The ELIXIR project has attracted an enormous amount of interest, for which the team is exceptionally grateful. They had a record number of attendees participating at their workshops and a hugely successful virtual symposium with 97 attendees - everyone was delighted by this level of support for this important work on welcome and induction.
With remote learning now the norm, LITE Fellows Andrew Mearman and Ruth Payne ask 'does the possibility of having to welcome students online in 2020 require universities to change their thinking?' The answer is yes and no.
Thinking of welcome and induction as an online activity rather changes things.
New first years might be studying from home and, if this is the case, we are going to see an abrupt end to the lines of students at registration, introductory lectures, long talks on procedure, and the usual packed calendar of social events in week 0. For the ELIXIR project, some of these changes are actually very welcome.
When we wrote of an end to freshers’ week in our last blog this is not at all what we had in mind.
The whole world has been affected by the Covid pandemic and, as the virus spread, Universities spent the first few weeks in firefighting mode - adrenalised and scrambling to respond to the reality of physical distancing. But thoughts quickly turned to the next academic year. Universities will be admitting undergraduates in Autumn 2020, but it is likely to be a virtual experience, perhaps with students living at home and not joining face-to-face teaching in the same way as before. Does this extraordinary situation force a complete change in practice, or can we extend these existing ideas to create a unique 2020 experience?
The ELIXIR team had been busy consulting with colleagues and students long before we had heard of Covid 19. Informed by these discussions and by the literature, they have come up with the following set of draft principles:
Principle 1: Every member of staff is responsible for making our students feel welcome. This means not just leaving it to a handful of colleagues – and it means making students welcome for the duration of their programme.
Principle 2: Every school should have an academic lead for welcome and induction. This will provide proper oversight and direction for these important processes.
Principle 3: Welcome and induction are two different things. Welcome relates closely to belonging; induction is more to do with acquiring new skills.
Principle 4: Welcome and induction are both ongoing processes. We must frame them as such.
Principle 5: Academic staff play a key role in welcome and induction. There is no doubt that students value relationships with academic members of staff, so we need to respond to this and make sure academic colleagues are front and centre.
Principle 6: Personal tutoring is crucial in welcome, induction and sense of belonging. We believe it is important that all personal tutors are available to greet their tutees in week 0.
Principle 7: Working to a timeline will stop us overloading our students. By agreeing which bits of information students need - and when - means we don’t miss anything and we reduce unhelpful duplication.
Principle 8: We must understand the expectations of our students. With such a diverse student population, we need to understand and respond to individual expectations.
Principle 9: Students are not all the same. We should aim to tailor information and resources to fit each individual student.
Principle 10: Consistency is crucial. That means we have a University of Leeds approach that will contribute to an overall sense of community.
Doing welcome and induction online means sticking to these existing principles, but much more than that, it means streamlining what we do and communicating it properly to colleagues and students.
2020 provides the perfect opportunity to develop a clear structure for welcome and induction and to deploy many excellent resources that already exist.
For example, there is no doubt that welcome and induction should be focused on helping students develop a sense of belonging, and the process of welcoming students stretches back long before students arrive at university. The current crisis could potentially free us from the shackles of room timetabling and is actually an opportunity to strip the focus from the first week or two so that we welcome our new students in a far more leisurely and personalised way.
Our messages about becoming a university student could be distributed more evenly and inclusively, offering a range of points and methods of engagement for all our students in their glorious diversity.
We may or may not be able to offer our new students a pizza-fuelled social event, but either way this is the perfect time for clarity of thinking and genuinely personal online interactions. Students who do not enjoy the nature of online group meetings, or who do not have ready access to the right equipment, would benefit from telephone tutorials and flipped discussions. Students in different time zones can be included through recorded sessions and shared chat.
The ELIXIR team is delighted to be involved in the University's response to the revitalisation of thinking in this crucial area. Online or face-to-face welcome and induction needs to be inclusive, curated, monitored - and available whenever students want it. Watch this space.