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Learning from students and staff during the pandemic: A talk for #ESLTIS21

The #ESLTIS21 (Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship) conference took place on 10th September, I was privileged to be invited to speak about some of the research that I have done during the Pandemic. I also want to give a shout out to colleagues who I’ve worked with on that research including Donna Lanclos, Jasmine Price, Paul Bailey, Matt Street Helen O’Sullivan, Rafe Hallett, Sam Thornton and people I know I will have forgotten!

Sam Nolan, the organiser, suggested that I talk about things that I think might happen, or would like to see happen after the COVID Pandemic emergency, based on what we have observed. The conference happened 543 days after 16th March 2020, the day the UK Govt told us we were going into lockdown for the first time. Throughout that period there have been announcements, rules, and guidelines, across all parts of the UK, almost monthly and often weekly. And not all of them have been consistent, or in fact anywhere near consistent.

We have had:
multiple lockdowns,
exercise limitations,
rules of 6
and 30,
2 people can meet outside for recreation,
10pm curfews,
covid passports
then not covid passports,
then covid passports for people who go to nightclubs in Scotland,
but not to go into a lecture theatre.

We had:
a three tier system,
then a four tier system,
then a local tiered system,
but not at Christmas.

During the 543 days clarity has been an issue.

In institutions academics were looking to leaders and asking what will happen, what needs to happen, what should we be doing?. And leaders were looking at government and trying to make sense of everything that was being thrown at them.

It is not the fault of institutional leaders that clarity was not forthcoming; when government leadership was and is failing us. Although, across the sector as a whole there was probably a lot more best case scenario planning than worst case scenario planning.

But – during the pandemic, during a hugely extended period of chaos, complexity and uncertainty, throughout all this time, education happened and is still happening.

A quick caveat!

During the presentation I sometimes used the past tense about the Pandemic (and I might in this post too). On the day before the talk, in the UK, over 900 people were admitted to hospital with Covid, and there were over a thousand people on ventilators. One year before the talk, when the UK government were preparing new restrictions, such as the “rule of six”, there were 100 people admitted to hospital and there were 80 people on ventilators. The Pandemic is not over.  And at the rate we are going, will not be for quite some time.

During the pandemic I’ve been privileged to be able to do research into what academics are doing and what students are doing. We’ve done several hundred hours of interviews across many institutions (publication in review). We’ve been trying to build a picture of pandemic practice, to try and understand what might happen next. These are only a few of the insights.

Academics struggled with engagement, not content

Academics have sources of content and tools for providing content to students, the struggle comes in finding help in how to engage students in online spaces.

As Dave Cormier has pointed out many times, content loses its primary place of importance in an age of information abundance; and learning is a collaborative and social endeavour. The value in education comes through engagement and experience.

Social Connectivity

As with the concerns around engagement and teaching and learning, people point to struggles not with communicating about work, or completing tasks, but about staying connected and engaged socially with colleagues and students. During this pandemic emergency, a lot of work and energy in teaching and learning, and across many other aspects of institutional life is centred on trying to get back some of the socially connected feeling that people associate with being together in the same physical place, being able to visit people in offices, bump into each other in hallways, meet up for beverages or meals, and so on..

Gender Bias in Pastoral Care

“I am one of the younger members of the team. I am a woman. I get more of the pastoral work as a woman. Sometimes weighs more heavily than some of the other tasks.”

“Some (male) colleagues say I should compartmentalise but it’s difficult”

In interviews with female academics we found that there was evidence that women were doing more pastoral care than their male colleagues. There was also evidence that attitudes differed about the visibility of students in digital places, with some men assuming that if they had not heard from their students everything was fine, but with some women,  if they didn’t hear from their students , would check in  and ask how the students were doing.

Help vs Guidance

People who are teaching in digital places, sometimes for the first time, were aware that guidance was provided by the professional services in their institutions.  The academics we spoke with still say they need help in following through on, or even reading that guidance. Guidance often came in the forms of long documents, and videos.  We spoke with members of one edtech team who stated they had made “loads of videos” and sent them to staff; and they had hundreds of people turn up to a webinar.  They pointed to the production of videos and webinars as evidence of how busy they were, but engaging with those resources was perceived by the academics as requiring more work and time that they did not have the capacity to give.

When people told us they wanted help, they meant a person to sit with them and talk them through what needed to happen. Often because they were so overwhelmed with the tasks they had to achieve, and they just needed someone to be there, to listen, and to reassure them.

And I know we don’t have enough staff to do all this, but the solution is not always sending out more videos and handbooks. There is a difference between “guidance” and “help” and we need to think about how institutions facilitate more of the latter. It will take funding, it will take more people, and it will take commitment from the institution.

Early in the pandemic our research focused on staff, in part because they were more readily available to talk to during the emergency.  As the pandemic continued, we got more chances to speak directly with students, and learn about their practices and priorities in their experiences with emergency remote learning.  I want to spend the rest of the time here discussing the student-facing research.

