Covid-19 impact: engaging international students with institutional responses

“Institutions know they need to ensure that teaching is delivering value”

Changes to teaching and learning as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have raised serious questions around how the student voice can be captured effectively, especially given the sector’s reliance on face-to-face approaches, and ultimately around student satisfaction, writes John Atherton of Explorance.

With the majority of universities subsequently advocating blended approaches to teaching and learning for the 2020/21 academic year, they have done so after reflecting long and hard on their initial responses to Covid-19 and developing plans for engaging students.

However, with Coronavirus outbreaks hitting campuses worldwide, the sector has faced a bumpy ride and at times harsh criticism throughout this first semester.

How feedback from students about their teaching and learning experience (and wider student experience) is captured – and quickly, given the fast-paced environment – during this academic year is going to be critical to institutional performance and long-term strategy.

There is also some learning here around understanding what systems and processes for acting upon feedback need to be put in place for the next significant event, not least in relation to understanding the impact on international students.

In our eBook, Engaging the student voice in our ‘new normal’: How are universities planning to capture, and act upon, feedback from students in 2020-21?, we gathered the perspectives of senior university leaders based in the UK, US, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, South Africa, Luxembourg and Switzerland on how they are tackling these huge challenges. This included insights into the impact on international students, and institutional responses.

Shân Wareing, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Northampton, reported that in the initial pivot some students found online lectures hard to engage with and difficult to access, and differences in time zones of international students caused problems especially.

However, the institution collaborated with specific groups of students to listen to their experiences and plan solutions that worked for them.

International student representatives of the Students’ Union helped the university executive team to understand the financial pressures on this group of students where the economic impact of Covid-19 in their home country meant their families could no longer afford their fees.

Payment plans were developed with these students to allow them to complete their degrees.

The university also talked to students who had chosen a UK education because they wanted to become familiar with life in another culture and to build networks to advance their careers when they returned home.

With lockdown, their plans to network and have work placements in the UK could not fully be realised, and Northampton explored options to support them to achieve aspects of their education which were important to them but restricted by lockdown.

Meanwhile, and also on a very practical level, the University of Luxembourg highlighted that in a state of emergency they had to find ways of responding to and anticipating questions from their students.

Catherine Léglu, vice-rector for academic affairs, said the pandemic had led them to rethink some of the most basic student experiences, not least around how to retain contact when cut off from the classroom and the office.

She also made the point that the university is multilingual, with three teaching languages (English, French and German); 56% of its students are international and, of these, many use English as a lingua franca. They therefore decided to limit their pandemic-focused communications to English. Developing a dialogue with students, domestic and international, continues to be a critical priority for the university.

Elsewhere, Les Roches, a specialist hospitality management institution, reported how it became one of the first institutions in Switzerland to deliver in HyFlex.

This simultaneous face-to-face and remote synchronous mode of teaching and learning also caters for asynchronous learners by making recordings of classes and other adapted activities available online, and has been well received by remote international students living in several time zones where connectivity can pose problems for live streaming.

Head of teaching and learning development Ruth Puhr said her institution had used feedback from a range of channels to constantly adjust material, resources, activities and assessments. Taking timely action based on student feedback combined with measuring the success of action over the semester is their approach.

The lessons being learned on the way are interesting, but universities reaching out and listening to the student voice drive them all.

Going forward, institutions know they need to ensure that teaching is delivering value and provide evidence (through module evaluation surveys and other student feedback mechanisms) that students are receiving a fulfilling education, and make insight available to university leaders as quickly as possible.

About the author: John Atherton is General Manager (Europe and Africa) at Explorance. Engaging the student voice in our ‘new normal’: How are universities planning to capture, and act upon, feedback from students in 2020-21? is available to download here.