during Freshers' Festival, such as standing in a queue for a free donut, often lead to lifelong friendships. How do we recreate this in a socially distant world?  One of the key challenges is the cost of Higher Education. The vast majority of students work through their summer, or part-time during term, in the hospitality industry. As this takes a nosedive, those with a lack of support network may struggle to return in September. We need to ensure that resources are available to any student experiencing these financial difficulties.

Unlearning what we know about Higher Education

We need to see university education in the context of these surrounding experiences, challenges, and opportunities. We need to unlearn how we traditionally ‘do’ Higher Education to find a new normal that supports those students who have been left behind by the current system.

You need accessible content that works around the difficulties you are facing, be it internet connectivity, quiet space, or family and work commitments. You need the understanding that this will change the way Higher Education works and will change in a way that better supports ALL students. And you will need the opportunities to access a student experience that brings together students as a community.

I will leave you with five key questions that I feel need to be addressed through the development of flexible education.

  1. How do we recreate informal learning in a blended and flexible world?
  2. How do we continue the camaraderie associated with assessment periods, where students support each other to achieve?
  3. How do we, as both the SU and the University, help course reps engage with their cohort when they may not know them well enough to be friends on social media and can’t stand up and shout about it in a lecture theatre?
  4. How do we replicate the community support structures associated with student groups?
  5. How do we make ALL students feel valued and engaged through a flexible delivery model?

We have an opportunity here to build an education that better supports all students, let’s not waste it.