Teaching & Learning


Planning for Autumn Term 2020-21

A position statement setting out key guidance to support you planning teaching, assessment and educational enrichment activities for the Autumn Term, 2020-21.

Published: Tuesday 7 July

Like much of the UK HE sector, our guidance is for Term 1 only.  However, due to the ongoing uncertainty about how the pandemic will progress, we do not expect a full return to established patterns of face-to-face activity in Term 2 or the remainder of 2020-21.  We advise planning for continuation of Connected Learning for the remainder of the academic year. A deliberately planned approach will be better for staff and students rather than emergency remote teaching.  Also, it is easier to pivot from online to face-to-face teaching in- year than the other way around.

Many students are keen to be at UCL in person and to take part in face-to-face activities. The Temporary Operating Model encourages them to come to London, recognising the value of an on-campus experience, particularly at undergraduate level and for lab-based, practical and clinical activities. However, it is likely that some students will be unable to join us on campus for Term 1, whether they are in the UK or overseas. Indeed, some students may need to remain remote for parts of the remainder of the year.

Planning to teach

A ‘digital first’ approach (a mixture of asynchronous and synchronous learning, see below) is recommended, with some campus-based face-to-face as well as lab- and studio/practice-based teaching activity for students, led by academic or teaching staff.

Our new online resources and guidance, the Connected Learning Essentials programme, sets out the recommended approach and supports its implementation. The temporary support infrastructure includes Faculty Learning Technology Leads and departmental Connected Learning Leads. This infrastructure is currently being put in place.

Decisions around the specifics of teaching lie at the local level with individual programme teams, in liaison with the new support infrastructure, which augments existing central support teams such as Arena, Digital Education and UCL Library Services.

Assessment and examinations

Programme teams are currently asked to consider the assessment opportunities for their modules. We strongly recommend continued use of the alternative assessment approaches successfully developed for 2019-2020 and no further changes to assessment methods are required for 2020-21. Academic Services should be informed accordingly by 24 July.

24-hour timed examinations will be available again in 2020-21, together with very limited opportunities to run some exams in a shorter timeframe. There will be no in-person invigilated examinations in the 2020-21 academic year. Work is being undertaken on the implementation of an online examination system with the possibility of proctoring functionality, but it will at best only be possible to undertake a small pilot in the coming year.

Tier 4 visas contingent on some face-to-face teaching

Guidance from UKVI makes it clear that we cannot sponsor students where the programme is being delivered wholly online with no intention to transition to face to face teaching during 2020/2021. We can only sponsor taught students that have an element of face to face teaching in their degree programme.  If a department is commencing 2020/21 with any element of face to face teaching or is planning to transition to face to face in Term 2, we can sponsor students on these programmes throughout the academic year.  However, if a department’s face-to-face contact consists of activity that does not involve contact with academics and teachers in Term 1, and with no plans to transition to face to face teaching later in the academic year, we will not be able to sponsor these students. 

Departments should plan some face-to-face teaching during Term 1 where possible.  Given the likely limited availability of face-to-face sessions per module, it may be helpful to think at the programme level when determining how much face-to-face teaching students will receive.  If no face-to-face teaching is possible in Term 1, departments should plan to transition to some face-to-face teaching by Term 2 in order for UCL to sponsor students for a Tier 4 visa.   Any international student who cannot attend in-person throughout 2020/21 will not be sponsored for a Tier 4 visa.  However, programmes will need to support those students who are unable to attend face-to-face teaching with equivalent opportunities to those being offered on campus. 

Students without a Tier 4 visa are not eligible for Post Study Work and Chinese authorities require face-to-face teaching to validate overseas degrees. 

What will count as contact hours? How many contact hours does a module need to retain? 

The amount of face-to-face teaching possible will be constrained by space availability under social distancing conditions. For Term 1 the amount of face-to-face time per student might be no more than 2-3 hours per week plus labs and studio activities etc where applicable.

The amount of ‘live’ contact time, be it face-to-face on campus or synchronous online, will be limited and vary from module to module and programme to programme. Consideration should be given to the challenges associated with longer video recordings, large webinars or online lectures.  Plan on the basis of learning hours as opposed to contact hours and consider how the requisite number of learning hours per module best be attributed. Learning hours can include: undertaking background reading, student preparation time, watching and engaging with short pre-recorded videos, reading and contributing to online discussions, undertaking individual or group-based activities, creating artefacts, reviewing and providing feedback on other students’ work, self-directed study, tutorial time, assessment preparation etc.

On-campus face-to-face activities must involve academic or teaching staff in order to count as engagement activities for UKVI Tier 4 visa engagement monitoring purposes. What this looks like will vary depending on discipline and programme teams will determine what is best. 

Departments will need to continue engagement monitoring of Tier 4 students as best as they can, whether teaching is-face-to-face or online. UCL has created a temporary Tier 4 engagement monitoring policy for taught students on Tier 4 visas in 2020-21.  Wherever possible departments are expected to be able to evidence weekly engagement (during the masters dissertation period, monthly engagement is permitted) for taught students and engagement at least every 30 days for graduate research students.  Evidence of remote attendance/engagement is permitted e.g. with online learning portals, attendance at virtual lectures, seminars and tutorials, and online submission of coursework can be used. The Tier 4 engagement monitoring policy contains a list of types of evidence acceptable for the purposes of monitoring engagement. 

