Covid-19: A message to students about teaching and assessment

Dear Queen Mary Students

On Sunday we posted our response to management’s decisions regarding Covid-19. We shared your concerns about how management has handled the cancellation of face-to-face teaching and excluded staff unions from key decision-making bodies. QMUL managers have ignored our calls to suspend in-person teaching and pause all teaching for one week to allow staff time to prepare to teach online. QMUCU members returning from strike on 20 March will have little time to make this transition, with some of us starting that very morning. This is entirely unreasonable, and we want to explain the impact this will have on your education. In the process, we want to reassure you that we understand the challenges you will face and will of course take those into account when marking your assessments.

Alternative modes of teaching

It is very difficult indeed to shift from in-person to online teaching at the best of times, and nearly impossible given the lack of time, resources, support and training management are providing to staff. At the Open University, which specialises in distance/online learning, it takes two years to develop an online course. We have asked management to pause teaching for just one week to give us time to prepare. But they have so far ignored us. Therefore, your lecturers and tutors will struggle to deliver your classes online.

Lectures. While some lectures involve a lecturer synthesising a set of complex ideas with little apparent interaction for you, lectures are interactive even if this is not always apparent: for example, lecturers want feedback by watching your reactions, they may ask Q&As, or they may include group discussions and feedback from you, etc. This is impossible through pre-recorded audio and video. Even live video streams would be difficult for students now in very different time-zones, and are tricky to make properly interactive without a support team collating messages, watching for questions, and so on. We have been given no time, training or resources to prepare these alternatives. And as a result, we are limited in being able to deliver the quality of education you deserve. 

Finding alternatives to seminars. Seminars are even more difficult to move online. Online discussions are always clunkier than in-person, and misunderstandings or difficulties that can be noted and addressed instantly face-to-face are near-impossible. If given adequate time, resources and support, your lecturers and tutors would develop and combine different online activities that would generate some of the same learning benefits. Without that, we can only improvise weaker substitutes.

Labs, Clinical Work and Performances. These are even harder – if not simply impossible – to provide online. 

Shifting online is therefore a huge challenge for your lecturers and tutors and we need to face the reality of the difficulty of this transition. You should also know that QMUCU lecturers, tutors and support staff also understand it is going to be a challenge for you. We all need to be sympathetic to each other as we work through these emerging challenges. Most importantly, please remember that because we understand the difficulties of working and learning out of your usual mode, we won’t forget that when making decisions about alternative teaching and assessment. 

Alternative assessment

Summer examinations have been suspended, so your lecturers must find alternative ways for you to demonstrate mastery of your modules. Again, this isn’t easy. 

Lecturers design assessments carefully to allow students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills you should have developed in that module. Designing new questions and tasks for a different assessment method is hard work. We need to consider how tasks might be (mis)interpreted, ensure they are fair for students with different educational backgrounds, in different time-zones, with different internet access, etc. It is not straight-forward. If rushed, there will be unintended consequences. We can have no instant answers for what will replace exams, because we need time to carefully consider these issues and craft solutions. We need to take that time to be fair and reasonable to you.

Our pledge to you

QMUCU members who have been on strike are driven by two things:

  • The idea of the university as a place to generate and diffuse knowledge, with students at the centre of our care and work.
  • Solidarity and mutual support as the defining attributes of a decent human being.

The second commitment is what allows us to fight for the first. When we return to work, the solidarity you have shown us, and the dedication we have for the idea of the university, will be directed at trying to cope with the Covid-19 crisis.

QMUCU members will:

  • Try their best, within the constraints imposed by management decisions and the crisis itself, to teach the rest of the semester online. 
  • Be sympathetic and flexible if you encounter difficulties in participating.
  • Ensure that alternative assessments are designed and marked fairly, taking these additional learning challenges into account.
  • Do our very best to ensure that your grades will not suffer. 

What can students do?

There are a number of things you can do to help this transition:

  • Take care of your physical health. Follow NHS guidance on physical health. Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly (for 20 seconds) using soap and hot water. Don’t rely on anti-bacterial gels as these aren’t effective against viruses unless they contain over 60% alcohol (ethanol). Avoid touching your face and practice social distancing. Be especially careful with older people, vulnerable groups and those with underlying health issues. Eat healthily and take exercise (outdoors).
  • Take care of your mental health. Many people are feeling stressed and anxious. Take time away from the 24-hour news cycle to relax. If you need help, reach out to welfare officers and the advice and counselling service. Also try to speak with people about how you may be feeling. Stay in contact with friends and family; they may be worried about you. Check in on friends.
  • Keep on top of your studies. The social distancing necessary to contain COVID-19 is inconvenient, but can also provide time and space for you to really concentrate on studying. Do your core reading, branch out to other sources, do the lecture, seminar, and lab exercises. Review past feedback and consider how you’re going to act on it. Make a start on assessments, and so on. 
  • Set up a WhatsApp group (or similar) with those in your modules to discuss remotely and provide support for one another. Learn to collaborate in your essay production, by discussing ideas and showing one another drafts for discussion.
  • Please be patient and sympathetic towards your lecturers, tutors and admin staff who support them. They are dealing with all of the same physical and mental health issues that you are, have parents and children to worry about, and are now trying to adapt your teaching and assessment without preparation time, proper training or support. With time, patience and some mutual understanding we will get through this together.

Take care.

 

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