Universities in a more virtual world: what UK higher education has learned

06 Jul 2020

Universities in a more virtual world: what UK higher education has learned

As global educators adjust to a post-COVID world, we hear from the UK’s Professor Nicola Phillips, Vice-President Education at King’s College London, as part of Odgers Berndtson Education Practice’s In Global Conversation series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led universities around the world to change their teaching and learning delivery overnight.  

How has King’s College London found the transition to online and digital delivery? How are your staff and students responding?

At King’s, we were well-placed to make the transition as we have already put a huge amount of effort and investment into digital education over the years and have considerable expertise in the university.

But that is not to say it’s been easy. Like other universities, this transition was at a previously unimagined scale and pace, and we had to move an enormous university onto a completely different footing essentially overnight.

I’ve been really inspired by the way people have come together to face this crisis – whoever said that universities were slow to change have certainly been proved wrong!

Even as a university well-placed to make the transition, we still felt there was a huge job to be done at King’s. It wasn’t perfect and there are always things to improve, but in those early stages we met the challenge and we kept teaching, learning and assessment going.

The way our colleagues responded has been fantastic and impressive. All you can ask is that they try their very best to adapt, support the students and keep them in touch with the university. For many, this was deeply unfamiliar territory, but in the context of considerable dislocation and very different home situations, everyone has responded very well.

We are certainly asking a lot more of our colleagues in education at the present time. We need to think positively looking to the future, moving our emergency crisis response to a more sustained long-term response.

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What has been the biggest challenge in moving to a platform of online course delivery at this time, while maintaining the quality of teaching?

I think that it is important to recognise the challenge is twofold: the technical side, but also for people themselves.

This is a fundamental shift in how we all work, how people approach their teaching, how they work as academics or professional services, even right down to where they are trying to do all that.

The biggest challenge is not, in fact, a technical one. Of course, there are the IT capacity considerations or how to design the right curriculum infrastructure, but it is the emotional element which is equally important right now.

How do we create a feeling of community for students studying remotely, and how do you create a sense of cohort for each individual?

How it feels to be part of the university is an enormously important part of the student experience. We need to extend that social experience, as well as the sense of connection to academic staff, no matter where in the world our students are.

For the next academic year, we are looking to achieve a flexible hybrid model where everyone receives the same education and sense of connection, wherever they are. This aims to maintain the quality of teaching and parity of cohort experience as much as possible.

There are huge complexities around the variety of subjects and the breadth of requirements, but we see this as an essential part of teaching and learning at King’s for the next period.

What interesting innovations are you seeing in the wider Higher Education sector in the context of digital delivery and technology?

We’ve had a positive experience at King’s, as there are so many who are energized by the nature of the challenges and the opportunities. They want to find ways to move things forward and engage in open discussions about the way in which we do things.

Educational technology has been around for a long time but hasn’t yet been fully exploited by many universities.

This crisis has prompted people to think creatively and has interesting conversations about what education is about and how we deliver it. There are exciting new academic innovations appearing across the disciplines. These range from how we use simulation and virtual reality, to think about trends in tele-health.

We’ve unfortunately had to take the decision not to send any students on study abroad for the rest of this calendar year. This, in turn, has facilitated interesting discussions about how to recreate some of that international experience using telecoms technology, possibilities we have not experimented with before.

Within the realms of technological development, our new focus has been how technology can help us innovate and enhance our teaching, as well as open-up opportunities and widen access for all students. I think we have a very exciting opportunity for the next academic year.

Looking ahead, what will these changes mean for how your university will deliver its courses in 2021? What changes do you think are likely to endure in a post-COVID world?

I don’t think that these changes should be seen as radical temporary adjustments. At no point should we lose our ability to learn, adapt and embrace changes to be genuinely valuable to people and education.

As a result, there will be a huge amount that persists, and I don’t believe that any learning will ultimately go out of the window. At the same time, there are intrinsically important aspects of being in a campus community and collaborating face-to-face, and we all miss it intensely.

We can’t lose what is valuable about what we already do.

At King’s, we are making sure that every aspect of our current approach is consistent with our existing overarching education strategy. This acts as an anchor for building on the crisis response and guiding the developments we are investing in. For example, expanding digital education options is an important pillar of that existing strategy, and allows us to see this time as an opportunity to move forward in a direction we wanted to take anyway.

The current context is enabling innovation by encouraging people to think differently about what they do. For example, how we can use new digital content much more systematically to complement courses, innovate in assessment processes, and enhance interdisciplinary work with virtual classrooms.

It would be great to see all that, and more, stick around, because not only would it be a loss for such time and energy to be wasted, but it is also a real opportunity to have a lasting impact on the future of university education.

People have become much more open to experimentation, and we are seeing much less of the sector’s traditional risk aversion.

We’re all learning that trial and error is a positive thing, having that licence to experiment will be invaluable for the future development of education and the Higher Education sector.

Thank you, Nicola, for sharing the view from London. Hear from Australia and the US too by downloading all three interviews here.