Reflections on a survey of History students’ experiences of lockdown learning

Last month, alongside our survey of staff experiences of teaching during lockdown, we surveyed UG and PGT students in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago in History UK’s #PandemicPedagogy Twitter chat.

 

I’ve had a bit of time this morning to process a summary of the results that was kindly put together by my excellent colleagues in the School, Michele Vescovi and Giustina Monti. Nguyen Grace, of the Lincoln Academy of Learning and Teaching, also did an analysis, which has fed into this summary. Thanks to them all!

We had 117 responses from students across the School, from all programmes, bar one. Most responses (71) were from the BA in History, which is the biggest programme by far. Overall, this represents a response rate of about 16.5% of the total UG and PGT students in the School. This may seem like quite a low number, but given that term had finished and many students won’t have been checking their uni emails, I think it does give us some limited indication of how the student body as a whole experienced lockdown learning (which I’ve just seen does have its own hashtag! – #LockdownLearning).

Here are some key points I took away from looking over the survey and the summaries, with thoughts about their implications for future teaching under post-lockdown conditions:

  • VARIETY – unsurprisingly students (even within the same programmes, year groups, modules, seminars) had very different experiences of learning during lockdown, in both a positive and a negative sense. No one-size-fits-all solution will work for the next semester so we’re going to have to be flexible and adopt a range of approaches/ tools.
  • SYNCHRONOUS T&L – most students were enthusiastic about tools that supported ‘live’ interaction with tutors (this aligns rather nicely with the results of the staff survey), such as Blackboard Collaborate and, to a lesser extent MS Teams, though there some also praise for structured asynchronous tools, such as discussion boards and Talis Elevate. It will be important, even for courses that are delivered entirely online (or in a blended way) to maintain this sense of ‘presence’ and interaction with students.
  • CONTENT DELIVERY – linked to their love for ‘live’ teaching, many students liked Panopto as it gave them (a sense of) direct connection to lecturers, and flexible access to content, which were understandably important during such a disrupted period. Given that the consensus seems to be that online lectures are best delivered in short bursts (no more than 20 mins), there may be some work to do here in recalibrating student (and teacher) expectations and practices.
  • ACCESSIBILITY (also a concern on the staff survey) – it was clear that access to kit, working space, time, ‘head-space’, etc. were all big issues that affected students’ experience of lockdown learning.* Much needs to be done by institutions to support students in overcoming these accessibility challenges. Learning materials and activities will have to be similarly accessible in a number of senses (again, flexibility and asychronosity may help here).
  • COMMUNICATION – this was probably the key point that came out of the survey. Students were well aware that this was an unprecendented situation and appreciated the efforts that had been made to support them, but most criticisms related to (lack of) communication and/or could probably have been mitigated by clearer communication from the University, the School and/or the tutor. Coordinating clear and consistent (and definitely not contradictory) communication strategies at all levels will be important as we prepare for the new semester and actually get on with teaching.
  • CONSISTENCY – of experience was a key issue of a number of students too and ensuring that there is rough equivalency in this regard across (and even within) modules will be important.

Now, I don’t thing any of this is particularly mind-blowing, but it does reinforce a lot of what I’ve been thinking (and reading) over the past few weeks. There will be a lot of work to do in order to ensure that students have equitable and effective access to opportunities as we move beyond the lockdown learning phase.

A final point – after reviewing both the staff and student surveys, reflecting on my own experience, and doing a bit more reading around the topic, I’m less convinced that the emergency phase of teaching was actually the success that was depicted at the time or since (anywhere – I’m not just talking about my home institution). Institutional narratives that paint this period as one of largely successful ’emergency’ adaptation aren’t very useful in the longer term, even if they may have helped to maintain morale at the time.

We (or at least most of us) certainly got through it and (many of) the students got through it and in that sense it was successful. Many of us learnt a lot, which is good. That’s it.

But it’s clear to me that quite a lot of students and colleagues found it really difficult, if not impossible. The sooner we admit that, reflect on what we’ve learnt and feed that reflection into planning for the next semester, the better. Luckily, there’s lot of great work going on right now in that direction, including History UK’s #PandemicPedagogy initiative, as well as work by the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research. Collectively, there’s a lot of good practice out there and if it can be harnessed to meet the challenges of as we move beyond lockdown learning.

 

(*Unsurprisingly, most students (over 90%) used laptops to access online learning, often in combination with PCs, mobile phones, and/or tablets.)

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