Parama Chaudhury, Cloda Jenkins (Economics); Jingyan Sun – BSc Economics student; Shama Riddhi – BSc Economics student (Economics)
The First Year Challenge, a multimedia group project which introduces first years to UCL, the study of economics and their peers during induction week is a cornerstone of the Economics department BSc programmes and has now inspired similar programmes across the UK as well as a national one run by the Royal Economic Society. In summer 2020, we (2 lecturers in Economics and 2 Connected Learning interns) worked together to design an online version of this project, something that was challenging both because the programme has usually involved physical locations around UCL and also because physical meetups and teambuilding activities are an essential part of this community building exercise. In an asynchronous presentation involving video interviews with some of the 800 participants and the organisers, explanations of the bespoke interactive materials developed for this year’s project, and clips of the final outputs, we aim to showcase the work of students and lecturers to develop a sense of belonging and peer interaction in a difficult year where this was even more important than usual, but because of the circumstances, was harder to facilitate.
Taking the First Year Challenge online – Community Building with 800
Students Across the World
Parama Chaudhury, Cloda Jenkins, Jingyan Sun and Shama Riddhi
Building a learning community is key to education design in any year, but the widespread disruptions in 2020, made this even more crucial. In this blog, we discuss how we took our award-winning First Year Challenge initiative online with a cohort of nearly 800 students spread around the world.
What is the First Year Challenge?
The First Year Challenge (FYC) was introduced into the first year Economics programme in 2014 as a way to introduce students to UCL, Economics and to a research-based learning model. Students are divided into small groups, assigned a carefully chosen location around the Bloomsbury campus, and asked to produce a brief video or audio output linking the location to the topic “growth and inequality”, the overarching theme of the first year course. They receive detailed guidance before arriving and start on the project on their first day at UCL, completing it within the first two weeks of the academic year. An introduction to the subject is particularly important in Economics as few students take it at school and even for those who do, university Economics is quite different. In addition, past participants always comment on how the FYC helped them in making friends, setting up study groups and ease them into life at UCL.
The challenges of going online in the 2020 were compounded by a doubling of our cohort to nearly 800. At the same time, the importance of a community-building exercise increased, and it was clear that we had to come up with an innovative redesign of the FYC. Our first step was to hire two Connected Learning Interns, who had gone through the FYC in previous years, to help us begin the process of reconceptualising the initiative starting with selecting the online platform in which to base the project, thinking about the selection of locations, and how to make the project come alive without being in the same room or even the same country. In the next section, the interns talk about what they did and how it went.
Design and preparation, driven by the Connected Learning Interns
Jingyan Sun and Shama Riddhi
We looked up various locations in London, where we could find interactive maps or videos of the location that would be interesting for the first-year students who have not been to London and UCL to explore and feel like they are in London, as much as possible. We wanted to give them an experience that was as similar as it could be to what they would be doing in person.
After assembling a set of virtual locations, we tested out the virtual accessibility of these locations by creating a survey monkey form containing all the corresponding links and immersive videos. This survey was sent out to UCL students living in different parts of the world. Based on the responses to this survey, we kept the locations we believed to be the most accessible for the incoming first-year students who could be living anywhere in the world.
We also conducted interviews with 6 past participants and previous FYC winners, and gathered their experiences, opinions, and tips for the incoming FYC participants into a short, interactive video. We included topics such as “how to choose a topic”, “how to delegate tasks”, “what software to use”, “what the best part of the FYC was”, “what were the challenges” and whether they had “Advice and Tips” for the First-year students. We then combined these into a 5-minute video because we did not want to let anyone’s effort and time go to waste:
We also worked to redesign the FYC instructions guide in a way that is more interactive and easier to read. Based on feedback we received from our peers who did the FYC in previous years, we added other information we thought would be helpful for first-year students who are doing the challenge from home. For example, we used lots of images to make the document more colourful and exciting, including embedding the link to the online Economics textbook that they would be using in the first year. Such information would be a lot easier to obtain if they were at UCL and able to ask their peers and tutors. So, redesigning the guide was particularly key to the success of the FYC this year:
To bring all of the guidance material together and to make it easier for first years to access the information, we developed a FAQ document with questions that we anticipated first-year students having. We categorised all the questions into 3 main sections:
1. Communications – any questions regarding working with their groupmates
2. Logistics – anything related to deadlines and idea generation and
3. Technology – questions on accessing or submitting any files
The last step was to upload all the work we have done onto a bespoke Microsoft Teams site where all first-year students would be able to access all the guidance and work on their project. Based on separate channels we thought would be needed to organise the site, we set up a General channel where all the instructions were, and Q&A channels to clarify anything related to communications, logistics and technology that was not addressed in the FAQ document.
While working closely with our professors and the department, we gained insight into how things are done, and decisions are made. There are lots of considerations made for the smallest things and there are often restrictions that limit what can be done. Even though we hoped to use a different platform that could make the session where the FYC is introduced more interactive for first-year students, we struggled to find anything that would accommodate over 700 students and also fit in the budget. We eventually decided to make use of Teams as it was recommended by UCL and would therefore help acclimatize students to a platform that would be used widely over the year, and tried to make it as interactive as possible.
In the next section, Prof Cloda Jenkins talks about the student experience with the project and the materials we had created.
Going live – the student experience
Thanks to the hard work of our Connected Learning Interns, we were well placed to launch our virtual First Year Challenge by mid-September. When we had the list of registered students, 795 from a mix of programmes on the Economics module, we set about assigning them to groups in Teams. We decided, to help with community building through the year to create tutorial groups where the same students would meet in small group teaching for all compulsory modules and would have the same personal tutor. This of course was a manual logistical exercise (nightmare!) but with the help of the Departmental Tutor we managed to create the groups.
