We’re all in IT together

In this blog Keith Pond describes the creation of a Virtual Community of Practice in his school that has operated throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. The Digital Drop-In sessions continue to deliver clarity, self-help and a necessary release valve for academic colleagues.

Since March 2020, Universities up and down the UK have been working hard – largely behind the scenes - to prepare systems, software, instructions and guides to support 100% online or much increased online delivery of teaching. What students faced in March as the academic year wound down was only a taste of what was in store. Forward-thinking folks hoped for the best but planned for the worst as the Autumn term loomed, pregnant with its uncertainty about student numbers, social distancing, finances and the benefits that international students bring.

Of course, we could rely on the university to provide clear guidance and stable systems to deliver teaching by the Autumn.  However, the immediate demands of technology, especially on those working from home without access to the connectivity achieved on campus – and sometimes without their fully configured staff desktops or laptops – began to cause stress.

Our stress relieving vehicle was a regular virtual drop-in session first using Adobe Connect and then Microsoft Teams, when the latter software was rolled out to staff.  The basic rules of the drop-in were as follows:

  • No recording – This was as close as we could get to the Chatham House Rule – colleagues were encouraged to vent their true feelings and good discussions could ensue.
  • No agenda – We wanted an open forum rather than an expectation of formal training (the university provided that).
  • Pedagogy first – Technology needed to be perceived as the response to a teaching issue, rather than a driver.
  • Keep it Simple – Why over-complicate our lives with complex and risky technologies?
  • Play – colleagues were encouraged to try, fail, learn and try again, either by themselves or in a small group of colleagues. To this end we also set up a “Sandbox” on our VLE that all staff could access to try out different aspects and functions of the platforms.

Take-up was slow at first as the Easter vacation proceeded and focus was on re-thinking assessments as remote and “open everything” exams. We gained momentum for weekly meetings as colleagues teaching on our MBA and MSc programmes hosted online lectures and workshops through the summer.

As summer waned, we had learned much about the platforms chosen for teaching and about how drop-in sessions worked and were ready for the steady increase in enquiries and interest from colleagues facing students in October. The regular availability of a colleague from the university’s Centre for Academic Practice at drop-ins helped to build the credibility of the offering and the trust that is essential when lecturers want to be confident before they are sent to the front line.

For me, the best part was when we played with different tools and functionality. For example: using Breakout rooms in Adobe Acrobat and Teams was seen as a great asset to get interaction and peer learning in “live” sessions. But there was so much to test:

  • Should I use Breakout rooms?
  • How do I set up Breakouts?
  • How long should the Breakout be?
  • Can I warn the rooms when there are only 5 minutes left for discussion?
  • Can I “pop in” to each Breakout room to check on progress?
  • Can students share the Whiteboard?
  • Do I want students to share a Whiteboard?
  • How effective is the Teams profanity filter?
  • How do I keep up with the CHAT in each Channel or Breakout when there are large numbers of students?

The only way to find out and to become confident is to try it out.  Apart from the last bullet point, of course when the advice is – don’t even try to do this alone.

There is no way of measuring the success of the drop-in activity at Loughborough. Feedback suggests that staff confidence is increasing. Numbers attending the now bi-weekly (during term-time) sessions are steady. The feedback from colleagues experiencing online teaching, student behaviours and technical glitches and their advice to colleagues yet to teach now take up much of the drop-in session time.

And yet, we all realise that this is only a first tentative step in a journey that will change our business model, our skillset and our expectations.


Dr Keith Pond, SFHEA, CMBE: Digital Learning Lead, Loughborough University School of Business and Economics. Keith is also a member of the Chartered ABS LTSE Committee and the EFMD Quality Services Director responsible for online course certification (EOCCS)