Going The Distance

With the pandemic making it impossible to connect on campus, UCD rapidly mobilised operations – teaching, learning, working – online. With thoughtful leadership, UCD was ready to deliver remotely at scale

WHAT MAKES A UNIVERSITY work? Its people. So how can a university work when people cannot be on campus? That was the challenge facing UCD as the Covid-19 pandemic moved rapidly across the world, bringing with it the need for enormous societal changes to protect public health. Educators and students alike were forced to accept that in order to achieve together, they had to stay apart. But with thoughtful leadership, the right technology and a huge community response, UCD students, lecturers and staff have been going the distance to teach, learn and work.

The Covid-19 virus was identified and reported on in Wuhan, China, at the end of December 2019, and very soon after this the University was alerted to the potential global changes that the virus could bring, notes Professor Mark Rogers, UCD’s Registrar and Deputy President.

UCD has a presence in China through the Beijing-Dublin International College, which it runs in Beijing in partnership with Beijing University of Technology (BJUT).

“We had a forewarning from seeing what happened in February at our campus in China,” explains Professor Rogers. “This new disease had been reported a few weeks beforehand in Wuhan, and very suddenly the 1,000 UCD students in Beijing moved online for teaching and learning.”

Planning For Change

Even before that, senior management at UCD had been thinking about how to move its entire population of 17,000 undergraduate and 7,500 graduate students to distance teaching, learning and assessment should the need arise.

“We started to plan how we should organise ourselves, so that if the virus came to Ireland we would be in a position to act,” says Professor Jason Last, Dean of Students at UCD.

He chaired the Coronavirus Monitoring Group, which brought in expertise from across the University in communications, health and safety, student health and international students.

“We drew up a contingency plan and we monitored the situation,” says Professor Last, who is a medical doctor. “We conveyed the messages about handwashing and isolation, about wellbeing and what to do if staff or students were concerned, and we put in place protocols should a suspected case of Covid-19 arise on campus.”

Then, in mid-March, the shutters came down. “The Taoiseach announced that educational institutions were to close, and we knew educational activities would have to be done differently,” explains Professor Last. “We realised this was going to be a huge challenge – everyone was moving to working from home and working in new ways.”

UCD had recently updated the Virtual Learning Environment software platform, where students and staff can share materials online, he notes.

“Thankfully, the new platform is well suited for remote delivery at scale, so it was good to have that in place,” says Professor Last. “The other aspect was that the lockdown started during the fieldwork/study break in March, so we had a window to get distance teaching and learning up and running, and to consider how to continue to make our many student supports available at a distance whilst maintaining health supports for those students who were living on campus or nearby.”

Rapid Changes

Lecturers across the University sprang into action, preparing and delivering lectures online to students in real time, and recording and uploading lectures for students to watch when they could and responding to student queries.

Then came time for exams. In some cases, the assessments had changed from end-of-semester exams to assignments. And where exams happened, they were either “live” and timed, or students were given a deadline to submit.

Across the board, the distance teaching and learning approach needed latitude, notes Professor Last, who experienced delivering tutorials remotely during lockdown.

Like others, he has been largely working from home – Co Wexford in his case – and he appreciates that the change in setup can bring challenges.

“For this transition to distance working, we had to take into account that everyone across the entire body of staff, faculty and students would have bandwidth issues during this time,” he says.

“And by that I mean not only their immediate access to the Internet, but they may also have caring responsibilities in their families. Also, if a student moved home, perhaps there was little space for them to get a quiet corner. Then if they were an international student, they could now be in a completely different time-zone to Ireland. So while a live online lecture meant students had the opportunity to ask questions and enter into discussions, there were also cases where a recorded lecture was going to work better in practice.”

Technology At Scale

For Trish Mountjoy, ensuring that the underlying technology did its job to keep everyone connected during lockdown was top of her list. As Head of Educational Technology Services at UCD IT Services, she delivers technology solutions and services for the University as a whole. Before Covid-19 hit, she had been focused on getting the new Virtual Learning Environment bedded down, and ensuring that staff and students alike could use it.

“When the lockdown happened, we had five weeks of the teaching term left, followed then by an assessment period,” says Mountjoy. “But we were in a good position for that, because the Brightspace platform we had introduced is delivered as SaaS (software as a service), hosted in AWS (Amazon Web Services), so we knew the platform would have the capacity to scale and adjust to the increase in demand.”

With confidence that the system would cope with the surge during lockdown, Mountjoy and colleagues tried to keep the user-facing changes to a minimum. “We were reluctant to heap more technology into the mix,” she explains. “We wanted to keep things as consistent as we could and not introduce new elements, to help minimise the stress for both faculty and students.”

During the “emergency pivot to online”, IT Services worked with several other departments to ensure a seamless delivery of teaching and learning and assessments, all happening at scale. “During the live exams, which ran over three weeks, we had just over 40,000 sittings of exams run on the platform with very few difficulties,” says Mountjoy.

“We had to make the change to at-distance out of necessity and very rapidly. Now that people have some time to reflect, I hope there will be some positive experiences, and we can consider what additional aspects of technology- enhanced learning could be integrated into teaching and assessment in the future.”

Resilience and Response

For Professor Marie Clarke, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at UCD, the transition to working at a distance has highlighted the resilience of the UCD community.

“There has been a huge generosity among students and faculty and staff working together,” she says. “We also had the UCD Teaching and Learning Unit led by Áine Galvin, IT Services Support led by Trish Mountjoy and Genevieve D’Alton and Assessment led by Karen McHugh all bringing their perspectives and skills to the problem, and it made the support so much richer. Then the fact that all could be achieved in a virtual environment and at such speed was amazing.”

UCD students also stepped up to the plate, and the preliminary findings of a survey show they generally rated the University’s transition to distance teaching, learning and assessment highly. More than 5,200 UCD students responded to the survey, and Professor Clarke and Maura McGinn, Director of UCD Institutional Research, have been analysing the results.

The students’ answers highlighted some of the challenges they faced during the Covid-19 lockdown, including loneliness, anxiety, a difficulty in sustaining concentration and a lack of structure to their day. And while the majority of respondents would not undertake online learning by choice, the students were largely happy with the rapid response of their lecturers and just over half of the students now feel more comfortable with learning at a distance than they did before the pandemic. “Reflecting on the experience of transitioning to working at a distance means we can now figure out what works well for the future,” says Professor Clarke.

Look to the Future

And what might that future look like for UCD students, faculty and staff? With so much uncertainty baked into the global Covid-19 pandemic, anticipating the finer details of how UCD will operate in the coming academic year is not easy. But UCD Registrar Professor Rogers and colleagues want to ensure that people can have as much of an in-person experience at UCD as they can while keeping safe and healthy.

“It is likely that many lectures will remain at a distance, and small groups can be present on campus for discussions and practicals and in labs to carry out research, but in a manner that they can maintain social distancing,” says Professor Rogers. “We want to ensure that people can have as much of an engaged campus experience as possible while keeping safe and healthy.”

Text: Dr Claire O’Connell