This study examined how UCL academic and professional staff adapted to the challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic in the early days of lockdown in 2020.
The project provided a rapid review process to help UCL emergency committees to make policy decisions that could support staff wellbeing using realtime data as people adjusted to working from home and moving to online teaching and research.
The project ran from March 2020 to 2021 and is now closed.
UCL’s move to online teaching, research and homeworking in response to COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges. Emerging evidence suggests that, while some people benefit from working from home, others are disadvantaged. The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing structural inequalities that impact adversely on staff, as well as posing challenges and opportunities for teaching and research.
To understand these issues, UCL Moving Online has investigated the experiences of academic and professional service colleagues as they work from home and move to online teaching and research.
On March 26, 2020 an email was circulated to the Deans to ask them to email colleagues across each of the faculties to ask volunteers to spend 15 mins answering a free-text, online survey gathering quantitative and qualitative data about their experiences.
Participation was open to anyone at UCL and participants were asked to upload a photograph or create an image depicting their experiences, describe the benefits and challenges of homeworking, online teaching and online research through free text answers and optionally sign up to provide regular updates.
A total of 388 responses to the first survey have been received as of 28 May 2020 and analysis is continuous and ongoing. The sections of this report on disadvantaged groups and carrying out research from home research from home is based on the first 264 respondents, while the analysis of teaching online is based on the first 238 responses. These analyses have already revealed how our academic community has experienced working from home in both positive and negative ways.
This analysis has been carried out by the UCL knowledge Lab at IOE by:
Analysis of the impact of the move to online teaching
This revealed the main challenges of teaching online concerned using live video conference systems (Teams, Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom) where the lack of interaction and engagement of students made online teaching more difficult and stressful. Technological challenges largely involved these systems and the strength of participants’ (and students’) broadband connection.
A 'fundamental shift' in the way UCL colleagues are supported to teach online is needed to help people incorporate more sophisticated, online pedagogies. Professional development should focus on moving from delivering lectures online to designing learning in ways that engage students through online platforms.
Participants who had inadequate office space at UCL, or who otherwise experienced a long commute saw benefits in teaching online, since the time normally spent commuting could be used for teaching. However, people with limited space at home are less positive about teaching online.
Opportunities for experimenting with and consolidating innovative pedagogies were reported by those who found the move in line with their interests in online teaching and learning. For these participants, there were hopes that there would the move would have a positive impact on support for online learning at UCL in the future. On the basis of these findings this report offers five recommendations (see below).
Analysis of the impact of working from home on research
This reveals that those on fixed term contracts are anxious about not being able to finish their research by the end of their contract period, and they are concerned about the knock-on impact on their career.
Some researchers found task and time management has been challenging, with days not being productive, particularly those with childcare responsibilities who have been home schooling.
Some people need access to physical books or articles that they had left in their office. People whose research requires laboratory or studio space, or in-person contact that cannot be replicated online have had to stop their research.
While, over the short term, many researchers explained they have switched their activity from data collection to analysis, reading and article writing, they emphasise that this can only be a short-term stop gap.
Finally, many researchers miss the connection with others, though some groups have continued seminars and group meetings online, which has been helpful. New collaboration and kick-off meetings for new research projects pose special challenges.
Some (mainly minority) groups have experienced specific challenges and leading to disadvantage beyond that experienced by the majority while working from home. These groups include:
- Women are experiencing barriers to undertaking research while working from home due to increased emotional labour. This includes caring responsibilities for children and adult dependents disproportionately falling on women; increased pastoral support for students during the Covid19 pandemic, which often falls disproportionately on women; supporting colleagues in the move to online teaching. These activities lead to reduced time for research and to publish research papers, exacerbating existing lower research leadership activity and publication rates for women which is likely to slow their long-term career progression.
- People with caring responsibilities have less opportunity to engage in activities that may lead to promotions, such as research and publication (for academics) and leading projects (for professional services colleagues), which will impact their future career. By ‘caring responsibilities’ we include childcare/home schooling, care for the elderly and pastoral care for students. There is evidence that some students require more pastoral care than usual, because of the additional anxieties they have associated with the pandemic. Offering pastoral care while working from home has two main effects. First, it reduces the time available for other tasks, usually publication which tends not to have immediate deadlines and second, those offering pastoral care have to deal with the emotional effects within their own home, rather than in the workplace. While there is evidence that women generally are doing the bulk of caring, in keeping with traditional gender roles, some men and third-gender persons also report caring responsibilities. Consequently, widowers, men with sole custody of children, single men with primary elder care responsibilities and so on should be given the same supports as women who have caring duties. Our data set included only a handful of persons who identified as third gender or did not disclose their gender. Consequently, we are unable to make specific recommendations to mitigate, but recommend based on the literature that this group be carefully attended to.
