Planning for the year ahead

This is the strangest introduction. Since starting my role at Kent at the end of March and in the midst of a pandemic, I have not yet had the opportunity to be on-campus in person. Instead, and like the majority of us over the last month or so, I have been using a mix of video conferencing and phone calls to both keep up-to-date with developments as they happen and to try and begin the process of forming relationships between academic staff, support staff and students. That’s not a straightforward process when I am far more comfortable working in the face-to face world. However, the situation that we currently find ourselves in has meant that we have all had to get used to new ways of working.

Since the beginning of lockdown, I have been enormously impressed by how everyone has successfully moved to this online world. For those engaged in learning and teaching, this has meant converting the remainder of the term’s teaching into an online form in an incredibly short space of time. In addition, a no-detriment policy has been agreed to ensure that our students are not disadvantaged by a situation beyond any of our control. Moreover, the summer exams have also been converted to be taken online. Around 850 of our students have remained on Canterbury and Medway campuses during the lockdown period. Support staff and the Kent Union have been extraordinarily flexible in ensuring that these students have access to essential services.

What will the future hold? Perhaps the only certainty at this point is uncertainty itself. Whatever the circumstances we may encounter in the future, we are committed to ensuring that our students continue their education with as little interruption as possible. Planning for this is, of course, far from straightforward because there are so few certainties in how the country in general, and higher education in particular, will look during the return to ‘normality’. And yet my first task on arriving at Kent was to try and create some certainty, as without it we cannot look to the future. This is why we have committed to starting the new academic year at the regularly scheduled times, and have stated that the University will be welcoming students in the Autumn as usual.

That said, we cannot yet be certain what the start of the academic year is going to entail. The safety of our students and our staff is our primary concern. As a consequence, there are several scenarios we need to prepare for, ranging from face-to-face and blended, to fully online provision:

  • Social distancing restrictions have been entirely lifted by September and we can welcome all new and returning students to our various campuses. Under these conditions, a ‘normal’ start of year could commence with the usual student activities being undertaken.
  • The country (or even just the HE sector) remains in either complete or partial lockdown in September and no staff or students are allowed on campus. In this scenario, we will attempt to deliver our education and student experience activities online.
  • By September, lockdown has been lifted but social distancing restrictions of some variety remain in place. Some students may be able to attend in person on our campuses whilst others may not (eg international students and those falling into vulnerable categories). Here, we will need to plan carefully for what the start of year will look like. Some activities may be able to take place in the face-to-face format but others will not. Students may need to be taught in smaller groups and/or using a mixture of face-to-face and online resources.

None of us has a crystal ball, and there will be many other alternative scenarios but, at the time of writing, the last of these options seems to represent the most probable position for the start of the new academic year.

We need to plan so that we are as ready as we can be to deliver an excellent education and student experience starting in September to all of our students. We need to learn from, and embrace, the things that have worked well while we have had an enforced period of delivering online education. For example, over 500 staff attended the ‘emergency webinars’ in the last two weeks of the spring term and will be comparing their experiences of teaching online this term. Of course, we also need to learn from what has perhaps worked less well, and adapt or respond accordingly. I am also certain, however, that the ‘old normal’ will be different from the ‘new normal’.

I anticipate that the following steps will need to be undertaken in order for us to be ready for September, and by no means do I underestimate the enormity of these tasks:

  1. All programme and module convenors will need to map out the order in which their activities take place so that anything that absolutely requires face-to-face contact (eg practical classes, performance pieces etc) can be potentially scheduled to take place later in the academic year.
  2. All modules running in September will require delivery in both a face-to-face and online form. The learning technology team have launched a suite of training materials in Moodle and will be ready to advise, assist and help with this process. But given the sheer number of modules that will require conversion, much of the work to enable this to happen will need to be driven by module convenors.
  3. Our campuses will need to be prepared for whatever social distancing regulations are in place in September. This is likely to involve changes to room capacities, building flows to avoid congregations of people occurring at entrances and exits, consideration of the use of residences and a whole array of other campus-related issues.

How will the work to prepare the institution for September be undertaken? I am in the process of establishing a task force to advise and direct on all aspects of the education and student experience portfolio that may need to be adapted or adjusted for the forthcoming academic session. I cannot pretend that we will have all of the answers. We will therefore be consulting widely with all colleagues and students and I know that you will all continue to engage positively in the process. To reiterate, the health and wellbeing of our staff and students is our primary concern. We will need to respond to the conditions around us, but will do so in ways which protect us all.

Professor Richard Reece | Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Student Experience)