Michael Salmon is Associate Director – Curriculum Renewal for Summer Programmes at King’s College London.
Having taken the decision to move our summer schools online this year, rather than cancelling outright in the face of Covid-19 uncertainties, it is safe to say that the last few months have been much eventful than they might otherwise have been! Dr Alexander Heinz, Chair of the Summer Executive, will suggest in a forthcoming article that one of the defining features of summer schools is their ephemerality: by nature and by design, they play out a constant tension between having only just begun and shortly to conclude, and indeed this contributes to make them special, memorable, educationally exciting.
I would also argue that for these short summer weeks, it is easier to identify key moments that stick in the mind and reveal something about the communal experience that tutors and students shared in (compared to a degree programme, of course, or a full year abroad). Further, identifying these key moments is an important act of both reflective pedagogy and forward planning, a moment of stillness and consideration that enables momentum to be conserved. In this post I am going to describe a handful of such moments from the last few months.
Seeing collaboration happen
There were a number of ‘Aha!’ moments for me this summer which all involved seeing students conduct online discussions with one another. The practicalities around teamworking were a concern as we headed into the teaching period, especially as collaboration is such a fundamental part of all our courses. However, I repeatedly saw students either working together in very similar ways to how they would in a classroom or, in some cases, even more effectively.
For example, one offhand comment a student made within a discussion channel (“we could have a meeting here later – I think this room should be free after class”) really brought home to me the resilience of the students vis-à-vis the move online: they were able to conceptualise the digital spaces which our e-learning platforms provided as something very close to a physical classroom. I also greatly appreciated seeing students with the same mother tongue holding chats in English at a very high level of sophistication – the fact that they were able to type asynchronously rather than having to answer in real time paid dividends here. Although we had not taken student digital literacy for granted by any means, I was impressed seeing students able to navigate and negotiate the choppy waters of online group work with a great deal of flair.
Our team found that through hosting and moderating various online platforms and working with students to ensure that collaboration was as effective as possible, we had a phenomenal insight into who students were and how they were experiencing the courses. This would not have been possible in the same way with students placed in distinct classrooms, and was an unexpected pleasure.
Hearing the positives
Perhaps the aspect of the course we were most unsure about, more than how we would support our tutors, more than how online social activities could be conducted, more even than how online teaching would be received, was how well we would be able to deal with student issues. Those working in summer schools of any shape or form will be familiar with the queues at helpdesks and urgent phonecalls which are an inevitable part of in-country delivery, and which need to be dealt with professionally and efficiently by a skilled team. Doing this online with students spread all across the world would be a new experience for us, and we dedicated a lot of our planning time to implementing new triage procedures, new contact methods, new communication channels, and much more.
Running a summer school at a distance can also mean that it is harder to judge how students are experiencing the course. Despite confidence in our procedures and a strange sense of calm as the course began, everyone on the team was somewhat nervous to see student feedback, both in first impression surveys and end-of-course feedback. In particular, the two items ‘I felt welcomed and supported on the first day of the programme’ and ‘I felt sufficiently supported throughout the programme’ occupied prime position in my mind, for the reasons stated above.
As it turned out, the feedback received for these two questions was incredibly positive, and I think I speak for all of the team in saying that seeing these responses arrive was something that will stick in the mind when looking back at the summer. These moments when we were able to see for ourselves that essentially every student felt supported were extremely valuable.
Connecting in spite of it all
The Summer Community of Practice has long been a fundamental part of the Summer Education Programme. It brings together tutors from varied disciplines in a collegiate network, allowing for best practice to be shared and for much informal support.
Moving online was of course no barrier to holding regular Community of Practice meet-ups, but to begin with we did find that there was so much to discuss in terms of new procedures, new class types, new digital tools and all the other new uncertainties which have characterized 2020 since March at least. For this reason, it was the final session which really sticks in my mind as a memorable demonstration of the best aspects of the summer.
This session was held around the halfway point of the course, and the idea was for those tutors already teaching to share experiences with those yet to teach. The conversation flowed freely, with some fantastic suggestions about managing group work online or getting the best out of taciturn students, and I was able to sit back and absorb, or add thoughts drawn from my own teaching practice, rather than sticking to an agenda. It was a wonderful session, over too soon, and really demonstrated to me how a summer school can enable connectivity among staff all around the university, driving student experience forward beyond the summer into ideas for quality learning all year round, even against a background of the most unprecedented disruptions to business as usual.
Into the next phase
These, then, were some out of many more moments that I felt worthwhile to reflect upon, and which brought a degree of sunshine to the work of the past few months. Now, the work of consolidation must begin, as we look forward to making these unexpected moments into part of the new normal…