Claire Penketh, Senior Press Officer at BCS, spoke to James Crooks, UCLan’s Director of Learning and Information Services about how they helped the NHS - and what the future holds for its students in September.

‘As a university with a broad academic discipline we have all sorts of facilities, consumables and equipment so we worked very closely with the Lancashire Resilience Forum which is a group of private and public sector leaders who look at the potential threats to the region from a technological or business disruption angle.

‘They were mobilised fairly quickly when COVID hit. At the university, we had masks, gloves, gowns ventilator equipment, fume cupboards which could be useful for the NHS or other services. We made that offer and the army came on site to pick up a range of clinical and research equipment to help fight the virus, while we had various NHS trusts taking us up on our offer of PPE.

‘Our engineering technicians worked with some of our academics to produce parts for ventilators and masks used by the NHS. Our fashion and textile technicians worked with our lecturers to produce gowns by the hundreds for various NHS trusts. Our scientific support technicians followed the WHO guidelines on hand sanitiser and produced over 120 litres of it for care homes and the NHS around the region.

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‘It’s great that, as a university, we have these facilities. They weren’t being used for learning, teaching or research because we were in lockdown, so what better way to put them to use than by supporting the wider response to the crisis?’

Surviving lockdown - teaching using tech

‘We’ve been running a development programme known as ‘DigiLearn’ over the past two years that benefitted us too. We’ve developed a learning strategy that consisted of investing heavily in digital in three areas - our people, our places and our practice.

‘Prior to lockdown we’d put together a programme of academic development to help our lecturers and teaching staff level-up through the use of technology. It allowed academic staff to share best practice around technology adoption, and we have different badges for achievements within the programme; you can be a DigiLearn Practitioner, a DigiLearn Advocate or a DigiLearn Champion depending on your different achievements.

‘This approach created a real buzz of enthusiasm around much of our academic and technical communities, with many people feeling empowered to become champions in their communities of practice. So rather than relying solely on our IT staff to train and develop these skills, academic staff had already become far more self-sufficient, supporting each-other and identifying new ways of working and collaborating with students in a classroom environment themselves.

‘Another element of our strategic investment was providing all our academic staff with a Microsoft Surface Tablet, which meant we’ve been able to support academic staff much more comprehensively by having a consistent technology platform. We were also able to equip all our learning spaces with flexible furniture and wireless presentation technology on a much more cost-effective basis because we didn’t have to cater for a wide range of devices.

‘We have built a great partnership with Microsoft and they love what we’re doing in this area. Together we host an annual conference here at UCLan where practitioners and technologists from across the sector can come and learn from us, from Microsoft, and from each other about technology-enabled practice.

'At our last event, we launched our DigiLearn sector community on Microsoft Teams, to enable that sharing and advocacy of good practice to continue to grow and develop online. The community now has around 800 members from over 300 institutions around the world, all sharing what they do around learning and teaching, enhanced by technology.’

Well prepared

‘By the time COVID arrived nearly 80 per cent of our academic colleagues had engaged with the DigiLearn programme, which left about 400 to get onboard in a very short space of time.

‘So when COVID began, within 10 days we were at the point where we had to do everything online and we had a really good level of assurance that our staff knew what to do in order to make that shift.

‘We were able to focus less on the academic support and more on supporting our students in this new online world. UCLan, like many post-1992 universities, has a large proportion of students from underprivileged or low socio-economic backgrounds - about 10% of our 35,000 students. A lot were struggling to do their work on smart phones because they didn’t have their own computers - or sometimes they were being used by their siblings to do gaming or keep up with their own schoolwork.

‘We were able to invest time and effort to get 580 laptops and many 4G wireless broadband dongles out to them, and also to our staff in areas where they had poor broadband, just to provide that base level of technology to carry on learning and teaching.

‘I know that as a result of the work we had done with our academic colleagues, we were in a much better position than others, which meant we could focus much more on our students. We also have a team of our own British Sign Language interpreters and we took them through a process of upskilling to use technology to continue that work remotely. Of course, when we were planning our digital development we had no idea that COVID was going to happen and that we would have to make the shift quickly, but it gave us an opportunity to ramp it up and I think we did really well.’

New term

‘Applications from all of our target groups are looking pretty good. The headlines are that applications across the sector are up by about 1%, whereas at UCLan we are seeing an increase of around 7%. Interest in health-related provision is exceptionally high, so it is looking really promising for September at this stage. Graduates in some of our key subject areas like nursing, midwifery, physiotherapy, medicine, and dentistry are so critical to the future of our global community and this has probably never been more apparent.

‘We are still working on exactly what September will look like for us, and between now and then we’re expecting to see quite a bit of change in terms of government advice on issues such as social distancing. We’re preparing for, as much as possible, for things to be business as usual, while recognising that for some staff and students it might feel like it’s business ‘unusual’.

'We’re focusing on providing safe spaces around campus for students to come in and continue studying. We’re looking at how we can extend our teaching practices into the evenings and weekends, particularly for our specialist environments, to support some of the more practical disciplines like sciences and engineering for students that need access to labs, workshops, and the like.

‘Also, with our library we’re looking at how best to help students find their way around the building, study safely, and making sure they can access the resources they need through click and collect type services.

‘Technology will be a big help in the learning space as we’re putting a lot of our resources online, whether that is library text or course notes, videos etc. We’re also looking at a much more blended approach which will work really well for students who need to stay at home, because of people they need to look after or who are shielding themselves. We hope they can feel as much a part of what is happening on the campus as the people who are there physically.

‘We’re looking at making more of interactive resources like laboratory experiments so that we can get students more familiar with processes and techniques before they need to come in and do the experiments themselves.

‘Plus, there will be more video conferencing access for students to contact librarians and those specialist support personnel and we’re looking at a blend of online chat to complement services like counselling and mental health appointments. ‘I think we will continue to rely on technology for all aspects of our teaching delivery and I don’t think there will be anything happening on campus that doesn’t have something digital behind it like an associated Microsoft Team or some kind of virtual lab.’

Extra help

‘Accessibility is one of the things that can be a real challenge, particularly given our student demographic. We can’t ever make the assumptions that everyone has access to the tech that they need to engage with us, and I think that will always be a challenge for us. We’re looking at various hardship funds that students can apply for too and we’re going to have to provide much more support for those students who take time to adjust.

'Our Students’ Union has been involved in a survey to understand how students feel about going online and a number were concerned that if we just pick up our academic delivery ‘as-is’ and move it online, that wouldn’t be the best experience for them. We therefore need to look again at the way we design and deliver our courses to be much more aligned with these technology opportunities. The role of technology in the educational environment has never been more important.’

The BCS vITal workers campaign

Tech has been centre stage of the lockdown. When the COVID crisis began, BCS launched a campaign - vITal workers to recognise the great work being done by IT professionals to keep Britain working.

So far, as of the end of June, we have received more than 250 nominations for teams, individuals and volunteers and sent out over 1,000 badges and stickers. One of the organisations nominated was the Preston based University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), which mobilised its staff and facilities to help the NHS and care homes. The university has a student and staff community of around 38,000 students - with significant numbers of students studying health-related courses in nursing, midwifery, physiotherapy, medicine, and dentistry.

If you want to nominate a business, organisation, or individual who you think has used their digital or IT skills to go the extra mile during these challenging times then nominate them for our vITal workers campaign.