19 May 2020
Cambridge University is going online - now what?

Last week, Manchester University became the first in the UK to announce that it would not open as usual in September.

Now, Cambridge University has followed suit – and announced it will operate with online lectures until 2021.

As one of the world’s most prestigious universities, the eyes of the world are on Cambridge to see how they react to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Mark Leach, CEO of WonkHE, called it a ‘game-changing move’ and former Universities Minister Jo Johnson called it a ‘big call’.

So what does this mean for the sector? And how can universities uncertain about their plans in September continue to reassure students?

Maintain the community

While education is a key part of the university experience, we all know there are many other reasons that students want to go into Higher Education. Be it the social life, the opportunity to meet people from around the world, or build a network that they can take into the professional world. The community around Higher Education is essential.

And taking that part online might prove harder than taking the teaching online. It’s one thing to deliver a lecture series over the internet, but what about a Freshers’ Week? A welcome fair? An orientation day?

Peer connections are so important for the student experience, so universities will need to dedicate time to think about how they will integrate these into a digital semester.

Last month, we interviewed Missouri State Western University in the US who were looking to address this issue. They solved it through group chats, where future students, current students and staff could all talk together in a real-time chat-based event, managed by the university. The conversations actually went on well beyond the event, as students built peer connections that helped them develop the sense of belonging.

Focus on belonging

There’s an intangible, immeasurable component of the Higher Education experience that’s so important for all students: a sense of belonging.

Belonging matters – for choice, retention and success – how can universities achieve it? Especially when they are plunged online? 

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at two studies into student belonging and identifies three strategies: “more frequent interactions with diverse peers”, “peer mentoring and staff care and support.” 

And the groundbreaking 2012 report, What Works?, had a clear conclusion: “At the heart of successful retention and success is a strong sense of belonging in HE for all students.” The report suggested four measures for achieving belonging. The top two were:

  • Supportive peer relations
  • Meaningful interaction between staff and students

There’s a clear theme emerging: the key to developing that sense of belonging is the interpersonal relations that are formed between students and staff

Those connections form organically on campus, so when students and staff are all remote institutions will need to work harder to make it happen. This could be through virtual social events, mixers or drop-in sessions where peer relations can form online.

Remember diverse audiences

“Simply having a diverse student body does not mean the education or even the campus is global in nature. What comes as an essential part of a global education is in the inclusion of international students in communities and classes.”

That was the finding of a British Council report into the integration of international students into universities. Recruiting international students is one thing, but creating a sense of belonging that transcends cultural differences is the key to a truly global university.

But the challenge is far from simple to solve – especially now we’re all online.

The key is facilitating student connection – not just to the university, but to one another. Peer to peer is so important for building a connection.

And it’s not just international students. First-gen students may have additional anxieties about starting their Higher Education journey. Students from non-traditional backgrounds might want to meet others like them. And students from low-income families may be concerned about whether they will be equipped for online learning. Keeping an open conversation with all of those students is vital.

Vivienne Stern, Director of UUK International, said:

“The COVID-19 crisis is bringing unprecedented challenges to teaching and learning and student support. Universities in the UK are working around the clock to support their students – not just those who are enrolled today, but those who are planning to start this September. Clear communication is vital.

“We are very supportive of the work that Unibuddy is doing to facilitate online events, so that universities can stay connected to their current and future students. Universities across the UK are hosting events – keeping their communities together and keeping communication open. We know that they will continue to do so as this crisis evolves.”

Build for digital

There have been developments in online learning for some time now, but nobody anticipated that the education sector – from pre-school to PhD – would be flung online in a matter of weeks.

Universities are adapting to the challenge – using the tools that they have at their disposal and building new ones.

Pat Moores, founder of UK University Guide, has written and spoke extensively about the future of education, and the move to online provisions.

Speaking to Unibuddy, she said: “The future of education is online. When we look at some of the most innovative schools in the US, they have been moving to online teaching and learning for some time now. This crisis will only speed those developments up – right now, it feels like a scramble to get courses online, but it will pay dividends in the future.

“What matters is that schools and universities offer a rewarding online student experience, rather than just replicating the classroom experience on Zoom. Students and families will appreciate that for many institutions it has been a mad rush to move teaching online, but smart institutions will now build on this to develop a fuller experience using; multimedia, interactivity, personalised assessments.

“These developments take time, but when they come it will benefit students and teachers alike.”

The entire sector faces an enormous upheaval to create a whole new sort of university experience: an online experience. And the universities that do best will be the ones that keep their students at the centre of their mind, and harness the benefits of technology for connectedness and community.

An original version of this article stated “it will operate with online teaching until 2021.” This has now been corrected to “it will operate with online lectures until 2021.”

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