Programming: The short term is here for the long term

Dr Sarah Williamson is Executive Director and Dr Alexander Heinz is Senior Associate Director, Research & Innovation, Summer Programmes, at King’s College London.

When COVID hit in 2020, the crisis led to a cancellation of the vast majority of short term programming globally. As universities, our attention focussed on ensuring the delivery of the old core, and of moving degrees online. We worked hard and pulled together across teams and structural divides. With students as allies and being understanding of the extraordinary nature of the situation, most of us succeeded with moving into the world of 100% online learning. In crisis mode, in our thousands, we discovered a new digital cosmos at speed and focused our efforts at the same time on its possibilities for short course programming.

Two years into the pandemic and slowly moving out of it, we realise the hunger of our students for what they were missing. Before the pandemic, fear of missing out, ‘FOMO’, was an all too hedonist, insatiable way of life but now it has a harsher, insistent, desperate note that speaks of a harsh lack of community, of belonging, of experiential learning, of the yearning for serendipitous intellectual conversation. Life had stood still to some extent and a generation started to miss out on those things that form and educate the whole person; that shape memories. A generation was starting to be left out of gaining the community-based, future-building foundations of the early years of their adult lives.

We knew that these foundational elements often formed an integral part of short term programming, but to date, the focus of short term programming had remained concentrated in the realm of the international experience. Some in Higher Education looked at short international education courses as if they were a frivolity or an afterthought. Many had really started to see the possibilities of how summer schools, and other bloc teaching could open up opportunities to those who – for financial or other reasons – could not afford going abroad for an entire semester or year. We started to know about their long term impact before the pandemic brought education to a physical, if not cerebral, standstill.

The sector now stands at the dawn of a new era. We know that the digital will stay and this will also make the time spent on campus more meaningful rather than a physical and time-consuming challenge.  Short term programmes can be a deliberate way to enrich degrees They are a way to build in living experience, service, playfulness and collaboration.

Using short term programmes this way will mean a change of how the university sees colleagues who make this happen. These colleagues may have been employed to create third stream income; and indeed third stream income can only become more important for many of us as the public purse struggles to recover from the cost of COVID job retainment schemes.  Short courses may have been originally created to increase our exchange capital in international partnerships and to internationalise at home. Very few teams like Summer Programmes at King’s College London, have been strategically and creatively developing the capability of these programmes in the context of degrees.

So much of our lives is bite size these days and it seems as though today’s learners are able to derive value from the ephemeral more than previous generations. Research into the educational impact of short term programming certainly proves their positive impact. Since short term programmes are the ultimate building blocks of a flexible learning experience, they can be built around or fit into people’s lives in ways that enable even the busiest person to sign up for one and learn while celebrating the face-to-face interaction the para-Covid world craves.

Covid was not the end of these programmes but opened up new directions. It is time to keep following their evolution to see where they will lead us. Let us set about actively discovering the true long term impact of the short term. Let us move on.