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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Beyond the emergency: City-wide principles for online learning, teaching and assessment


Written by
Professor Susannah Quinsee

When City, University of London moved rapidly online in March 2020, we published a list of principles to help staff  in the emergency. However, as we started to plan for Autumn 2020, we realised that we needed more comprehensive principles that encompass planning and student support in ways that our emergency principles had not had to. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, we published a list of principles to help staff  move their teaching, learning and assessment online in response to the emergency, writes Susannah Quinsee, Director of Learning Enhancement and Development at City, University of London: 

  1. Teaching should be delivered asynchronously wherever possible.
  2. Staff should keep materials simple and in common formats to ensure students with basic IT provision and different learning needs can access.
  3. Clear communication should be given to students about what engagement with the online materials is expected.
  4. Online teaching and learning should be delivered through University supported educational technology systems.
  5. Accept that this is a “best efforts” activity in extraordinary circumstances, not an attempt to deliver a distance learning course and follow the considerations for moving your teaching online. 

These 5 principles were approved by the University Executive Committee and posted on our guidance site for staff .  However, as we started to plan for Autumn 2020, we realised that we needed to develop a new set of principles that were much more comprehensive, as well as encompassing aspects of planning and student support in ways that our emergency principles had not had to.  The challenge was drawing up a set of principles that would be detailed enough to be meaningful but not too dictatorial that would result in protracted battles across the University to gain agreement and buy-in.  This last point was particularly pertinent.  During the emergency period the University has been operating in different ways and needing to enact change rapidly, resulting in changes to policies and processes that would usually take months and considerable discussion to agree happening in a matter of days.  In order for staff to respond positively to continuing online learning and teaching in the autumn we knew that building consensus around the principles would be important.

The process of developing the principles started with a meeting of School Deans, myself as Director of Learning Enhancement and Development, our Education Strategy Support Manager and the Deputy Principle and Provost.  On an unusually rainy Friday afternoon in lockdown we discussed with the Schools their plans for September, what was driving these in terms of their rationale for student and staff support and what they needed in order to be able to deliver them.  Further meetings with senior staff in Schools occurred where we drilled down in more detail to understanding the opportunities for the School with online learning, their challenges and support needs and their experiences during the emergency period. From these discussions, a set of principles emerged that are designed to build staff confidence in delivering high quality learning and teaching in September, but also place the needs of our students at the core.  An example of this is our approach to inclusive practice. Work had been planned to move ahead in 2020/21 around closing our degree awarding gaps and accelerating our student achievement work in line with our response to the Access and Participation Plan and Race Equality Charter submission.  Although we knew that staff had so many competing priorities, we felt that for our students attempting to minimise the disproportionate impact of the pandemic would be vital and therefore we made “equity” our first principle.  This has resulted in the much earlier release than planned of our inclusive practice framework and new work on decolonisation.

To gain buy-in for the Good Practice Principles, we then sought approval at the University Executive Committee and developed an implementation approach that built on the needs Schools had articulated previously.  This latter approach involved Schools creating task forces with Professional Services to plan the creation of online resources and student support materials.  We also built in programme design, including timetabling and evaluation.  This will be monitored by our Education and Student Committee and Learning and Teaching Committee. 

Underpinning our approach to developing our principles were three key elements:

  1. Keeping our student needs at the heart of what we are doing in offering online and on-campus learning in 2020/21, including being able to communicate with them our plans early and keep them informed
  2. Building staff confidence to deliver high quality learning and teaching in various modes in the Autumn of 2020 and understanding that this is a bridge between the emergency mode we have been in and “normal” practice. This is a transition time and staff interactions with students will be key. We need to focus on skilling them to adapt to this situation
  3. Building our support and principles on School needs and requests.  This was very much a “bottom-up” and collaborate approach to defining the direction of our offer for 2020/21 and the support staff needed.  Taking this approach has enabled greater buy-in and positive working relationships.  

We are also thinking longer term about how the impact of the pandemic and our experiences of online learning will result in changes to learning and teaching in the future. We are hopeful that our inclusive approach will enable staff to feel supported to make longer term changes in practices that will ultimately benefit our students.