As mentioned by the interns, students within each tutorial group were put into a private channel on Teams, for their Economics tutorials and for the FYC. At this point we taught ourselves, with the help of our Economics IT support, how to use software to import such a large group into channels in Teams and discovered, the Friday before registration week, that you can only have 30 channels in Teams. Putting our thinking caps on we created a second ‘sister’ Team to facilitate the 42 tutorial groups.
Ahead of registration week we shared the instructions created by Jingyan and Shama with in-coming students and set out what they could expect to happen when they arrived, in most cases virtually, for registration. This meant that when we launched the challenge, they were ready to get going. Communicating with students regularly, to send reminders and answer questions, remained key throughout the whole three-week period of the project. Structure and scaffolding were, we knew, important for keeping people on track with the project, as with all online learning.
On the Monday of registration week, we launched FYC2020. At a live session, on Zoom (with our 1000-person licence), we welcomed them to their first year and provided instructions on how the Challenge worked. What happened next was amazing to see. From our homes, we could see students opening up meetings in private channels, messaging each other to reach out through WeChat, WhatsApp, and other routes, and getting going without hesitation. We left them to it, as it is an independent project and safe opportunity, away from staff, to get to know each other. The ‘glow’ of camera activity and messaging all day and night in Teams was heartening to see. Students were also reaching out in the General channel to us with useful, relevant questions and we were able to respond quickly as a teaching team to ensure that any small confusions were dealt with. We were also very fortunate to have a dedicated Course Manager who made sure that any students who enrolled later were added to groups and answered many logistics questions. It was our first sign of what ‘Remote but not distant’ could mean, with students spread around the world meeting to discuss 40 landmarks in London and their connection to the theme of growth and inequality.
Two weeks into term students had the opportunity to get feedback on their ideas in tutorials and then they had a few more days to finalise their video and submit. On October 16th, 126 groups, ranging in size from three to seven people (averaging six) and covering 40 different location across London submitted their 2 mins video files. This was the most impressive engagement we have ever had with the FYC. 761 out of 795 students (98%) had engaged with the optional not-for-credit project at very start of a confusing and uncertain first year at UCL Economics.
Given the number of videos, and the fact that we had connected tutorial groups in the module to personal tutors, we asked all personal tutors to help with the judging. It was a really difficult decision choosing from amongst the excellent videos and podcasts, and so interesting to see the different perspectives students had taken. In the end we chose three winners, from a long and distinguished shortlist, and we will be awarding prizes to them at our annual undergraduate conference Explore Econ 2021 (also virtual).
You can find the shortlisted and winning entries on CTaLE’s YouTube channel:
The winning team is pictured below, and links and information about their contributions are on the Department of Economics website.
All the groups were juggling the usual challenge of meeting people for the first time, but in a pandemic situation and many were also tackling time zone differences and new technology. Some groups had all worked remotely, a large proportion overseas, others had all been in London and at the time (early October 2020) able to meet in small groups, and others were a mix of people in the UK and overseas. We were so impressed at how unfazed they seemed to be by these challenges. This was helped by the fact that our interns tested all the information and technology out thoroughly over the summer, with students all around the world. Having the student perspective in the design was also key to making documents accessible to first years. Supporting through Teams also helped immensely as they could ‘chat’ with each other and us very easily.
Lessons learnt for #FYC2021 and beyond
We have learnt a lot from our experience moving the First Year Challenge online. A first lesson is that it helps to have a basic ‘product’ in place and work from that rather than trying to do major revamp of the design alongside a technology shift. We are likely to continue with our current model, finessing and improving rather than overhauling. If it is not broken, why fix it.
The second lesson is that input from students who have been through the experience is invaluable, giving a different perspective valuable for on-campus or online. We will undertake a review with rising second years about the experience online, during the FYC and through the year, to iron out any potential issues we have not noticed.
The third lesson was to not underestimate student resilience and enthusiasm. They shine through the difficulties when given the opportunity. We worried a lot, as did many lecturers, about all the problems that could arise forgetting that these students were joining UCL to learn and to move their lives forward, pandemic or no pandemic. We need to bottle that resilience and enthusiasm for ourselves and future cohorts.
Lessons learnt on the technology front were that providing a structured platform for students to engage with materials, meet each other and chat takes away a lot of the confusion and uncertainty about what to do, where to meet and when. It was great for us to have something ready for them on the first day of term, and to have been able to share materials in advance. We are likely to retain this online platform element going forward, although we do hope to reinstate a requirement to visit the location when safe for all.
Having said that, the technology is only as reliable as the tests that were run on it before ‘launch’. Even if we use the same set-up again, we will make sure to retest it with people in different countries and on different types of devices (if only to keep up with Microsoft updates) for our own peace of mind.
It was also important to not tie students to one technology. They responded well to having a place to meet online initially, and to access shared files and similar, but also valued being able to move to other platforms if that worked best for them. Flexibility was important.
Whilst engagement with the FYC itself was great, it is always hard to tell whether the community-building and learning effects would last beyond the project submission deadline. This is true in any year but particularly true this year when we did not see groups bonding in the corridors or coffee shops of Bloomsbury. All we have to go on is student feedback which suggests that the value was there for many.
We recognise however that sustaining the impact of an introductory project of this type, through the year and into later years, will take more thinking. Of course, we will turn to the students who have lived through the experience to help us with this.
Overall, we would predict that First Year Challenge 2021 will be blended and adaptable, with more of a connection to campus if safe alongside the opportunities that come with a student-focused technology experience. Whatever the circumstances, we have learned that with insights from students; design, planning, and testing; clear communications and scaffolding of instructions; and putting your faith in students you can create effective learning communities from day 1 of a degree programme.