State of the nation

An email the other day reminded me with some cheer that it is 66 days until students return. Remove days for annual leave, weekends, and just wailing hopelessly into the void, that does not leave many days left To Do Things. And there are lots of Things To Do.

We’ve just come through a month of consultation with staff and students where I’ve shared plans and sought feedback and ideas. Consultation with staff was quite empowering. I hear a lot about staff in research intensive universities and their supposed negative attitudes towards anything teaching related, but my email box is full of evidence to the contrary. Lots of good ideas, good will, and recognition that Things need to be Done. If anything I am looking to protect staff from the flood of information from far too many sources about next year and keep their minds focussed on what they are good at – teaching their specialism in chemistry. I tend not to “cascade as appropriate” as it rarely is.

If talking to staff was empowering, talking to students was emotional, as in I literally shed a little tear (maybe two). Hearing their ideas about structuring their courses and thoughts on solutions for keeping conversations going was certainly empowering, but hearing their thoughts about ensuring that we maintain inclusion and make sure we reach out to everyone in our little community caused a little Zoom blubbering on my part. Their combination of pragmatism and solidarity was really quite moving.

And they had good ideas! Clear ideas regarding structuring course delivery, surfacing issues around support and engagement, issues around their responsibilities and how to manage them. It all fed into the grand plan that is emerging for our School and as I come to the end of the consultation phase, I’m sharing here for my own reflection as well as seeking ongoing feedback.

Live lectures cannot go ahead for pretty much all of our courses as social distancing means there is no space big enough, and so our courses will be delivered in hybrid mode. Materials for each course will be prepared in advance and be ready for sharing with students. Each of our courses typically has 4 – 6 lecturers delivering a particular course units (normally about 5 lectures each), so with students’ ideas of structure in mind, we are going to deliver these in discrete bundles, with each bundle getting its own focus for two weeks.

In the first of two weeks, the focus will be on reviewing the materials, so students will have the materials available there will be some live Q+A sessions to go over difficulties, as well as perhaps a question repository area where students can bin questions they have. (Students weren’t too keen on discussion boards for discussing, more just as a convenient place to log questions for live discussion.) In the second week, we’ll have structured tutorials, in person where we can, and online for those students that need it. Then the next bundle comes along. I’m calling it the sinusoidal modelTM. Yes I will accept TED talk invitation.

We’ll be doing some things alluded to in the previous post on “micro-structuring”, to help students log what they’ve done and know what they have to do. Clarity of purpose and task is crucial in how we set out our course materials.

Labs are obviously another major aspect and we have now a small army of activity working on all the various aspects of lab teaching. Luckily we made some firm decisions early on in that regard, and we have already a lot of work done. We’ve shared our lab plans on the Royal Society of Chemistry website as a way to help others think about their own plans; hopefully some more will be added there soon!

For each year of students progressing, we’ve written to students explaining what we can say about how the year ahead will look, and what we are working on. We’re emailing students once a month to give them these kinds of updates, and m’colleague Chris Mowat will begin the weekly webchats in August, that in itself initiating our student support plans for the semester. We’ll be continuing weekly webchats throughout the semester. As some of the students said, this is going to be new for everyone, and we want to make sure we keep conversation free flowing to make sure we can tweak and amend things as needed.

We are now firmly in planning phase and it feels good to have made some decisions to work towards. The last few weeks have felt a bit like playing darts, on a listing ship, while drunk. All parts were moving. With some decisions made we can start to plan with some deliverables in mind, and hope that national and university edicts don’t mean we are too far off course. Let’s go!