On Friday 13th March 2020 I wrote to all students and staff in the School of Chemistry to announce that all teaching was moving online for the remaining three weeks of semester. The email was a result of a busy few weeks of activity planning contingencies as we worked to comprehend what the impact of COVID-19 would be — if any. In the weeks running up to the event, contingency work was very much in the context of “worse-case scenario”; indeed it started off from the perspective that COVID-19 had prompted general agreement that we should have a contingency plan in the event of a major impact to core delivery. In my note to a staff meeting sent just the week before, I wrote regarding contingency plans: “I don’t know as I write if they will be needed, but it is an interesting exercise in any case to plan out what we would do in the event of a major disruption… Hopefully at the staff meeting we will be looking back with curious interest at the entire saga.” Things changed very quickly. The staff meeting was cancelled.
As news of the virus’ rapid spread intensified, concerns in the week of 9th March came in thick and fast from staff and students. Staff were concerned about being in their offices giving tutorials and students were voting with their feet; letting us know they could not attend labs or tutorials because they or their family members were immunocompromised. There were so many unknown aspects of the virus and people were afraid. It became clear that we would need to act very quickly. The Teaching Contingency group formed that month and comprised senior management in the School and key professional services staff from our Teaching Office and IT. As an exercise the Teaching Office had begun to transfer the timetable to an online setting, creating Collaborate links for each of the lecture and tutorial teaching events in the timetable. These links were added to Blackboard front page for each course and hidden, so that they could be activated at any moment. I had used Collaborate previously to host a webinar series, so I was added to every event as a moderator, so that I could be a teaching buddy/tech support.
This was a huge task and was key to the success of any action. A key principle in our contingency approach was that no process was reliant on one person. We set up something called a “Microsoft Team” (that’ll never last) to document every detail, process, password so that everything was shared across the contingency group.
In a first year lecture, my colleague Simon Parsons was lecturing crystallography and he polled the students to see if they would like their next lecture online or in person. They voted for online, and this gave us a useful test of the system. He delivered the school’s first online lecture on 9 AM Thursday 12th March. It went very well. I learned some crystallography. In fact we got some really great questions in from students that weren’t normally asked, and Simon was happy to finish his course online.
Everything was ready to go at the push of a button (well several buttons – it is Blackboard after all).
On Wednesday and Thursday the School began emptying out. Fewer people were around, student activity was diminished. Emails to me and Head of School were increasing in quantity and concern. It was a busy week as we were having our 5 year internal periodic review so I was trying to juggle that alongside everything else. On Wednesday afternoon I met with Head of School and our Director of Professional Services. It is a meeting etched in memory; kind of like a Washington Post photo. We discussed everything and ultimately the question arose: can we do it?
I confirmed that we had everything set up, we had the capacity to do it, and the competence to deliver it. Our laboratory programme only had a week to run so we could cancel laboratory classes for a final week. Everything else could run online. Final year MChem project students needed particular attention, but the focus was on mapping out their final months to give clarity and reassurance. I drafted correspondence to staff, all students, and individual student years and we went over the detail. We waited to see how Simon’s trial would go on Thursday morning.
On Thursday afternoon the University Principal emailed all staff and students confirming restrictions to travel and cancellation of large events. He reiterated that the University remained open and was committed to providing support and stability to staff and students.
With the Principal’s email in mind, on Friday morning I emailed all of our staff and students, notifying them of our intention to move online from the following Monday. Balancing our desire to support our students who could not or did not wish to attend in person with the message of university remaining open was delicate, and our intention was that any student who wished could continue to attend in person at the allocated lecture theatre, where the staff member would deliver the lecture using Collaborate, but with the possibility of some students in the room. Events overtook and that approach never manifested.
Within an hour my email appeared verbatim in the student newspaper The Tab under the headline “School of Chemistry to move all teaching online from next week”. I got a note saying the University Secretary Office would like to talk to me, and after some cold sweats, accepted the call. To be fair, they were just interested in the context, and I explained our “hybrid” intentions, reiterating the very large concern among staff and students about attendance in person. I noted that students were voting with their feet, and attendance was dropping below 50% and falling quickly. They thanked me for the information and I hung up the receiver, still employed by the University.
