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Learning in the time of Covid-19

16 Mar 2020 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) As universities start closing learning spaces and cancelling face-to-face teaching, Dr Kay Hack, Principal Adviser (Learning and Teaching) spoke with students about their experiences and concerns as their education is disrupted. Here she reflects on what we can and should be doing to minimise damage to well-being and learning during this public health emergency.


As UK universities plan to shift to online learning over the next week there may still be time to meet with students and check whether they are ready to transition to distance learning. Provide a time and space for students to ask questions about how online learning and assessment will be managed.  Check that students (and colleagues) can access the VLE and any course-specific software from their accommodation. Ensure they know how you will communicate with them about your module and where they can get course specific information and institutional information and advice. Some students may have already withdrawn from attending in person so give consideration to also consulting with the student body online through questionnaires.


It’s a rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that students are kept informed and reassured about the impact of COVID-19 on their on-going studies. Decide on how you and your students will communicate module specific information.  For a coordinated approach from your course team consider creating and sharing an email template to respond to Frequently Asked Questions and /or having a discussion board within your Virtual Learning Environment or other institutional learning platform. Consider what would happen to your communication channel if you become ill.

Unless you already communicate with your students using social media apps, such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook groups etc. this is probably not the time to start. Not all of your students will be willing to sign up to the T&Cs required by these ‘free’ apps, and it may become increasingly difficult and stressful to keep up with numerous communication channels, it is harder to identify students who are not engaging and the app provider may decide to change their T&Cs in light of the expected increase in demand.

Stick with what you know

There are a lot of exciting tools for online learning being shared at the moment, all offering ‘simple solutions’ to delivering content. But before you leap in and offer something different and novel consider sticking to the tools and resources that are available in your institutions’ Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). You and your students will already have accounts for the VLE, all of the tools are available via a Single Sign-On, and student activity can be readily tracked. Institutional VLEs have been designed for use on various devices and operating systems and can incorporate principles of Universal Design. All VLEs have discussion boards, collaborative working spaces and tools for synchronous activity which allow screen sharing. If you are not experienced in using your VLE for teaching then keep things simple, ensure the directions are clear and your site is easy to navigate.

All together now?

A real time (synchronous) webinar can allow you to deliver your class as if you were ‘face-to-face’ with your students, you can share PowerPoint presentations, ask questions and promote engagement and discussion with and amongst your students. However, not all students will have access to the necessary technology or data packages to enable them to watch an online ‘class’. They may be sharing a WiFi connection with 5 or 6 house mates or their ability to ‘attend’ class during the timetabled slot may have been disrupted by caring responsibilities.

If you feel that a live webinar is not viable or equitable, record your lecture and make it available to your students via the VLE to watch in their own time. Make your material easy to navigate by providing it in clearly labelled ‘bite-size’ chunks around key concepts. This will allow students to quickly find and revise content they may have struggled with. Provide some formative assessment or quiz questions to check understanding or use a discussion board or chatroom to allow students to discuss concepts and get feedback.

Stick with what they need to know

Your students haven’t been gifted with more free time and neither have you.  You may be keen to provide lots of different learning resources and activities to make up for missed lectures, but expecting them to plough through more texts, watch more videos, listen to more podcasts, write more or longer essays, complete more practice questions, engage in online discussions and practice reflective writing, is more likely to increase anxiety and confusion.

Now might be the time to remind yourself why your teaching is designed using Constructive Alignment. Focus on your intended learning outcomes and how students are going to be able to achieve and demonstrate their learning in an online environment. Use this to frame your online activities and assessment strategy. Classify your learning resources and activities so that students are clear on which are required and which are supportive or supplementary.


Most UK universities are still working towards the existing summative assessment arrangements; however, this situation may change at short notice. It is therefore worth considering what alternative assessment instruments you could use to meet your learning outcomes. Current assessments, such as laboratory practicals, performance practice, and group based projects will be at greater risk. Academics are sharing discipline-based and generic ideas for alternative assessments via Twitter (#LTHEChat) and at Advance HE Connect.


Work with your course team, School or Faculty to ensure a consistent and coherent approach. Students will quickly become anxious or dissatisfied  if they feel that other cohorts or modules are providing different or ‘better’ support.

Set up a buddy system or other collaborative approach within your course team to ensure that there is continued access to resources, assessments, marking schemes in case of ill-health in the course team.

Work with those in the course team that already use digital technology or your institutional educational technology team to share ideas and best practice.


Uncertainty about how COVID-19 will effect assessments, work-placements, study exchanges and other learning activities will lead to rising anxiety levels. Remind students that the wellbeing of the community – students, staff and their families and friends, is the priority. Students with underlying health conditions, or those with family members with health issues will have additional concerns. We need to do all we can to reduce anxiety and reinforce the message that everyone is working to mitigate against disadvantaging those experiencing particular challenges and reassure students that the university will be sympathetic to those that may have been disadvantaged.

Ask students if they have a plan if they become ill and are unable to travel home and that they are registered with a local health centre. Check what your institution’s plans are for relaxing assessment policies, extensions, structure and format of assessments and requirements for medical notes.

Be aware that the circumstances are exceptional and universities may exercise exceptional flexibility in rapidly changing circumstances e.g. suspending certain regulations without utilising the normal governance procedures and committee structures (instigation of temporary interim procedures may be common).

No-one signed up for this

You did not sign up to be an ‘online tutor’ and your students did not sign up to study online.  We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are all trying our best to continue to operate and deliver student learning outcomes in non-ideal circumstances.  Doubtless you have been delivering graduate attributes including resilience, flexibility or agility. Hopefully you have taught that resilience also includes being able to identify when a workload becomes excessive such that it might adversely impact wellbeing.  Achieving a perfect online learning experience might be out of reach in the timeframe available so bear in mind that we all need to exercise patience and our humanity.

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.

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