In this Spotlight on Remote Teaching post, Argyll Reid and Pete Kingsley, reflect on the opportunities and challenges of creating an online summer cycle programme for Mastercard Foundation Scholars to replace the annual Summer School that was postponed due to Covid-19…
The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is a scholarship scheme that supports 200 African students to study at the University of Edinburgh over 7 years. Each year, we host a Summer School for our first-year undergraduates based around placements with local organisations in which students work in teams to solve real life problems. This year’s Summer School was postponed due to COVID-19, leaving our undergraduates in limbo: stuck in their halls at a time of great anxiety, unable to return home, do part time work, or any of the usual student summer activities. To bridge that gap, we developed the Summer Cycles – a modular programme of mostly online activities involving a mix of taught sessions, self-directed learning, volunteering, reading and reflection. After 6 weeks on the programme, we now reflect on the key design decisions we made.
Modular and flexible: Accommodating different priorities
From the outset, we believed that neither the project-based learning nor the fixed, full time schedule of our usual Summer School would translate well online. We decided instead on a part-time 2-week cyclical structure, during which students would complete three tasks:
- read a book of their choice
- learn a new skill
- and do volunteering of some kind
Within these three broad categories, students had a wide range of choices. At the end of each cycle, students would pause, reflect, and set new priorities for the subsequent fortnight. This approach was intended to balance a sense of structure and clear expectations whilst allowing students a great deal of flexibility to engage with different topics.
We were particularly mindful that the Summer Cycles were taking place during unusual times to which students responded in different ways. Some students began the Cycles feeling bored and listless, craving challenges to keep themselves busy and connected. Others felt overwhelmed – not just by lockdown, but also having completed a gruelling academic year – understandably preferring quieter, individual tasks. Would it be best for a particular student to pursue a pragmatic, career-focused skill like learning a programming language? Or should they take the chance to relax and recharge, perhaps experimenting with something more creative like photography? We made it that either approach was valid, and that we trusted students to set priorities that were right for them.
In the Summer Cycles, and indeed throughout our work, we encourage students to reflect in structured ways. We believe that this helps students to know themselves better, and to make smart choices – for instance between pushing oneself harder or practicing self-care. Equally important was offering a range of structured courses delivered by instructors (topics included photography, design thinking, and Wikipedia editing), but also giving students free rein to choose their own activities (choices included learning a new instrument to learning a new language – some spoken by humans, others by computers!).
Despite or, perhaps, because of the strong emphasis on individual choice, we wanted one aspect of the Summer Cycles to be a consistent, shared experience. We called this ‘Family Friday’ an hour-long Zoom call at the end of each week. Evaluations and one-to-one calls with students throughout the week informed the agenda for these meetings, enabling the students to share successes and frustrations. Guest speakers hosted conversations on leadership, career goals and mental health, and often stayed on an extra half-hour after the session finished to ask questions.
We also used these plenary sessions (with 31 students) to provide a central starting point. For instance, we found that taking time for everyone – students and instructors – to fully familiarise themselves with Zoom (including things like online meeting etiquette and lighting, as well as the software itself) was valuable in building confidence. Whilst in later cycles students could choose a book of their choice, we all began by reading the same novel.
The Summer Cycles facilitated rich learning experiences for our scholars, and helped us think through how we can thrive in the upcoming hybrid year. As a pilot for what is to come, it was helpful to clarify which of our goals were flexible and which were fixed. Project-based learning with community partners (as planned for the original Summer School) would have been very challenging in this format and was rightly abandoned. In contrast, the autonomy of our Scholars is non-negotiable – we build enthusiasm and community spirit in large part by trusting scholars to make the right choices for themselves.
The online format allowed created some opportunities that would otherwise not have been possible – such as inviting remotely located guest speakers and guest students from other Mastercard partner universities. We hope to continue this practice. In the immediate term, we are planning an online pitching competition and various sessions on business skills – emphasising a flexible ‘opt in’ approach to skill development. And in the upcoming year, we will adapt the ‘Family Friday’ as a forum to all our scholars. In short, to chart a path between individual learning and a shared community spirit.