Disabled Students

I used to work in Technology and Disability. I set up and ran TechDis, a Jisc funded service looking at disability and technology. During that time I got to speak to learning technologists and academics who were building learning objects, designing courses, putting material on line. I did not build the service to work directly with students– there was at that time good funding in universities to already do that. I set the service up to look at the culture of teaching and to try and move it towards inclusive practice that would not require individual students to ask for accomodation. It was hard!  Most accommodations were made on a case by case basis rather than programs engaging in complete changes in practice for all students.

So here are some numbers.

There are 1,975,380 students in UK higher education 

Pie chart showing the number of disabled students based on stats in text (illustrative only)17% of Student Population around 350k students are disabled (a lot of those students have dyslexia – which affects around 10% of the UK population). However, there are also around 3000 blind students, 6000 deaf students, and 9000 with a physical impairment or mobility issue

“Visibly” disabled students have never been numerous, and some of the disabilities are “easier” to create accommodations for than others. For example, there is a lot of work done on dyslexia accommodations, but some disabilities have far less support. When we look at any of these vulnerable groups trying to navigate the logistics, administration and the learning, we can see clearlythat they are trying to operate in an institution that was not set up, not designed, with their needs in mind.

“…disabled students felt that the things they had been asking for over many years, but were told they couldn’t have, had been delivered in days and weeks when the pandemic hit.”

Geoff Layer, chair of the Disabled Students’ Commission, and VC at Wolverhampton

When the pandemic emergency hit, things like recording lectures, making content available in alternative formats (e.g, transcripts), and being flexible on assessment all made a difference to disabled students. My own experience of working with disabled students has shown me that it takes a lot of energy having to ask for accommodations, accommodations that students are legally entitled to. So when we are inclusive by default, disabled students can use their energy for learning.

Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic Students

27% of the student population are classified in government statistics as Black, Asian, Minority EthnicA pie chart showing 27% of UK students are from a Blacl, Asian, Minority Ethnic background

The degree “attainment gap” is defined as the difference in ‘top degrees’ – a First or 2:1 classification – awarded to different groups of students. The biggest differences are found by ethnic background.

This is a widely seen phenomena that those of us in higher education will be familiar with. I am not comfortable with the phrasing, the “attainment gap”. – I prefer awarding gap,  because this is not something that students control, it is not their fault, “attainment gap” places responsibility on the student, “awarding gap” makes it clear that we who work in and for the institution are responsible for what we award, and who we support so they can be successful.

In 2015/16, the gap was largest in England, where 78.8% of white students who gained a degree received a first or 2:1 compared with 63.2% of BAME students – a 15.6 percentage point gap. In contrast, the BAME attainment gaps in Scotland and Wales were 8.6 and 8.5 percentage points, respectively. The gap does vary depending on what group we are talking about.

  •   72.2% of Chinese students were awarded a first or 2:1 (a gap 6.6 percentage points)
  •   70.7% of Indian students (a gap of 8.1 percentage points)
  •   61.8% of Pakistani students (a gap of 17.0 percentage points)
  •   50.5% of Black students (a gap of 28.3 percentage points)

“In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”

John Scalzi (2012)

In UK HE, the easiest setting is Straight White Male and Able

John Scalzi is one of my favourite authors, he writes science fiction, but also has a section on his blog where he writes some great social commentary pieces. He wrote this in 2012. And at this point I need to state that I am very aware that I am privileged, and I have lots of opportunities to do work on and talk about lots of things. I am mostly what John Scalzi is describing here.

During the Pandemic – in many institutions – we saw a change in the awarding gap

That gap narrowed, the number of students gaining a good degree did not significantly fall, and  students from groups that historically have had a gap did better.

For example, at Keele University, during the academic year 2019/2020, the awarding gaps narrowed substantially and:

  •       In the case of BAME students, by 8 percentage points, from-11 to -3.
  •       The disability gap reduced from -6 to -2 percentage points.
  •       The Non-UK attainment gap reduced from -24 to -14 percentage points.

During the pandemic we seem to have made education better for some of the most vulnerable students

Some of the things we did during the pandemic emergency, including the move to online instruction, flexible assessment, and recording and making available lectures and other content, meant that disadvantaged students were able to narrow the gap when institutions do the things they should have always been doing!

We need to keep looking at the specifics of those practices, keep looking at what is making a difference and we need to tell people about that, and we need to share those practices. More than that, in the rush to get “Back to Campus” we must protect those practices that serve the most vulnerable. Things that are working should not be abandoned just because they are harder to do, or because we see opportunities to restore practices in physical places in the (we hope) eventual waning of the pandemic..

The Pandemic has also shown us that we do not have to do anything special for the people for whom institutions and systems have been built. Our white male able students are going to be fine, they are the default category of person higher education is already built for..  It is ok–I would argue it is necessary– to start saying to ourselves “my starting point for designing this curriculum, this system, this process, will be to serve those students who are disadvantaged, who are disabled by our institutions.


  1. I love this summary, Lawrie. As you know, I led/coordinated the Covid digital learning response in my institution and my experience is very resonant with your summary. Given a choice between the “snapback” (Peter Bryant’s phrase) to norms, and the pivot to a more inclusive and flexible approach, I would choose the latter. In a heartbeat. I just hope that Universities take this opportunity.

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