Supporting HE through COVID-19

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The last month has been a time of huge upheaval and change across the UK and around the world. And the world of higher education has been particularly badly affected. 

Universities and student halls are closed. Exams are cancelled. Teaching has gone online, where possible.

But what next?

How long will this go on for? What contingency measures are in place for the long-term? What happens to soon-to-be-grads? Will they get degrees? If so, when? The uncomfortable truth is that no one really knows the answer to these questions. At least there’s no one party line. Students need to speak directly to their universities to understand what comes next for them. Facilitating meaningful dialogue has never been more important. 

At Unitu, we have seen an almost unbelievable explosion of engagement on our platform since the COVID-19 outbreak began, with 85% of all registered student users accessing the platform in just 31 days. 

In March, 57,000 students logged on; 2.5 times on average. There have been a staggering 730,000 interactions — such as page views, comments, votes and posts — across the platform. 

This surge in activity shows how critical student voice is during this extraordinary period — and has kept us very busy indeed! 

But lecturers and university staff should be busy, too. Listening and responding to student concerns is absolutely vital. The situation is unprecedented and unsettling; and ensuring the physical and mental well-being of students across the country has to be a priority. 

So we’re here to help.

In order to support HE through this difficult time, Unitu is offering the student voice platform and service for free until 31 August. We are committed to helping institutions better hear and understand the student voice, so they can respond in the most meaningful way.

Still unsure how the student voice can help your university navigate these tricky waters? This article will break it down, looking at the ways Unitu’s platform can support HE during COVID-19, why it is so imperative to engage with students during times of crisis, and why the current engagement, feedback and communication model isn’t necessarily providing everything required…

How students are responding to COVID-19: anxious activity and a lot of questions

By empowering students to speak their mind from wherever in the world they are, we can capture real-time insight into the most important COVID-19 conversations to be had. 

And Unitu’s data from the month of March shows an increased anxiousness surrounding discussion points. Typically we may see students return to check the status of their feedback a handful of times, but last month — in line with the increased activity rate across the platform — students were upvoting and commenting significantly more. The platform received 1,000 posts, 210,000 post views and 14,000 upvotes. 

Upvoting is when a user shows their interest or agreement with another user’s input. So it’s a great metric to understand how much backing and support a question, suggestion or statement has from the wider community. 

For example, one user took to the platform to share their concerns about online examinations, arguing that this approach would be almost impossible for students who have inadequate at-home working environments, with limited space to study or concentrate during lockdown. This post was upvoted 150 times (more than 100 times in the first 24 hours!), clearly indicating that many other students agree.

Each of these votes and posts can be considered to be the equivalent of email communication. Where, instead of emailing the question or complaint, the student has taken to the platform to air their thoughts instead.

This takes a huge pressure off institutions’ inboxes. But it also raises transparency and accountability to respond in adequate time.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on student life so far, from lectures and exams all the way to accommodation and health (both physical and mental). Of the 1,000 feedback posts, 77% have been Questions (35%) and Issues (42%) about the impacts of the outbreak.

Topics surrounding what structure and format examinations will take, as well as welfare concerns (what to do if a housemate tested positive for the virus) and financial worries (will student loans still be released, and are students expected to pay tuition?), dominate the platform.

It’s clear the vast majority of students appear to be swamped in confusion. This emphasises just how important it is to listen to the student voice, and respond quickly and constructively.

Why emails and surveys simply aren’t enough..

Unitu closes the feedback loop and speeds up time between input and resolution. It also puts student feedback out into a shared domain; other students can feel united and connected through shared experiences — something we all need a little more of right now.

Other forms of student engagement are slow and unfocused. Staff have no intuitive way of knowing what the most pressing issues are, and have very little in terms of real-time capture other than email.

Most of all, the current methods of surveying student voice do not provide a decent forum for discussion, or a place to get questions answered or problems fixed.

For students, firing off an email does not give them much agency, or a loud enough voice. Using other online surveys, sent out by the university for example, they are restricted to a narrow set of issues. And lack of transparency fails to provide the reassurance required — are their concerns really being listened to? — particularly during uncertain or anxious times.

For institutions, the current methods just add extra pressure on already overworked staff. If handled only via email, the comments posted to Unitu in the last month would likely have resulted in multiple emails, resulting in around 14x the amount of email traffic for each individual query.

Now’s the time for students and staff members to feel motivated and in control

Meaningful dialogue can really help root both students and staff in a productive conversation — helping them feel more in control of what’s going on around them.

Students can see how staff and student reps engage with their feedback; they can feel and see that they are being heard. Currently 84% of Unitu posts have been dealt with either by staff or student reps.

Course reps in particular have really stepped up during this time of confusion. By actively monitoring a university’s Unitu community, reps have been able to bridge the gap between student and institution, supporting staff members in getting students the answers they need in as little as 24 hours. In fact, reps have been able to resolve 19% of posts before a staff member even had to be involved.

And this fast-action is so deeply appreciated. As one student praised reps on the platform:

“I wanted to express my huge appreciation and respect for all the year representatives for all their hard work during the strikes and pandemic, and throughout the academic year. They have constantly ensured that our views and opinions are being brought up to faculty, gone above and beyond in keeping us up-to-date with any breakthroughs and reminding us the feedback avenues that are available to us.”

Staff engagement during the COVID-19 period has also increased hugely, by over 50%. This active participation will help cement trust between the student body and their HE institution, and ensure that staff feel empowered to create positive change too.

There are, of course, challenges that the platform raises. Raising the level of student engagement does hold a mirror up to the struggles, difficulties and downfalls of HE during this time. It’s not always going to be easy to hear how scared, concerned and sometimes angry the student population is.

But we believe the benefits outweigh any potential negatives. Of course, we’re also doing everything we can to mitigate against misuse of the platform, including monitoring and blocking abusive behaviour via our three strikes policy. This helps protect all users, and encourages nothing but productive, reassuring, problem solving, to help everyone understand next steps.

Finally, while there are a lot of raised issues — which universities will feel obliged to respond to — there are also some hugely positive aspects of the student voice. Students are suggesting innovative, interesting and genuinely useful ideas around improving how HE instructions handle the outbreak. Some are helping shape the scope of online course materials, others are discussing ways of staying physically, emotionally and mentally well. They are also using the platform to praise staff and their university for ongoing support.

We’re in this together

Who knows when the HE world can get back to ‘normal’.

But no matter how long it takes, we’re all going to be working through the uncertainty together.

At Unitu, it’s our goal to provide as much support as we can during this tough time, and make it as easy as possible for students and staff alike to deal with everything and anything that arises as a result of COVID-19.

This is why we’ve made the platform free for all universities at this time, and it’s also why we will continue to offer advice and support throughout.

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