This is a guest post by Farah McAdam, College Connect Development Officer.
Full lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was announced rather abruptly at the end of March 2020, and I have no doubt that many floundered a little when faced with the need to adapt very quickly to working from home. For us, the GCU College Connect team, remote working posed an additional challenge.
Over summer, we work closely with offer holders from Higher National Qualification (HNC/HND) and SWAP backgrounds, delivering the Transition Programme – a 9 week programme designed to introduce this large group of students, many of whom fall into the SIMD20/40 bracket, and who may also be care-experienced, estranged or returning to education, to skills which will help them succeed in their degree studies. In 2019, for example, 49.56% of students participating in the Transition Programme were identified as being part of the SIMD20/40 demographic, and in 2020, we saw an increase in this figure to 57%.
Normally, the Transition Programme takes place on campus. Students are invited to a day of activities by subject area. This includes workshops on academic skills, delivered by our team, and a ‘taster’ lecture, delivered by a lecturer on a topic relevant to the subject group. Students engage with us prior to this as part of our long-thin induction model and we have had a growing number of attendees each year, hosting 907 students in 2019.
Lockdown made our usual way of running the Transition Programme impossible, and we had a very small window of time in which to transform learning materials for online delivery. We were fortunate in that we had already begun using Articulate 360 to create an online component to some of our smaller scale activities. We were able to use our knowledge from these experiences to rebuild the Transition Programme from the ground up, transforming it into an accessible, interactive virtual programme.
We re-jigged the format of the Transition Programme to better facilitate an asynchronous mode of learning, splitting the programme into six modules which could be completed independently, alongside supporting webinars and lectures at scheduled times. Through this flexible approach, we aimed to engage as many students as possible from their homes while maintaining a sense of connection with College Connect and with GCU. This approach was received well, with the number of students attending our programme in 2020 rising to 1015, a 12% increase.
The unexpected change due to the pandemic raised a number of challenges. In addition to rapidly transforming all of our material from face-to-face delivery to an online format, we had to consider how to host webinars and lectures, and how to prevent our online materials from becoming mundane blocks of text.
We decided Blackboard Collaborate Ultra would be best for our live webinars. It was straightforward for students to access the sessions, and we had a full suite of moderator tools, enabling us to provide a secure online environment for the large numbers of students in each session. Conscious of the need to avoid lengthy written segments, we used a variety of methods to disseminate information – infographics, video interviews with our Student Mentors, quizzes, exercises and audio transcripts (also an accessibility feature) were used in each module to enhance the user experience.
In the period approaching the Transition Programme, we dealt with many enquiries which indicated students felt uncertain about the future in the face of COVID-19. Would they miss out on the traditional student experience? What could they expect lectures and studying to be like? What about practical work? Support?
The webinars gave students the opportunity to discuss these concerns with us directly, enabling us to provide them with up to date guidance and the assurance of a friendly face. Interestingly, student feedback relating to uncertainty over COVID-19 had dissipated after the first two modules, indicating that we were successful in addressing some of these concerns. The sample lectures, also run on Collaborate Ultra, gave students a chance to experience what an online lecture would be like in their degree subject, providing further reassurance. A snapshot of qualitative feedback from the 2020 Transition Programme indicates that students received the modules and accompanying webinars and lectures positively, with a key word frequency analysis indicating that predominant themes within responses included confidence, preparedness and feeling well informed (as shown below).
Some examples of feedback:
“This course covers everything that I have been worrying about as a transfer from college and it gives detailed information on each section. Thank you!” Respondent – BSc (Hons) Computing (Q4. Module 1)
“I feel this is a fantastic way to introduce college students like myself into university life. It has eased a lot of my concerns going into this year and made me feel optimistic about starting in October!” Respondent – BA (Hons) Social Work (Q4. Module 2)
Fortunately, only 24 out of 1015 students commented that the programme did not address their concerns or build on their existing knowledge. Nevertheless, as we are strongly committed to delivering the best experience possible for all of the students participating in the Transition Programme, we have acknowledged the feedback, along with our observations in running the 2020 programme, and have identified areas we can improve upon for 2021. For instance, our work on the 2021-2022 Transition Programme will focus on ensuring a sense of connection between each element of the programme, giving students a fully integrated learning experience.
At the end of the 9 week period, with weekly webinars and lectures and daily engagement with students, our small team of three could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding COVID-19, College Connect had managed to fulfil its commitment to providing the Transition Programme experience to new students from HNQ and SWAP backgrounds, helping them to feel more prepared for their first year of university. Going forward, we also aspire to measure the impact of the Transition Programme on student attainment and retention, and, our newly gained experience with online learning will add another dimension to our activities when it is once again safe for us to interact with students on campus.