The year that changed (higher) education

BY Clemens Kiecker, with Brenda Williams

When I trace back to when COVID-19 first had an impact on my working life at King’s, I vividly remember two separate occasions. On the first one, in February 2020, I sat in my colleague Cathy’s office in the Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre where we had a meeting to discuss the personal tutoring system at the IoPPN (feels like a lifetime ago now!). That afternoon Cathy said all of a sudden: “I’m surprised that King’s hasn’t released a statement on this new coronavirus yet. This must be a very unsettling time for our Chinese students with their families being back in China.” At the time, coronavirus was something that we read about in the news, but it seemed rather far away from my everyday life in London where more urgent matters had to be dealt with. But as per usual, Cathy’s experience had honed her prophetic abilities…

The second occasion was the closure of our campuses on March 18th. During the week before I had spoken to a number of colleagues, some of whom were very concerned and did not want to commute or be on campus, whereas others were convinced that life should go on as normal. That great mantra of British stoicism: Keep Calm and Carry On… All of my face-to-face teaching was done by that point, so I decided to deal with the admin that starts to pile up around that time of the year from home and to only come into work to help my BSc and MSci project students finish the last experiments for their dissertations. Events accelerated. Infection rates were climbing. A colleague stayed at home and WhatsApped me that he felt unwell. A personal tutee that I met with complained about a fever. And the news headlines were suddenly dominated by this virus.

On Wednesday the 18th of March we were meant to have a long day of interviewing candidates for two new lectureship positions. On Monday morning, my husband exasperatedly asked: “Do you really have to go there on Wednesday?”. I felt bad – I secretly agreed that having the interview panel in person did not sound like the best idea, but I did not want to let anybody down in the important process of recruiting new staff to our programmes. Thankfully this problem solved itself, as we received an email later that day that the interviews will have to take place remotely on MS Teams.

And then everything happened rather quickly. King’s informed staff and students that the campuses were shut. I sat through six hours of interviews on Teams –my first encounter with this platform that would become such a cornerstone of our daily work– and in the evening after that rumours started to circulate on social media that there would be a military lockdown in London, including fake images of tanks rolling down Clapham High Street.

Working from home started off as a pleasant novelty that allowed for baking cakes during the day and answering emails in pyjamas, but it became clear pretty quickly that we had a lot on our plate, and work started to seep into every aspect of our home lives and every hour of the day.

The following few weeks were strangely surreal. Working from home started off as a pleasant novelty that allowed for baking cakes during the day and answering emails in pyjamas, but it became clear pretty quickly that we had a lot on our plate, and work started to seep into every aspect of our home lives and every hour of the day. I have always had the bad habit of checking my email before I go to sleep and first thing in the morning, but as long as I did the ‘heavy lifting’ on campus, the  ‘homework’ was an added extra – something that I did because I feel passionate about my work. Now work infused every part of my day, and the boundaries between work and home became very blurred.

The exam season came and went, luckily without any major IT disasters. Although early on some students worried about the altered format, the large majority did very well and the average marks on modules and programmes improved significantly.

The other headache that our programmes had to deal with were the MSc research projects. Dozens of students who were looking forward to starting a project in a wet lab had to see their projects being re-designed into online projects – either literature or systematic reviews, or data analysis projects.

And then, once the dust had settled, the real issue started to dawn on us: what about the next academic year? How long will we have to stay at a distance and what kind of teaching can we offer under these conditions? Other universities made bold statements, but could we commit to full online teaching? Or blended delivery? Or HyFlex? Will the students turn up in September? Will they want to be on campus or study from home? And if student numbers drop, how can we deal with the financial impact of this?


Hundreds of hours of Teams meetings were spent discussing these questions, and we have now arrived at something that seems like a workable compromise. Something that allows all students to achieve their learning outcomes. That will offer some on campus activities for those students who can be there and that will lead to a worthwhile degree! We are in uncharted territory. I have seen people working harder than ever to be able to deliver on those promises.

…the one big lesson that I have learned is that there is no such thing as a ‘normal year’.

Nobody can guarantee that everything will work out exactly to plan – but then, that is also the case in a normal academic year. I have been in this ‘business’ for a few years now, and the one big lesson that I have learned is that there is no such thing as a ‘normal year’. Admittedly, the changes that we are experiencing now are the biggest challenges that most of us will have every seen, but if being in education teaches you one thing, it is to stay flexible, to adapt to changing circumstances, to changing student expectations, even to a bloody pandemic.

Maybe I am too much of an optimist, but I am a firm believer that in every crisis there is a kernel of opportunity. A chance to learn from a new experience, to meet new people and to change things for the better. So, what have I learned, and what could be changed in the wake of COVID-19?

Working from home is a challenge

A lot has been written in the press about the changes to our working life that this pandemic has spawned. And I have to admit that during the first few weeks of lockdown, I really started to appreciate the benefits. Why the heck did I spend hours every week on buses to get from a teaching session on Guy’s campus to a meeting in Denmark Hill, or vice versa? Why did we need to be on campus to pick up ridiculously large piles of exam scripts that then needed to be marked in an office that was heating up to the high twenties in the early summer sun? And why could we not simply order a mid-day delivery (food, tech gadgets, the new number one from the Sunday Times Best Books list…) on a weekday? This added flexibility really is a bonus.

The realisation of the drawbacks of working from home came a little bit later, when the workload started to increase. I noticed—and so did the people around me, I am afraid—that I became very impatient with friends and family. I caught myself snapping at my partner on several occasions—typically in the evening when the last meeting had finished and when he asked me to help with some admin stuff. I realised that I had started to feel torn between work and home demands, and there seemed very little time left between the two that I had to myself. I started to realise how important my (admittedly fairly short) commute was to wind down from work and have a little bit of ‘me time’ to draw a line under the day and reflect on what went well and what did not. And if I struggled with this, who can even begin to understand how my colleagues with kids have been coping?!

