Bristol Uni to increase in person teaching for TB2, after survey shows TB1 failures

Discussion of tuition refund ‘not relevant’ despite blended learning issues


Bristol Uni’s latest education survey reveals that many students do not have face to face teaching, nor has the online teaching succeeded in creating a sense of community, despite promises made before the start of the academic year.

The survey says that the “overwhelming majority” of students want more face to face teaching, students are more motivated to study in person than online, and 36 per cent have missed classes due to self-isolation for Covid-19.

The Education Pulse survey was conducted from 28th October to 9th November during the height of a Covid outbreak in the university. 10 per cent of the student body responded, and the university is taking specific action in response to the results, notably increasing face to face teaching to a minimum of two to three hours per week.

The Bristol Tab spoke to the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Tansy Jessop, about the results of the survey, and how Bristol is addressing the deficits in its provision for TB2.

Students are not receiving an equal amount of face to face teaching

A problem highlighted from very early in the academic year was the lack of face to face teaching on certain courses compared to others, with students saying the would not have paid for accommodation in Bristol this semester had they known there would be so little.

The survey reveals that 61 per cent of undergraduate and postgraduate taught students are receiving the full blended learning provision, whereas the remaining 39 per cent are either temporarily or completely online. Jessop said that many students had decided not to travel to Bristol, especially international students, and therefore there is a sizeable cohort of students who study online by default. Some staff who are risk assessed also cannot teach in person.

However, she did concede that there was a deficit: “I think in some schools the planning for TB1 aligned more with online teaching than in person, and we have spoken to those Heads of School and ask them to shift to more in person to be fairer to students in the future.”

When asked whether students were misled, she said: “It’s not as though we would set out to break a promise.

“I think we want to have a full in-person blended learning offer that incorporates both [online and face to face teaching], and we have continued to push that line, and require of heads of school that they ensure that there is a true blended learning offer.”

Jessop said she is “aiming” for every student to get a minimum of two to three hours per week of face to face teaching in TB2.

Only 19 per cent of students feel that online teaching creates a community

One of the more stunning figures in the report is that only 19 per cent of students feel that the online teaching has created a sense of community, whereas 72 per cent feel that this can only be achieved by in person teaching.

Jessop said she was “surprised” by the figure, and described the intensive training that staff across the university have undergone for the very purpose of creating an online community.

She also talked about an “expectation gap”, saying: “The expectation gap is that for 18 to 21 year olds, coming to university is a rite of passage which involves interacting with others, belonging, going out, being together on campus. And I think the global pandemic has put the kibosh on that.

“So for me the message from this is that we really need to work with academics and students to build a stronger online community.”

She added that training is continuing for staff, with input from experts, and they want to build on successful elements of online teaching, such as breakout groups.

“I think some people are getting it right but I think some people, and some students, may resist the community aspects of building community online. I think the issues around, cameras connectivity, and speaking online, and getting people to do simple things online that make them feel comfortable.”

The tuition fee discussion “is not relevant”

Given the issues with teaching over TB1, we asked whether tuition fees should be reduced for students this year, to which Jessop said: “the fee discussion for me is not relevant”.

“Whether our education has been online or in-person, the metric for whether a degree is worth its salt is whether you have high quality expert lecturers delivering, whether online or in-person, in a way that enables the students to meet the learning outcomes. And I believe we’ve done that.”

When asked whether she felt stitched up by the government by being forced to bring students back to campus, she pivoted to a story of driving a veterinary student home, who told Jessop that her experience this year had been “really good”.

When asked whether it was right to bring students back to campus, Jessop said: “I do think putting people’s lives on hold for a pandemic, particularly young people would be the wrong thing. I think going back into education was the right thing to do.

“I don’t think it’s been easy. I think it’s been challenging. I think it’s challenged us all. But I think it has enabled people to carry on with their studies to develop as people and to, in the end, be employable graduates.”

The January staggered arrival is “lessons learned” from September

36 per cent of students say they have missed class due to self-isolation requirements because of Covid, and according to UCU figures, Bristol Uni has had the second highest number of Covid cases in the country after Newcastle.

When asked what went wrong, Jessop implied that the September arrival of students was mismanaged by government, which resulted in the surge of Covid cases.

“I think that the mitigations that governments put in place for January of a staggered return are to some extent lessons learned from everyone arriving at universities at a similar time and going into halls of residence.”

She emphasised that the university currently has very few cases of Covid, and said that all universities experienced a rise in cases after the arrival of students.

On Covid mitigations from January, students will no longer be required to wear a visor, and will only have to wear a face covering in class. Jessop said that 10 per cent of students had said that wearing both masks and visors put them off attending face to face classes.

This semester has been “challenging”

Jessop acknowledged how challenging this semester has been, and praised both students and staff for their efforts during a difficult period. She emphasised that the university is making changes in response to student feedback, notably the removal of the visor requirement, more training for staff on creating communities through online teaching, and more face to face teaching will be added.

She described the transition to online teaching as “almost a wartime effort”, and said that asynchronous activities were designed to ensure that students with technology and connectivity issues could still access the materials needed for their courses.

It is clear that the university is responding to the feedback from students, although in the middle of a pandemic the options are limited.

That said, from January students should see more of each other, and as the vaccine is distributed across the country, there is hope that, unlike the last academic year, this year could end with a party rather than lockdown.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

We spoke to Bristol Uni students who say they are not going home in the travel window

Bristol Uni offers students in halls 30 per cent rent rebate for seven weeks

• Bristol SU condemns Bristol Uni’s approach to January assessments