Teaching in a COVID world: how the sector moved online

I’m sick of COVID. I’m sick of the isolation. I’m sick that virtual isn’t the same as in real life. I know we’ve probably only got months to go now, but I’m sick of it all the same.

It seems that at the moment there is a lot of discourse is about how hard it may be to simply replicate the best aspects of interaction (for example breakout rooms or how tiring online discussion can be). Blended learning is here to stay, and using it is an essential life skill that will have profound (and positive) social, cultural and economic impacts on the way that we work and interact with our world. Nonetheless, I’d still prefer to sit in a pub with friends or visit Italy in real life.

I wanted to write something that struck me in the first few months of the pandemic as we prepared to ring our students early in the Summer term of the 2019-20 academic year. The same pattern kept popping up in conversation with colleagues in my own institution and across the sector. 

three tier model for teaching online during covid
3 steps to moving to teaching online during COVID

The three tiers of moving from In Real Life to a Virtual World (in the midst of a global pandemic rather than intentionally as part of a carefully considered strategic plan)

I believe that there were three tiers in the way that higher education institutions adapted to teaching online in March/ April 2020. I think that everyone involved did as well as they could under the circumstances, this isn’t a criticism, but it’s interesting how often it was repeated. The three tiers were:

  1. Getting course content online
  2. Making sure students could access the course content
  3. Helping students to engage with it

Getting course content online

By March, my institution was most of the way through the taught element of the academic year, our summer term is largely allocated to assessments (assignments, examinations, shows, exhibitions etc.). However, by the time lockdown arrived in the UK on Monday 23rd March, there was up to a month of teaching left.

Tier one was therefore all about moving course content online.

Lectures were recorded, content moved into the Vritual Learning Environment etc. Some colleagues found this relatively simple, many did not. It was fascinating watching academics take to twitter describing how it took five hours to record the first lecture and then five hours to record the next seven. The desire to produce broadcast media quality lectures is of course a virtue, but it came at a price given the pressures of time staff were under.

Overcoming digital poverty

I took part in an interesting webinar on Embedding Data Use for Supporting Students with the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, my Irish colleagues were facing precisely the same problems as the UK. Universities have large quantities of computers available for students to use. I think this masks the issue of digital poverty as lack of personal access to IT. Once students had to return home, this particular form of levelling up is removed. We perhaps take it for granted that a student has acesss to a computer and fast broadband at home. The reality is even when some students did, they were sharing the computer with siblings who needed it to do their school work, or even with parents needing it to work from home.

Tier two became the process of loaning laptops or other IT equipment to students so that they could access course content online.

Helping students to engage with their studies

Do you remember the first few weeks of COVID-19 lockdown? In the UK, the weather was gorgeous, we clapped NHS staff every Thursday evening and colleagues would turn up to morning online meetings all sweaty because they’d just worked out with Joe Wicks. It was disconcerting, but there was also a strange excitement about the weirdness of it all. The media suggested bingewatching everthing on Netflix, learning a new language, mastering yoga; it was an odd time.

Students, I suspect like everyone else, were a bit lost.

This wasn’t helped because universities took different approaches to the end of the academic year. Some required students to complete all outstanding work, others made assessment decisions based on coursework already submitted. Some students discovered that they had been gifted six months off, others that they still had a few months of work to do, learning in a slightly different manner and often feeling very isolated whilst doing so.

Tier three was therefore how institutions sought to (re)engage their students.

Across the sector videos were recorded, emails were sent and phonecalls were made in an effort to explain, to reassure and to motivate students who were struggling to engage. Academics ran tutorials with their students with their own children dashing around in the background asking for biscuits, access to TV or help with their own homework. I like to think that the humanising aspect helped overcome some of the worst aspects of the isolation and confusion of the first few months of COVID.

I’m not being critical of the sector, this has been an enormously difficult time.

I believe that there’s a logic to this order.

  • You can’t teach if you don’t have course content available
  • You can’t teach if students can’t access the course content

I still think it’s interesting that really worrying about students’ motivation came later. There were, of course honourable, exceptions, particularly amongst personal tutors and student support services. Furthermore, it’s very understandable. Colleagues were worried about their own health, the health of people they loved, were working how to teach using new media, look after the kids, set up a home office, order loo roll etc. But students did struggle to engage, some couldn’t work out the rules, some couldn’t motivate themselves. Maybe it was only a minority, but some students really did need help at the start (and indeed throughout) the pandemic.

I’ll return to tier three in a future article about how we used learning analytics to run a COVID-19 call campaign for our students in summer 2020.


(Of course at the end of writing this, I’ve been wondering where the word ‘tier’ comes in. Yes my city, Nottingham, is about to move back into a form of lockdown the so-called tier 3).

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