- Disabled people: Health issues such as headaches, eyestrain, aching back, shoulders or wrists health impacts were reported by 7.7% of respondents. It was unclear from the data if these were new or existing conditions, but concern is these could become disabling resulting in long term mental health conditions or Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI). While the survey did not ask participants to disclose disability nine individuals mentioned them, and many found working from home extremely challenging due to lack of accessible software, carers, not having access to ergonomic and accessibility resources based at UCL which caused isolation and frustration. On the upside, the pandemic provided evidence that jobs which previously considered impossible to perform from home are, in fact, achievable. Continuing to allow these jobs to be carried out from home will bring significant benefit to some disabled people.
- People with mental health disabilities: About 20% of our participants mentioned low morale, emotional exhaustion or an increase in their own stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression. Our study did not ask staff members to report mental health challenges, rather the focus was on how working from home impacted teaching and research. Had we explicitly asked about mental health we expect our findings would have been even more stark.
- People with limited homeworking space have fewer rooms to work in. This is a significant factor influencing attitudes in the move to online teaching, with a trend towards the experience being more positive the greater the number of rooms. This finding is not replicated in attitudes to researching from home, nor are there gender effects.
- BAME colleagues likely form another disadvantaged groups, but the dataset is too limited to report on this group.
These insights are being used by UCL’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), UCL Wellbeing, Digital Education and other groups to identify what types of support are needed and how these might be offered.
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated major changes to research, teaching and professional working at UCL. To capture staff experiences, we launched a series of staff surveys.
As part of the survey we asked about the challenges and opportunities of the shift to online teaching at UCL. Participants (n=238) reported both challenges and opportunities associated with the move to online teaching and learning.
- The most reported challenges concerned teaching using live video conference systems (Teams, Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom) where the lack of interaction and engagement of students made online teaching more difficult and stressful.
- Technological challenges largely involved these systems and the strength of participants’ (and students’) broadband connection.
- Participants expressed the need for a 'fundamental shift' in the way they were supported to teach online as UCL moves into a new academic year, to incorporate using more developed online pedagogies.
- Professional development was needed to move away from delivering ‘lectures’ online to designing learning to support and engage students through online platforms.
- The benefits of this approach were borne out by responses from those who were experienced in online pedagogy who found the move online to be smooth and relatively undemanding.
- Participants who had inadequate office space at UCL, or who otherwise experienced a long commute also saw benefits in teaching online.
- The opportunities for experimenting with and consolidating innovative pedagogies were reported by those who found the move in line with their interests in online teaching and learning. For these participants, there were hopes that there would the move would have a positive impact on support for online learning at UCL in the future.
On the basis of the findings from the survey, we have five recommendations:
- Support for online teaching and learning in the new academic year should focus on learning design that shifts the emphasis away from tutor presentation via video conference
- Pedagogical support should be provided for ways of synchronous interaction and engagement with students
- Learning design support should be provided for asynchronous student discussion and collaborative activity
- Online, short and flexible (i.e. asynchronous and just-in-time) professional development courses should be provided for tutors at UCL to enable them to gain first-hand experience of quality online learning design and the use of tools and tools to engage students.
- Ensure staff have sufficient time to develop their courses since development for online learning and teaching is heavily front loaded.
The move to online research presents numerous challenges and some benefits. People’s experience with online research varies significantly, in part due to home caring responsibilities as well as pressing priorities associated with the move to online teaching and pastoral care for students.
- Many researchers had to stop their research due to lack of access to research spaces & non-computing resources, computer software, hardware and bandwidth. Some research methods cannot be carried out remotely. To allow them to progress in their research, many reported a shift of focus to reading, analysing data, and writing up findings. However this focus does not provide a long-term solution to researching from home.
- Some researchers prefer working from home. It allows them to be free from noise and distractions and helps them to concentrate. This group was a minority, nevertheless they described being at their most productive while working from home, reporting increased focus and productivity, particularly those without caring responsibilities. Some researchers also reported increased productivity from saved commute time.
- Working from home meant increased caring responsibilities, teaching, and pastoral care duties, presenting a major challenge for them to find time for research. People identifying as women disproportionately are likely to report these difficulties.
- Remote UCL research seminars and research meetings were perceived as beneficial.
- Research Communication amongst new teams with non-UCL collaborators, and informal serendipitous research collaborations were viewed to be problematic.
- There was considerable anxiety over delays to externally funded research. In particular individuals on fixed term contracts are anxious about not being able to finish their research by the end of their contract period, and the impact on securing their next contract and their career progression.
- Additional research to examine use of remote tools to best support remote seminars, research meetings, and online conferences used as the basis for a set of best practices guidelines for remote research collaboration.
- Support for research collaboration tools and training to use them to build trust, rapport and chances for serendipitous collaboration opportunities and informal meetings
- Promotion and REF policy should be updated to document the impact on researchers who lost access to labs, studios, or other facilities. These policies should engage with delays caused by lost data, and time needed to rerun experiments. Finally, policy should document how some research methods are less able to be adopted for remote studies than others.
