Transforming TEL support during a pandemic

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What happened?

Kate: The UK Higher Education sector has been through a period of intense transformation at a rapid pace in response to the necessary changes required by the pandemic (JISC, 2020). Interestingly for me, this coincided with my maternity leave. I left work in August 2019 to a way of working which appeared relatively fixed and returned in early June to a completely transformed landscape. ​

In August 2019 I expect our experiences as Learning Technologists at Manchester Met were consistent with those of colleagues in other institutions across the UK. We had pockets of excellent, integrated TEL use and courses where we could confidently claim were taking a blended approach to delivery.  However, much of our virtual Learning environment (Moodle) was used as a place to store and share files and provide some extra resources around the predominantly face-to-face teaching that was being delivered. Research tells us that this was a similar picture across many HEIs (Jisc, 2020, Williamson et al, 2020). ​

We take a “hub and spoke” approach to TEL support at Manchester Met. Each TELA is aligned and physically located in a faculty, but being centrally funded we are also responsible for supporting institutionally led projects where TEL is a focus. Historically our work has been predominantly at a faculty level, with each TELA providing focused support and development sessions within the faculties. Each TELA provided in person drop-in slots and were available for ad-hoc support requests via phone, email and in-person, at desk support. We are a relatively small team of nine TELAs supporting approximately 1600 academic members of staff.

How did we respond?

Leanne: Back in March, there were so many unknowns and we needed to act quickly to address the huge increase in demand that we faced. We also had to navigate our own changes in working practice, moving from being physically based on campus to working from home. To deal with this we decided to work together and bring in a range of support options for academics, to allow them the flexibility of support that they needed as they adjusted to their own new ways of working. 

One of the first things we did was log all support requests using our service management software. This was difficult, as it added an extra step, but it allowed us to offer consistent support as we could easily pass tickets to other members of our own team, as well as other teams who supported us during the period of increased demand. For example, a Digital Education Support team was created to pick up the queries that were of a technical, rather than a pedagogical nature. They were particularly helpful when it came to the introduction of Microsoft Teams, which allowed a consistent and integrated approach to offering online remote live sessions across the institution. 

One of the most valued aspects of our support prior to the pandemic was our drop-ins, which enabled academics to come and speak to us about an issue they were facing, without needing to book. We wanted to replicate that online, but having academics arrive unannounced (potentially at the same time!) would have been difficult to manage. We implemented an online bookable drop-in service, which has been well received. We make sure we have a range of times available, often with same-day availability, so academics receive the timely support that they need. 

As well as the large shift to online teaching and the introduction of new technologies, the institution made the decision to move to a block delivery model, to allow flexibility to respond to the rapidly changing situation. The combinations of these changes meant that there was a large demand for training on a whole range of topics. We delivered over 200 sessions for which we had over 2000 sign ups, something that would have been extremely difficult to do in our pre-pandemic way of working. ​

At a time of rapid change, getting accurate and timely communications to academics was vital. To help with this, we engaged with Digital Education Champions, who were based within faculties. They shared key information with their peers, as well as providing valuable feedback about issues they were facing, which could then be addressed via the central training sessions.

Where next?

Kate: We firmly believe, as do many UK HEIs (JISC, 2020), that this pandemic has fundamentally altered our approach to teaching and learning within Manchester Met and we will not be returning entirely to the pre-pandemic modes of delivery or working. However, we need to proceed carefully to ensure that what remains from, as Willamson et al (2020:108) phrased it, our “emergency remote education”, is beneficial to both students and staff and that we as a TEL team are in a strong place to be able to provide staff with the development and support that they need to be successful and confident. ​

The pace of change has been staggering and overwhelming at times for everyone involved, as things are beginning to bed in, we will take this opportunity now to step back and conduct a series of different research projects. Our colleagues in the University Teaching Academy are investigating staff attitudes towards block teaching and we will be delivering the JISC Digital Insights Survey to staff to give them an opportunity to reflect on the support provided, opportunities they have identified and areas of concern. We’ll be reflecting on the staff perspective of our pandemic response in conjunction with our analysis of our Internal Student Survey, which has given our students vital space to express their thoughts and feelings around the huge changes they have seen to their University experiences, and give us insights on what they would like to see more of and what hasn’t worked so well for them. ​

What has changed for you?

We will be continuing to adopt many of the changes to our working practices that have emerged from the pandemic and have shared our one thing to keep on this Flipgrid. We invite you to contribute with your own changes that you will be keeping. 

References: 

Jisc. (2020). Learning and teaching reimagined A new dawn for higher education? Available at: https://repository.jisc.ac.uk/8150/1/learning-and-teaching-reimagined-a-new-dawn-for-higher-education.pdf ​

Williamson, B., Eynon, R., & Potter, J. (2020). Pandemic politics, pedagogies and practices: digital technologies and distance education during the coronavirus emergency. In Learning, Media and Technology (Vol. 45, Issue 2, pp. 107–114). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2020.1761641

Leanne Fitton, Manchester Met
Kate Soper, Manchester Met

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