Skip to main content

Juggling the virtual balls as a programme leader

07 Dec 2020 | Dr Sarah Naylor Student engagement is the December theme of our Connect Benefit Series. In this blog, Dr Sarah Naylor, Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby and a Senior Fellow, shares her thoughts on surviving and thriving as a progamme leader in these challenging times.

Programme leaders have responsibility and accountability for their programmes. A challenging task at best as this juggling act is often fulfilled with no managerial responsibility over the people delivering on the programme. The plethora of roles a programme leader has to keep in the air at the same time can frequently feel like a ball may drop at any moment. A mammoth task at the best of times, extremely challenging today. The way to survive and thrive in the role is with collaboration with the people connected with the programme; students, academics, admin colleagues, student support, placement providers…and others could be added.

How do you maintain this connectivity when you can no longer meet people for a coffee and catch up, bump into people in the office or staff room, nip down to the admin office to ask a quick question? How can you be responsive to the frequent and sudden changes to delivery of a programme when you are working from a room in your home?

Connectivity and collaboration require effort, planning and organisation. The virtual classroom does not lend itself to informal consultation and feedback from students before or after classroom delivery. In these rapidly changing times, gauging the feelings of students needs to be more frequent than the standard timed surveys. Connectivity and collaboration with students should be in a variety of ways. You can make yourself available by published programme leader drop-in sessions, setting up a virtual room for students to access. Take-up of these is likely to be minimal but they do make you visibly accessible. Regular programme student rep meetings are valuable for sharing and receiving information. Although you may only capture the most dominant voices, short regular meetings can help to iron out issues before they become a big problem. Scheduling time for an open ‘coffee and chat’ session allows any student to ask questions in an open forum, creating the opportunity not only for you as programme leader to respond but also facilitates the sharing of ideas from other students and peer-support.

Along a similar line, connectivity and collaboration with other staff members leading or delivering modules will not just happen casually. Regular programme delivery meetings provide a platform for discussion about individual modules, allowing the opportunity for discussion about any issues. This not only keeps you informed as programme leader, but also facilitates collective solution finding. Whilst a programme leader does not have responsibility for staff, they are accountable for the delivery of the programme and therefore ensuring teaching sessions are covered. If people work in isolation on their modules this will be challenging. Therefore, promote a culture of openness and transparency. Make use of virtual document sharing platforms and encourage the use of these. Documented session planning has never been more important to allow another member of staff to pick up and run a session at short notice.

A programme leader is frequently a sounding board for staff, students and senior leaders in the institution. You are in a pivotal position and as a result can be expected to absorb additional work and pressure. It is vital for your own health and wellbeing not to be a recipient of this work and pressure but to be a conduit for it. Regular meetings with your line manager will make them aware of your current situation and facilitate a solution. Don’t keep things to yourself thinking you have to cope, if people don’t know, they cannot help. The programme delivery meetings with your team not only facilitate discussion about their issues but also give you a platform for sharing. Engaging with other programme leaders can be a great source of support. Some universities will be facilitating programme leaders’ meetings, if not, reach out to those you know who are in a similar situation. Keep connected to your admin and support staff. Emails are quick and documented but picking up the phone, or even better, holding a video call improves your connectivity and can be more productive than a series of emails.

In summary, it’s good to talk. How are you facilitating this?


Sarah Naylor is currently programme leader for an MSc Diagnostic Radiography (pre-registration). She has a wealth of experience in being a programme leader for undergraduate, post graduate and distance learning programmes. She is currently authoring a book on Being an Effective Programme Leader in Higher Education.


Join us at 09:30 (GMT) on 9 December in a webinar where we will explore a variety of practical solutions to promote active learning and engagement for all students through the use of #52etc, our 52 Engaging Toolkit Cards. Find out more and book your place

Find out more about the December Connect Member Benefit Series

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter