Abbi Shaw, Jesper Hansen (DigiEd/Arena)
What do we take with us? Recommendations and reflections on research into Arts & Humanities students’ online experience.
Studying Arts & Humanities at UCL comes with both disciplinary and educational hopes and expectations. Drawing on student rep interviews and town halls, a Mentimeter poll (already conducted with over 100 students), and a series of informal interviews with student reps, we present for discussion a collection and analysis of student reflections on their experience of aspects of the Faculty’s digital pivot.
- Pre-recorded video and live recordings: what video content did students find most effective?
- Specific benefits and constraints of studying artistic, linguistic and discursive disciplines online.
- Highlights: what kind of positive experiences were possible amidst it all?
- What one thing would A&H students most like to take with them into a post-pandemic UCL?
Towards the end of term 1 in 2020, Arts & Humanities’ student reps asked whether the Faculty intended to give students the chance to be heard with regard to their experience of online learning. As the Faculty Learning Technology Lead, I, and my Arena colleague Jesper Hansen, designed a survey around key topics and elements of the online experience to give students room to briefly and anonymously voice themselves, and to state what they would most like to take with them into 2021-22, ensuring that on-campus teaching is informed by the best of the experiences had during these times.
The processes we undertook, and our resulting report (which can be accessed by UCL staff at this link ), have given us two core outcomes.
Firstly, this initial investigative phase led us to draw up a set of five recommendations, designed to instigate, nuance and inform conversations at Faculty, departmental and programme levels. Their wording is deliberate, and intended to enable academics to demonstrate consideration of this report without committing to any blanket practice. Our recommendations are as follows:
- Ensure that, where both possible and reasonable, lectures are recorded and made available to all students on the module.
- Seek to divide pre-recorded videos into shorter chunks dealing with one topic per video.
- Faculty, Departments and programmes should further discuss consistency of student experience across modules and programmes.
- Define the way in which academics will communicate with students on their module, and manage expectations around response times/methods.
- The Faculty, Departments and programmes should consider ways to strengthen student-student communication and interaction as soon as possible in term 3, and think about how these can be put at the centre of the Faculty’s strategy for the academic year 2021-2022.
Recommendations 1 and 2 are made fully mindful of the fact that approaches to recording lectures and pre-recording video have formed much of the most “active” discussion amongst our Connected Learning Leads, academics and students alike.
“Where reasonable and possible”, whilst firmly in favour of recording lectures acknowledges the myriad of reasons academics may deem a topic, module or format unsuitable for recording. Further, the context of the study acknowledges that appetite for recording lectures in general has been driven by the good practice the Faculty has itself developed over the past year: by far the most conclusive point from our study was that students felt extremely positively regarding recorded lectures, having, for many, experienced them for the first time in 2020/21. That this is by far the element students would most like to take with them into the next academic year is testament to our academics’ work across A&H disciplines.
Responding to the recommendations need not include following them verbatim – recommendation 2, to “chunk” videos, could be taken to recommend creating a series of neat, bespoke 8-18 minute videos which deal with a single topic, or it could influence an academic to include a short “chaptering” list with approximate timestamps alongside a lecture, to support students’ navigation of a longer video. It isn’t about good…better…best, rather mindful and responsive choices.
Recommendations 3 and 4 are intended as opportunities for different parts of the Faculty to consider some elements of the online approach to reduce friction and manage student expectations. The mix of student experiences is so contradictory even amongst responses from the same student – it is inevitable that modules are compared by students even where there is no invitation for them to do so, and there are many options available to introduce such consistency. If at, say, a departmental level, this recommendation is of interest, there are many ways in which we could support the provision of such consistency, from looking at Moodle templates, to clearly defining Office Hours and contact methods.
The final recommendation encourages a focus on student-student engagement, sorely and understandably missed by the majority of respondents. Replying to this recommendation could include Faculty-level initiatives like the Back to the Future summer series, departmental reading groups, or slight adjustments to in-module teaching, such as integrating more group work, to designing in additional breakout room opportunities, and creating more peer- and mentoring roles.
The second of our core outcomes was our reflection on the process itself. With numerous formal, cross-institution and external student surveys and evaluations on the table, it was imperative students understood this was a local (Faculty) survey, and that their contributions would be read and reported on, and promoted, at that level, as well as disseminated further.
Keeping the Mentimeter brief (8 individual questions, estimated 5-8 minutes to complete) seemed to encourage good levels of participation (100 students responded in total). Emphasising anonymity appeared to encourage reflection on personal experience, with responses appearing thoughtful, and authentic. Whilst we did not ask students to state their departments, institutional knowledge gives us confidence we have a good spread of response from across the Faculty.
We were less fortunate with our hope for focus groups, with poor turnout meaning we needed to view these more as informal conversations – this may have been as a result of their timing (around Reading Week in Term 2), or, by that point in term, from survey/feedback fatigue. However, we were able to meet with students both home and international, undergraduate and postgraduate, and the conversations we had were useful for ensuring our findings and observations were aligned with the student voice as our reps understood it. In future iterations, we would hope to prioritise and firmly arrange focus groups.
When Faculty academic staff, on reading the student report, asked if academics would have their own opportunity to give their feedback on what had worked, what hadn’t, and what they would like to take forwards, as a result of the process we’d undergone, we were able to respond swiftly, opening up a parallel iteration of our student survey orientated around the same areas in a matter of days. We’ve already had a good number of responses, and look forward to parsing these to balance and support our recommendations and approach to 2021/22.
We intend to continue integrating the student voice into our faculty support and facilitation, and will be looking to engage early with next year’s A&H reps, to encourage and facilitate student research and analysis which can build on our work as it sees fit.
This first report further forms a baseline which will allow the supporting FLTL/Arena partnership to reflect on and evolve our recommendations, informing our support and approach of the many varied disciplines constituting UCL’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities, enabling academics to make full and judicious use of the digital frameworks and tools available to scaffold, support and nurture the student experience.