“It’s easier to meet someone from China but harder to meet your neighbour”
After finishing our exams and coursework assessments, we’re able to reflect on one of our most recent (and most important) interviews of the term. Poppy, Maria and I were lucky enough to interview University of Exeter’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Tim Quine, to discuss his views and experiences about university life, digital learning and the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor Tim Quine is an influential figure here at Exeter as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) he is responsible for delivering the education strategy for monitoring and improving education. Tim also is “currently the sponsor of Project Enhance, which is facilitating the university’s approach to maintaining educational opportunities and outcomes for students in response to the Covid-19 pandemic through the provision of a blended model of teaching and learning” (University of Exeter website, 2021) so his involvement in the Auditio blog is incredibly appreciated.
Tim praised the power of digital learning to shorten distances between educators and students. He described how Exeter campuses pride themselves on creating an ‘international learning community’ where students across the globe interact and learn from one another regardless of location. Subsequently, digital learning has expanded the potential of this description, as some students have remained in their home locations whether that’s here in the UK or further afield. Our DLA colleague Maria, who had to remain in her home country Brazil during the pandemic, agreed with Tim’s description of Exeter as an international learning community. Digital learning, including recorded video clips, online forums and Microsoft Teams empowered her with the tools to complete her learning from a distance and still feel connected to her peers. Tim’s passion for teaching/learning between and within communities on an international scale was manifested throughout the interview. He mentioned the use of hybrid teaching sessions held both within the learning space and somewhere else around the world. Such hybrid sessions can encourage dialogue and conversations between students in different locations, thus gaining a better understanding of culture.
Tim described how advantageous the flexibility and adaptability of asynchronous learning has been for both students and lecturers. For many colleagues, the ability to create and upload teaching material in their own time and around other commitments (especially, as commitments have increased for many during the pandemic) is very helpful in ensuring the quality of teaching is not disrupted. Similarly, the possibility to complete asynchronous material as a learner within their own timeframe, has allowed for easier time management in a stressful time for students. Tim believes that students enjoy the additional control and autonomy over their learning. We agree that the flexibility of learning in our own time has made fitting in additional commitments easier; however we have missed a clear structure to the day that having in-person contact created.
Tim mentioned a future opportunity for Exeter: the diversification of Exeter’s degree portfolio. With the potential of digital learning continuing and becoming the future of studying, Exeter has invested in the resources to offer entirely online degrees (for those that are interested). Many students with extra responsibilities such as working students, mature students, students with children and international students have praised online learning due to its flexibility. With the potential and effectiveness of online learning, Tim described how Exeter could introduce new micro credentials (short courses for professional learners) online.
Tim recognised that digital learning has its downsides and is not best suited for every student and lecturer, noting that there have been several challenges over the past academic year. Despite many lecturers creating effective and engaging material, the timeframe they had to adapt has been a challenge. Developing digital learning resources within such a short space of time has left many lecturers frustrated and tired. The major change in the pedagogic approach has shocked many lecturers who may have been more traditional in their ways of teaching. Tim noted that every lecturer is different in their styles of teaching, with some being more enthusiastic than others to adapt to digital learning quickly. He argued that the standard of digital resources also had to be high, in order to match Exeter’s teaching quality, but also to match the high standard of most things we see on the internet today. When completing live teaching, Tim described how lecturers were unable to know how many students could make it, this can have negative impacts on the learning experience for students because session numbers were varying a lot (sometimes only 2 people showed up to sessions). He also mentioned how some lecturers are having to complete live sessions with children and pets walking around, this can make sessions distracting for them (but amusing for us as students!)
One of the biggest challenges Tim described as identified by surveying Exeter students (through pulse surveys) is connectedness. The peer-to-peer and student-to-staff connections have been difficult to establish this year due to the pandemic. Although digital learning can improve connections internationally, Tim recognised that the lack of in-person contact can be discouraging for both students and lecturers. He mentioned that the online environment is good but it’s definitely not the same as in-person, thus, he looks forward to a blended learning approach going forward. Tim observed that digital transformation has shortened distances (as it’s easier to meet someone from China!) but the pandemic has imposed distances (it’s harder to meet your neighbour). He congratulated students for their perseverance over the pandemic period. It has been a stressful, mentally challenging time due to loneliness and uncertainty but he’s proud of students electing to keep going with their studies.
As the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and sponsor of the Project Enhance programme, Tim said that a personal challenge for him has been trying to ensure that students maintain academic progress, whilst staying connected and enjoying their programmes. Success and happiness amongst students seemed to be a very important goal for Tim, and he described how hard he has worked to maintain such indicators during this stressful time. He appreciates that students and lecturers have been sending negative feedback and is determined to overcome such feedback over the next academic year. As a leader within Exeter, he recognises that the nature of leadership is doing what you do because you love it, not because you want to be thanked. He feels incredibly lucky to be in the southwest of England with so much green space to enjoy in his free time – we think all those in Exeter can appreciate this!
Student mental health:
Tim emphasised that Exeter is working towards becoming a ‘compassionate campus’ as part of its 2030 strategy. He described that before the pandemic, the wellbeing review involved the notion of a pyramid. At the top was support for people seriously ill and then everyone else followed in order. at the bottom of the pyramid lies our interactions with each other – something that Tim wants to focus on going forward. By bringing forward the compassionate campus idea, it begins with building on the base of the pyramid by encouraging care and respect within the university community. Tim argued that this compassion should be applied to everything – from our daily interactions to the mitigation policy. He used the example that a lot of the time, we write rules thinking of people trying to gain from the system, rather than focusing on those that need help. Tim is encouraging education leaders in academic departments to work with the Student-Staff Liaison Committees (SSLCs) to help create this sense of compassion throughout the teaching and learning community. He emphasised that co-curricular activities are important, but they also need to be developed within the curriculum, for example, using small group interactions to encourage conversation between students and build the required support system.
Looking forward to returning to campus activities:
Tim wanted to reinforce the values of Exeter by emphasising that the university is committed to supporting every student to succeed on their learning journey. He recognises the importance of on-campus activities to both students and staff (such as networking, co-curricular opportunities, societies and employment events). The core of the education strategy is success for all, where Tim reminded us that this isn’t limited to achieving a particular grade. Moving forward, the university is optimistic about the autumn and next academic year. Exeter is seeking to support international students to get the vaccine and continuously working to make the campus as secure as possible so it can be as ‘normal’ as possible. He knows that students and lecturers are keen to get together again on campus and thus the university’s responsiveness to changing circumstances is crucial/has been crucial to ensuring safety. As a final line, Tim wants to remind students that we all want the chance to celebrate life moments and be able to make the most of them and Exeter will devote resources to ensuring this happens.
As final year students at Exeter, we are optimistic about the approach Tim described to us going forward. Caring for the mental health of the whole of the student community is essential to ensuring each student does succeed in their higher education journey. Improving resources and introducing initiatives for those at the bottom of the pyramid, as Tim described, will be crucial moving forward when overcoming the coronavirus pandemic but also the struggles, no matter what size, that students are faced with.
We would like to thank Professor Tim Quine for providing such in-depth and honest answers to our questions and hope that over the next academic year, Exeter continues to enhance its teaching and learning environment (both digital and in-person) to really achieve success for all students.