- Promotion and REF documents should be updated to document the adverse impact of caring duties, especially people who identify as women, on research productivity. Additionally, they should document that people without caring duties often had more time for research.
- Grant one term teaching and administrative sabbaticals to those who have most adversely been impacted by COVID 19, particularly those whose productivity has been impacted by caring responsibilities and disability-related reasons.
- Protect research led by women, BAME individuals, disabled researchers, and men or third gender person who act as primary carers (e.g. single fathers). Research shows these demographics are already disadvantaged in terms of research, consequently, as the teaching duties expand due to the increased time required to teach online, we need to ensure this research gap does not widen.
- Continue remote participation in research meetings and seminars after the lockdown
- Extend Carer’s fund to help with childcare or eldercare costs associated with travel to conferences or for fieldwork across the university.
- Provide COVID UCL sponsored short recovery grants for individuals whose research was severely impacted by the pandemic allowing them to get back on track, and provide coverage for post-docs and contract researchers who were in the final stages of their contracts.
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- Gourlay, L. 2022. Digital masks, screens, selves and symbolic hygiene in online higher education. Learning, Media and Technology.
- Gourlay, L. 2022. Presence, absence and alterity: fire space and Goffman’s selves in postdigital education. Postdigital Science and Education 4, 57-69.
- Jennifer Rode, Eileen Kennedy & Allison Littlejohn. 2022. Gender and the lived body experience of academic work during COVID-19. Learning, Media and Technology, 47:1, pp. 109-124.
- Littlejohn, A, Gourlay, L, Kennedy, E, Logan, K, Neumann, T, Oliver, M, Potter, J and Rode, JA. (2021). Moving Teaching Online: Cultural Barriers Experienced by University Teachers During Covid-19. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2021(1): 7, pp. 1–15.
- Gourlay, L., Littlejohn, A., Oliver, M. and Potter, J. (2021). Lockdown literacies and semiotic assemblages: academic boundary work in the Covid-19 crisis. Learning, Media and Technology
- Gourlay, L. (2020). Quarantined, Sequestered, Closed: Theorising Academic Bodies Under Covid-19 Lockdown. Postdigital Science and Education, 1-21.
- Littlejohn, A. (2020). Seeking and sending signals: remodelling teaching practice during the Covid-19 crisis. Access: Contemporary Issues in Education, Vol. 41. doi: 10.46786/ac20.8253
- Computer Aided Learning Research Group (CALRG), Open University, UK. ‘Teaching As Caring’. 1 June 2023. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn, Eileen Kennedy, Martin Oliver.
- Research in Distance Education Conference, University of London, ‘A caring approach to teaching with technology could underpin digital transformation in universities’. 28 March 2023. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn, Eileen Kennedy, Diana Laurillard, UCL knowledge Lab, IOE and Kathy Armour, UCL Pro-Provost (Education).
- Advancing Teaching. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Inequalities in faculty roles that have been exacerbated by Covid-19, 1st July 2022. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn.
- “I can’t see students’ reactions”: The experiences of UCL academics in the move to online teaching during lockdown (Conference Abstract No 34). UCL Education Conference, 14 April 2021. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn, Eileen Kennedy, Martin Oliver, Lesley Gourlay, Kit Logan, Tim Neumann, John Potter and Jennifer A. Rode
- Online Learning and Education. Open University COVID-19 Research Panel Discussion, 27 May 2021. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn
- The Move to Online Teaching and Homeworking. Online Symposium on Digital Transformation of Higher Education, Centre for Research in Digital Education, University of Leeds UK, November 25 2020. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn
- Staff Experiences of The Rapid Move Online: Challenges and Opportunities. Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE) Conference. October 21, 2020. Presentation by Eileen Kennedy and Allison Littlejohn
- Education in time of pandemic: The Move to Online Teaching and Homeworking. EDEN webinar: Education in a time of a ‘new normal’. September 21 2020. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn
- #Covid19 We’re all in this together – or are we? Association for Learning Technology Webinar. July 28, 2020. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn, Jennifer A. Rode and Eileen Kennedy
- UCL Move to Online Teaching and Homeworking (MOTH). Birmingham City University Conference, July 13 2020. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn
- The Challenges and Opportunities of the rapid move to online university teaching in response to Covid19. Academic Practice with Technology Conference, University of London, 9 July 2020. Presentation by Allison Littlejohn and Eileen Kennedy.
- Teaching with Technology Needs Care. WONKHE blogpost by Allison Littlejohn, Eileen Kennedy, Diana Laurillard, and Kathy Armour. 7 December 2022.
- Floating on the ‘cloud’ or living in the material world? Teaching online in the time of Covid, IOE blogpost by Lesley Gourlay, 16 February 2022
- Universities: learning outside the lecture hall. IOE blogpost by Allison Littlejohn, 22 September 2021
- Higher education’s ‘new normal’: building connections in the post-Covid-19 era. IOE blogpost by Allison Littlejohn, July 31 2020.