We fielded a lot of emails that day. The most common theme was thanks. My email inbox for the day is a mixed bag of checking details about what we meant, mixed in with routine emails about enquiring if I had read theses drafts, queries about journal manuscripts I was editing. But there was a surge of emails giving thanks from students for clarity and action. A parent of a student who was a clinician in US wrote to thank us for our action. After the cold sweats of the morning, I was feeling good (if not tired from lack of sleep!).
On Friday afternoon the Principal updated staff and students explaining that it was clear that events were rapidly changing and the Emergency Team in the university had agreed to move online after a week pause (to allow staff time to prepare to move online). Pre-honours exams were cancelled and honours exams would be remote and online.
Our immediate task was to follow up this email with students to say that we were ready to go and would continue online from the following Monday, and that we would give details about exams in due course. My colleague Chris Mowat and I had a busy weekend fielding email queries, but it was great that the clarity of the decision meant plans beyond teaching could begin to be made.
The weeks of implementation were busy; as the “tech/teaching buddy” in Collaborate classes, I learned a lot about how my colleagues teach and a lot of chemistry. It was quite enjoyable! Our focus moved on to clarity about exams, deciding what to do with final year project students, and focussing on student support.
For exams, we worked from the Principal’s guidance that exams would be online, and drafted up proposals for what that meant in reality, and opted for 24 hour online exams, mainly driven by an equity perspective. External Examiners quickly signed off the plans. When the university decided what to do with exams, they opted for 48 hours. After some discussion, sharing our concerns about 48 hours (two lost sleeps rather than one), we agreed to comply with 48 hours for consistency. We built an in-house exam submission system and made supporting resources for students to use it. We shared our ideas with other Chemistry Departments and the RSC.
For project students, the main tasks were to finish writing theses and giving a presentation. I introduced some thesis support sessions (they went so well we continued them as “normal” activities this year). In a rush to think about what to do about orals, my initial idea was to ask students to give posters instead. I rushed this decision, and in hindsight that was definitely a mistake to rush. The number of queries it generated, along with confusion about how we could meaningfully assess it, meant that we decided to cancel the project presentation aspect altogether. I think it is an interesting reflection as it shows how unused to video conferencing we were at that stage. All of our orals this year are online.
With the ensuing lockdown, student support became our primary focus. With the semester ending, there was a large gap of a month between semester and exams and we wanted to make sure we supported students through that. Chris already had an extensive support network in place from his work as Senior Personal Tutor, and we worked to use that, focussing our efforts on an occasional webchat for queries. This became very popular, and it became weekly, and indeed aside from a short summer break, has continued since. We shared our approaches with colleagues. My humblebrag is that I am very proud that Chris and my work on student support earned us a Principal’s Medal for Exceptional Contribution to the University.
Even in that final week, I don’t think we understood the full danger of the virus. We had a prospective student visit scheduled for 20th March, and we agreed a colleague who should not be near people (for immuno- rather than personality reasons) should not do it, but I quite happily volunteered to take it. That seems crazy in hindsight. I attended a management meeting of all Heads of School and Directors of Teaching with University management in Appleton Tower that week as well. In hindsight packing all the people that make the university run in one room was not a great idea. But we soon became used to something called Teams, and being on mute.
Thinking about the actions a year on makes me realise how much university life has changed. The idea that we just acted in Chemistry for Chemistry shocks me now; I can’t imagine not sounding out colleagues across my College. As a reasonably new Director of Teaching then I had met them perhaps every three months at a meeting, and didn’t know most of them more than saying a polite hello. Most of my interactions before March were internal to my school. Since March we have been meeting weekly, planning, discussing, empathising. It has been one of the really great outcomes and has broken down silos and opened up conversation.
I still cannot imagine how difficult it is to run a University, but have some more insight into the many challenges and demands. I think as well as better communication across silos, the last year has also led to better communication between schools and “the university”; and it has been great to be able to input to that and learn from that. University committee structures have been challenged hugely by Covid; the usual routine of meeting quarterly in a system demanding decisions almost daily has necessitated a rethink about how decisions are made and governance over decisions. It will be interesting to hear how some positive changes establish into normal procedures once things settle down again.