Maintaining engagement during and coming out of a global pandemic has been a new and unprecedented challenge for those in student services, particularly when dealing with a diverse range of student experiences.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews speaks to Director of Student Learning and Academic Registry at Teesside University, Jonathan Eaton about tackling disengagement and levelling the playing field in academic opportunities for students through insightful and effective initiatives.
Teesside University is situated in Middlesbrough and we are an anchor institution within the Tees Valley with around 18,000 students and a number of specialisms such as health and social care, digital and creative industries, business, social sciences and humanities. Our department has a broad portfolio which includes learning and teaching enhancement, academic policy and regulations and quality assurance and validation. We provide targeted student support for those at risk of disengagement due to academic support reasons, and we also manage the digital transformation for teaching too.
I did my PhD at Queen’s University in Belfast where I took part in a scheme called Researchers in Residence, which sent PhD students into local schools to teach and break down the boundaries between schools and universities. This was transformational for me, and made me realise I wanted to go into learning and teaching rather than research. I took a job at an inner city college in Newcastle teaching Classical Civilisation and Archaeology students and got my teaching qualification at the same time. I then became a manager in a higher education role in the college before moving to Teesside to take a role in learning and teaching enhancement, then I was promoted to the academic registrar and, finally, my current director role.
At Teesside, around two-thirds of our students commute. Many have complex lives outside of university, so back in 2019, we invested in a new learners analytics platform called StREAM, allowing us to take all kinds of data about how and when our students learn, and built a dashboard for every student that staff could access too. Using this during the pandemic was incredible, if we hadn't had it then it would've been difficult to support students when they were studying remotely. However, we were able to track all online engagement, so tutorials between staff and students could begin with a conversation about this shared data. That then gave students a chance to raise concerns around disengagement.
Our issue here was moving from noticing engagement patterns and intervening quickly enough to help the student. Therefore, a year ago we brought in a new team called the Student Success Team who used the data alongside staff referrals to intervene wherever there was a student struggling and needing academic support. The student then received one-to-one coaching in the area of struggle. We've found through this that the academic issue is rarely the only issue, and that there are often a lot of other needs that need to be addressed which we focus on as well.
Many of our students travel for university, so we developed a ‘sticky campus’ giving students access to services and resources that allows them to spend more time on campus beyond scheduled teaching. This helps students feel like they belong and improves student retention because they feel connected with the university.
A problem we noticed was that we expected students to engage with the university according to the structure that we see, but they don't. This issue meant that students sometimes didn't know where to go to get their needed support, and therefore were trying to navigate through the whole university just to get the support they need. That’s why we invested in a new building that opened in 2020 called the Student Life Building which acted as a one-stop shop for any student support need—someone there was always able to help them. This breaks down the complex internal structure of the university for the students and gives them a dedicated space for their needs.
When we went into the pandemic, because a lot of our initiatives were already in place, we were in a good position to make the transition to at-home learning. For example, in 2018 we launched our Advance scheme where all full-time undergraduates were given an iPad and a toolkit of apps as well as £100 of credit for learning resources. This meant we’d made a big step in addressing digital poverty by ensuring there was a level playing field in the learning environment.
We learned a lot during the pandemic as well, including the impact of isolation and the challenges of trying to create a sense of community online.
We learned a lot during the pandemic as well, including the impact of isolation and the challenges of trying to create a sense of community online. We have also realised the impact of digital poverty in ways that the university couldn’t control, such as students not having WiFi access. One of the things we did was expand the student credit to purchasing mobile data so that they could stay in touch, as a means of tackling this issue.
We need to work more on encouraging students to see universities as career opportunities rather than just places of learning, so that we can recruit more graduates and give them meaningful and positive careers.
I most admire some of the people that I work with, who I have seen work under hard circumstances and a lot of pressure throughout the pandemic. Seeing their creativity and positivity during the darkest of times has been inspiring. In particular, I’d like to mention Rosie Jones, our Director of Student and Library Services who led the pandemic response in terms of student support, and also Professor Mark Simpson, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Learning & Teaching) who has led all of the initiatives I have referred to here.
Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal. I give this to all of the managers in my department because a lot of my thinking comes from it. It talks about the potential for a new managerial model where we can create empowerment and autonomy at the team level for the benefit of all.