I realised that I had started to feel torn between work and home demands, and there seemed very little time left between the two that I had to myself.

I guess the trick will be to enjoy the advantages but develop very clear strategies to minimise the negatives. I have started to draw clearer lines between working hours and off time, by not scheduling meetings in out of office hours, doing less online work over weekends, and forcing myself to take breaks and go for a run, for example.

A virus as a catalyst of modernising education?

If you happen to work in higher education (probably in all forms of education, but I can only write about my experience), the last few months were the equivalent of an earthquake of >5 on the Richter scale. Exams had to be changed from their classical ‘closed’ format, with thousands of students sitting them in exam halls to online exams in the shortest of times. Universities have pledged to be able to deliver course content online in September, and then a few weeks later to also offer on-campus teaching for those students who can/want to be there. It turns out that preparing online teaching materials is no mean feat—pedagogically, different formats are recommended (for example, an online lecture appears to work better as a series of short videos designed around individual learning outcomes, rather than an hour-long sermon). Thus, all of us not only need to become experts (or at least semi-experts) using video recording software and a range of online resources, but we also need to re-design our teaching sessions to match this new format. And as a cherry on the cake, a new legislation on accessibility has come into place this summer that requires that any online materials have to be accessible to accommodate a diverse audience; for example, by providing captions or transcripts, alt-text for images etc.

Now, I have always been a believer in having to modernise your teaching materials regularly, so in some ways this situation enforces good practice. However, modernising your materials usually means that I update and restructure a small number of lectures in one year and another batch the next year and so on. Now it’s more like: start everything from scratch!

Funny that a virus that usually only catalyses its own reproduction should also have a catalytic effect on something much larger, such as our educational system!

Fortunately, we are in a good place to get help with these changes at the IoPPN. We have been offering two Distance Learning MSc programmes (Applied Neuroscience and Psychology & Neuroscience of Mental Health) with great success for several years now, and the team that runs these courses as well as your Technology Enhanced Learning team have been incredibly helpful sharing their expertise. And I have found that, once you start working on those lectures, the IT hoops that we have to jump through become somewhat less intimidating.

The irony is that we have been discussing many of the changes that we now have to make for years. The idea of introducing more blended (mixed on campus and online) learning is part of King’s Vision 2029. And open book exams have been running on a number of modules already. Funny that a virus that usually only catalyses its own reproduction should also have a catalytic effect on something much larger, such as our educational system!

What is lacking from online education?

So, blended and online learning are on the cards. We are enjoying greater flexibility in the delivery of our teaching, as are students, in that they do not have to turn up for lectures in person anymore and can access them in their own time now. Although, to be honest, this has already been the case since the pretty ubiquitous introduction of lecture recording at King’s… But these changes raise an important question: what are we going to lose moving towards online education? Does it make a difference whether we see a lecturer live in front of a classroom, or virtually on our screens at home? Does it make a difference whether we watch a video of an experimental procedure and then access a virtual lab simulation to repeat this, or whether we are in a teaching lab staining our notes with spilled chemicals and smelling the weird and not always wonderful smells of a real laboratory?

…every generation has its own challenges and they will come up with new ways of overcoming them. Over to you, freshers!

The one thing that will be very different is the social element. Every summer, thousands of freshers started to hang out on our campuses from mid-September, chatting in small groups, meeting their peers, forming new friendships and—in many cases—experiencing a completely new sense of freedom that comes with living away from home for the first time. There will be attempts to recreate some of this interactivity online (and thanks IT for Teams and Zoom and all these online platforms that we have become so adept at using!), but it will be very different from what previous generations of students have experienced. And that makes me a little bit sad – like the fact that we may never attend large concerts anymore where you hug a stranger next to you and jump up and down, tied together by a mutual love for the same music. Or that we may not be able for years to come to squeeze into a small basement bar in Hackney to party with our friends. But then, every generation has its own challenges and they will come up with new ways of overcoming them. Over to you, freshers!

A compliment to our students

The last few lines that I wanted to add to this rather personal and probably somewhat myopic account of how the pandemic has affected us is to praise everybody who has helped to cope with this unprecedented situation. Our colleagues have been fantastic in adapting their exams in a matter of days and have been working (and continue to work) incredibly hard on adapting our programmes for blended delivery. Our admin teams have put countless extra hours in so that the exams could run smoothly and that everything is prepared. And last, but definitely not least, I would like to thank our students who have shown a great level of resilience and flexibility. It has not been an easy year. There was a strike before Covid-19, and many students had to relocate from their halls of residence when there were found to be issues around fire safety. Given all these challenges, you have done remarkably well and most of you managed to ‘get on with it’ and have passed your exams with excellent results. Really well done!

And last, but definitely not least, I would like to thank our students who have shown a great level of resilience and flexibility. It has not been an easy year.

What we are experiencing right now is changing our societies forever. It is one of these ‘once in a lifetime’ events that nobody saw coming, but that will end up in history books and may even get its own name (the corona years? the pandemic period?). I was around for one such event as I graduated from school the year the Wall came down between West and East Berlin, marking the collapse of the Eastern bloc. At the time I was so focused on my school exams and on celebrating and going to university that I underestimated the sheer impact of these events. I now sometimes wish that I would have taken a step back to document and reflect on the events during that year. Let’s not forget to do that this time round.


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