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Halls, exams and online learning: A Bristol Pro Vice Chancellor reflects on an extraordinary term

Tansy Jessop reflects on an extraordinary autumn, and looks forward to an uncertain spring.

By Guy Taylor, Investigations Editor

Bristol’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Tansy Jessop, has spoken in-depth to Epigram’s Guy Taylor about the challenges of this term.

It would be a huge understatement to suggest that this term has been a novel one for the University of Bristol. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a significant reduction of in-person contact hours, reduced access to facilities, online teaching and numerous other changes.

Fortunately, Tansy Jessop, Bristol’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, is on hand to answer the questions on students’ minds.

Forefront in the conversation this term has been the value of digital education. The results of a pulse survey, published today, reveal conflicting attitudes towards online learning. More students say that they learn well and participant more online, but fewer find the digital experience motivating and community-building than with in-person teaching.

When questioned on the value of this education, Jessop says: ‘The key message is that the service we are offering is not reduced, it’s different.

‘Blended learning, both online and in person offers a first-class education to our students. The key measure of whether we are offering a good service is whether [students] are achieving good learning outcomes. The pulse survey shows that 83 per cent are saying that they are learning about their subject a lot.’

A difficult term has seen a number of crises hit the University. The Halls-wide quarantine at The Courtrooms now seems a long time ago | Epigram / Lucy O'Neill

She does concede that there are difficulties in adapting to such a significant change. However, the online environment, she says, is an ‘innovative’ space, which staff have adapted to with ‘awesome’ speed. A drop in grades this January is not something she anticipates.

The pulse survey also revealed that 17 per cent of students feel the internet interferes with their learning. In light of this, I ask what preparations the University is making to ensure that WiFi connectivity issues will not be a problem for students in the exam period.

Jessop highlights how a state-approved VPN has been provided by the University for students working from mainland China. To Bristol-based students who may be concerned about the exam period, Jessop says: ‘We have given students the choice as to where they do their exams or their timed assessments.

‘We feel that is the best thing we can do. If students find that connectivity is better at home than in a house of multiple occupancy, they may choose to write their exam there. Alternatively, if their home environment is not quiet or the connectivity is not good, they can choose to write their exams in their [University] residency, or indeed on campus.’

‘The service we are offering with online teaching is not reduced, its different’

Students from low-income backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to connectivity issues, with access to technology presenting a problem for some. For these individuals, Jessop reiterates the University's digital equity policy: students can ‘demonstrate that they can’t afford a laptop, and we will supply one.’

The University’s plans for the January assessment period, which were released last week, prompted criticism from the Students' Union. Not enough had been done, they said, to address the challenges of this exam season. Their petition urging more academic mitigations has since reached nearly 700 signatures.

What does the Pro Vice Chancellor think about that?

‘What’s interesting about the petition,’ Jessop says, ‘is that actually the University and Student Union positions are not very different at all.

‘The two areas where we differ are uncapped resits. We believe that it’s much better and fairer for individuals to tell us if they have extenuating circumstances rather than just give blanket uncapped resits.’

On the petition’s request for extensions for those with three or more exams in a week, Jessop says: ‘We believe that the nature of the assessments will be such that it will be manageable for students to do three in a week.’

Student satisfaction has been another big concern of the term, with the pulse survey indicating that only 42 per cent of students regard online teaching positively.

Jessop, however, is uncertain on the merits of the digital experience: ‘The jury’s out,’ she says.

‘In the traditional form of face-to-face teaching, you’ve got a very structured arrangement. What’s flipped in the online environment is that there is much more emphasis on learning through asynchronous content.’

Jessop also agrees that a ‘main message’ from the survey is that ‘students are feeling slightly more isolated online.’ Fewer than 19 per cent of students say that the online environment helps to create a sense of community with peers.

To address this, the Education Office has devised guidelines on breakout groups and building community in the digital sphere. ‘Lessons learned’ workshops will be run over the next couple of weeks to help academics manage these elements of seminars.

‘I want to really harness the potential of [online] environments so that it’s not a lonely experience for students, and so that students get to work together,’ Jessop says.

On-campus teaching will be increasing too, following the University’s commitment to a minimum number of in-person contact hours per week for each student for next term.

‘Leadership is about listening, being flexible and adapting’  - Prof Jessop on the University's U-turns

‘We have asked all schools to ensure that they have a decent amount of in-person hours, insofar as the timetable and their staff quotient will allow,’ Jessop says.

‘I'm hoping to see as the timetable is released that students have more in-person teaching. Some of it will be in small groups and some of it will be in lectures of fewer than 50.’

This term’s non-digital teaching has been criticised for the way that it has been distributed, with some students of theoretical subjects getting more on-campus hours than some who study more practical courses. Jessop readily acknowledges this.

‘I could name some programmes where they have seven hours a week, I can name some programmes where they have three and a whole faculty where they have three hours a week,’ she says.

‘So it’s not all programmes that will up their in-person hours, because some already have a decent amount.’

All will agree that the pandemic has presented huge policy dilemmas for the University, yet it does seem that a series of U-turns have beset the institution this term. A blanket fine on Hiatt Baker C block due to a serious lockdown breach, and a plan to use rent strikers' bursaries to reclaim owed money are both policies that were announced, then overhauled, in the space of a week.

Some have critiqued the University for this. Jessop, however, thinks that it is right for Bristol to change its mind sometimes.

‘Leadership is partly about confident decisions, but partly about listening, being flexible and adapting,’ she says.

‘People may see negotiation as a weakness – but actually to listen, to hear and to adapt... That, I think, is a strength.’

Featured: Bristol's Campus and PVC Tansy Jessop | Epigram / Lucy O’Neill / University of Bristol

What are your questions for the University this term?