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Move to Covid-19 digital learning a ‘massive ask’

Jisc urges universities to stick with what they know in unprecedented online teaching challenge

Higher Education IT body Jisc has urged universities to hold off rolling out new digital learning systems as dozens more institutions shut down face-to-face teaching in response to the spread of coronavirus. A Jisc spokesman has called the emergency dash to remote tuition, “a massive ask”.

Steve Bailey, head of consultancy at higher education IT firm Jisc, told Research Professional News that universities should work with the digital learning systems they have already as more abandon face-to-face teaching and move classes online.

“[Jisc] members need to start where they currently are,” he said. “Unless you are already a few steps down that journey, you need to think carefully about setting up something now.”

Bailey said it would be a “massive ask” to expect staff and students to start using a new system now, and he stressed that it would be about “making use of what you have got” during the rapid switch to remote learning. He also told university leaders to think about the practicalities of quickly moving to online working. “Does that person even have the headset or the microphone or the webcam to do that?” he said.

Bailey’s comments came after the list of universities to move learning online grew over the weekend. The universities of Dundee, Aberdeen, Stirling, the West of Scotland, Lancaster, Central Lancashire, Liverpool, Sheffield Hallam, Loughborough, Leicester, Essex, Hertfordshire, Exeter, Portsmouth, Surrey, Swansea, Edinburgh Napier, Liverpool John Moores, Ulster, Queen’s Belfast, Cardiff, Trinity St David, and Heriot-Watt, The Open University and the University for the Creative Arts are shutting some activities.

The University of London colleges that are have fully or partially suspended activities include Birkbeck, Royal Holloway, and Queen Mary, while Universities UK president Julia Buckingham’s institution, Brunel University, is stopping face-to-face teaching as of today.

They join Durham University, the London School of Economics, King’s College London, University College London, the University of Edinburgh and London Metropolitan University, which announced full or partial closures last week.

At this stage the government’s advice is for universities to remain open. Last week education secretary Gavin Williamson told journalists at an event by the Association of School and College Leaders that university leaders should “actually look at what the medical and scientific advice is—and the medical and scientific advice is that we shouldn’t be closing educational settings”.

While the wellbeing of students during the switch to online learning is “paramount”, Bailey urged university leaders to make sure staff feel supported. “There is a massive welfare concern in terms of, are staff coping and how do you know they are coping?”

Jisc has started holding webinars for members each week on best practice for remote working and online learning, and it is preparing a joint statement with other IT bodies to pressure publishers into dropping their paywalls for virus-related content.

“Everyone is preparing for the time when as much teaching and learning as possible is delivered online during the current crisis,” he said. “As a community, universities and colleges can do a huge amount to help each other through this.”

Commenting on university closures Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, stressed that while people “should listen to the medical experts and plan their behaviour accordingly”, if universities are moving teaching online they should be as open as possible with students, staff and their local communities.

“I do worry about things like the technological challenge in moving teaching online but every sector of the economy is facing unprecedented challenges at the moment and the challenges our sector faces are no more insurmountable than those faced by others,” he said.

Hillman added should explain clearly that closing campuses is “not really feasible” due to international students, estranged students and care leavers needing support from their institutions.