International Foundation Programme (IFP) during COVID-19: A reminder of what’s important

Silhouette of a woman on a laptop with a choppy sea in the background
Image Credit: Graphic Design by Joe Arton. Originals :Mulier, Pieter Sea Piece University of Edinburgh Special Collections and University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library Catalogue Student in Library.

In this post, Anya Clayworth Programme Director for the International Foundation Programme (IFP) and a Teaching Fellow in Humanities at the Centre for Open Learning describes how her teaching and support colleagues navigated logistical, technological and pedagogical challenges of hybrid and in the process discovered resilience and delight among their students…

Working with the International Foundation Programme (IFP) during COVID-19 has certainly been a challenge. Lockdown meant a very quick turnaround to move our final weeks of teaching for Term 2 and for Term 3 online. Our teaching and support colleagues as ever brilliantly rose to the challenge and we managed to finish the academic year with 96% of our students completing the Programme which felt like something of a triumph given the circumstances.

Our experiences with Term 3 of the IFP gave us some important considerations for our 2020/21 Programme and how we might go about working using hybrid methodologies. This was all the more complex because of the connectivity issues that a number of our students experienced using Collaborate from their home country. As a result of these issues and those faced by students on our English Language Education pre-sessional courses and with a slew of advice from friends of the IFP across the University, we decided to move our teaching onto Microsoft Teams. This involved training all our teaching fellows, our support staff learning new processes and working with the Holyrood Digital Services team to explore the capabilities of Teams as a teaching platform.

As with all programmes at the University this year I suspect, we were not sure how many of the students would already be in the UK, how many would not be able to join us due to restrictions at home and how many would not feel able to join us because of anxiety about travelling and delays to visa issuance. Our initial thoughts about teaching therefore were all around the digital experience. We have prioritised live sessions with this pre-undergraduate cohort given the need to build an academic community, to work on their academic skills and English language development. The majority of the teaching on the IFP is delivered live via Teams with only some lecture content being offered asynchronously.

Having got the term started, our next challenge was to think about ‘in person’ delivery for those students in Edinburgh. My initial concerns were about the technology. How were we going to be able to deliver teaching in person and digitally simultaneously as each group potentially had students in the UK and students studying digitally? With the chaos around travel and visas in mind, we had classed and timetabled the students according, where possible, to their time zones. It was simply not possible to re-class them according to whether they were in the UK or not. I turned for help in this brainstorming phase to Nelly Iacobescu, our video expert from Digital Services. Nelly and I talked through the possibilities at length. Could we use Media Hopper Relay and livestream the classes? How would this work given that it would not allow the students working digitally to see me since our classroom does not have a camera installed, or hear anyone else live in the classroom? Our best option was to try to somehow work out a way of using Teams to deliver live classes to the students in the teaching room and joining us online.

So, Nelly and I, with some other Digital Services colleagues and the help of some ‘remote participants’ (i.e. my husband live from our kitchen in Granton), set about trialling our ideas. Nelly’s solution was to connect my laptop to the screen and microphone in our teaching room (BYOD system) so that the students working digitally could see me and hear me. We relied on my laptop’s webcam and sound from the room’s lapel microphone, amplified by the PA. We worked out the parameters of how far I could move when teaching to allow students still to see me and how those in the room would hear me through the room’s speakers. The next challenge was how students would hear each other. We concluded that they would only be able to hear and interact with one another if they too were logged into Teams in the classroom and able to bring headphones and a microphone along to class or if I relayed their points to the rest of the group.

The trial worked. Slides could be shared with digital and in person students and if students were careful with their tech in the classroom, we discovered that it is possible for them to work with one another in breakout groups regardless of location and to share ideas orally and in the Teams chat box. The proof of the pudding though is always in the eating and it was with some trepidation that I arranged for the students to join us in person for class in Paterson’s Land. Their arrival reminded me of what a resilient group of young people they always are. They rose to the challenge admirably.

It was heartening and inspiring to see the in person students’ delight at meeting one another for the first time and suggesting going for a socially distanced coffee after class. It was also lovely to see them waving to their digital classmates when I turned the laptop camera onto the classroom. This is not the easiest way to teach but it has provided a salutary reminder of what’s important in the IFP. It’s not only about the learning we do in the classroom, it’s also about the students experiencing cultural mixing, perhaps for the first time and learning together, whatever format that comes in.

With thanks to: Nelly Iacobescu, Alex Hale, Herve Lacroix, Chris Swift, Magdalena Getler and Kirsty Adamson.

Anya Clayworth

Dr Anya Clayworth is Programme Director for the International Foundation Programme (IFP) and a Teaching Fellow in Humanities at the Centre for Open Learning. As well as running the IFP, Anya teaches Literature courses for the Centre for Open Learning’s Short Courses Programme. Anya is currently interested in the experience of international students learning digitally and in person during the pandemic.

Twitter: @UoEOpenLearning

Instagram: @UoEIFP

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