The 70% attendance requirement for all students has been suspended for 2020-21.

Planning face-to-face activity 

Departments are encouraged to consider linking on-campus face-to-face activity to programme-, rather than module-level learning outcomes, where appropriate (except for lab and practice-based teaching).

Face-to-face activity should be selected on pedagogical grounds. 

Appropriate alternative activity to meet the intended learning outcomes should be provided for those who cannot attend face-to-face sessions, to achieve equity for students irrespective of their ability to attend face-to-face. Use of recorded face-to-face sessions for those who are unable to attend is not recommended: it will not be a good learning experience.

Summative assessment requirements should not be contingent on students having been able to attend face-to-face sessions.

More information and guidance about planning for laboratory and practice-based activities is being developed.

Asynchronous, synchronous and dual mode learning

A combination of asynchronous, synchronous and face-to-face learning (not dual mode, see below) is recommended. Decisions around how to offer a teaching event lie with staff and should be driven by what staff know to be the best approach for providing a rich learning experience, working towards meeting learning outcomes and providing an equitable experience for all students. 

Can we teach entire programmes online? 

Programmes are expected to include some face-to-face teaching. However, there may be some exceptional cases where a Dean may give permission for a programme to be fully online following discussion with relevant members of a Faculty’s Education Leadership Team.

Teaching the entire programme online will have Competitions and Marketing Authority and Tier 4 implications for students.  International students will forego their eligibility for Tier 4 and Post Study Work visas. As we cannot sponsor these students, departments must contact the Student Visa & Immigration team as soon as possible if they are intending to teach wholly on-line during 2020/21.

Moving programs online may have a serious impact on student numbers, in particular students from China, who may believe online learning is inherently lower quality (Source: British Council for UMF), less “reputable” and therefore less likely to give them a competitive edge in an increasingly difficult job market than traditional face-to-face teaching (Source: Net Natives).  Surveys show that prospective students from China also have concerns about their own ability to follow discussions online rather than in person.  It is also the case the some government agencies in some countries do not recognise degrees that are delivered solely online.

Asynchronous online learning

The UK Quality Assurance Agency defines asynchronous learning as 'learning that does not occur in the same place or at the same time for a whole cohort. Students can access this learning at any specific time. Asynchronous learning enables students to learn at their own pace in their own time.’

Our Connected Learning approach recommends that a significant amount of module content should be offered through asynchronous online learning. For guidance, please go to the Connected Learning Essentials programme.

What are the benefits of online asynchronous sessions? 

The key benefit of asynchronous online learning is that it provides flexibility for students who may face a range of barriers (geographic, technical or domestic) with attending synchronous events. Asynchronous teaching might include academic material such as pre-recorded lectures or research literature alongside activities such as discussion fora or quizzes. These activities can offer significant rigour and promote inclusivity and flexibility. They can involve student interactions with staff and with one another. They need careful planning to ensure they are engaging and students understand when, why and how they should complete these learning activities. 

Synchronous online learning

By synchronous we mean online learning where all students allocated to that class attend and take part in the activities at the same time. Synchronous can be classes split across module or programme cohorts ie it does not have to be the entire cohort together in one session.

Synchronous online learning events should be designed for active interaction and be offered in manageable chunks of time (e.g. one-hour seminar rather than 3-hour lecture). It is likely that synchronous activity will require multiple deliveries for large modules or programmes in order to enable active engagement for participants.

Be mindful of the strain on systems caused by high volume synchronous on-line sessions using a shared national infrastructure - especially in the first few weeks of Term 1.

What are the benefits of synchronous online sessions? 

Synchronous online sessions (using platforms like Blackboard Collaborate, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom – which UCL will be supporting next year) can facilitate interaction with the subject, teacher and fellow students and can help to promote a sense of community and connection at a distance. 

What are some of the limitations of online synchronous sessions? 

Synchronous online sessions don’t necessarily account for diversity in terms of time zones, connectivity, and disability, and some may struggle to participate or have a lesser experience. Trying to accommodate different time zones will also add the risk of timetable clashes for students. Live online teaching of larger group sizes can also be challenging and stressful.

For synchronous teaching, some concerns have been raised regarding potential surveillance of teaching by overseas states, and with being subject to online harassment. UCL is the home of disruptive thinkers and much of what we do encourages new ways of thinking. This means much of the debate can be challenging and stretching and could be seen as sensitive in nature. In our usual mode of operation, this is easily made clear to students before classes but this can be more challenging when the teaching is offered remotely. We are asking our staff to make it clear in Moodle where individual sessions or whole modules may be considered politically sensitive or in other ways challenging in which to participate. If students are concerned about classes or modules we would ask them to have a conversation with the programme or module team before committing to a particular module.  We also ask staff to be aware that some students may choose to ‘observe’ rather than participate in contentious discussions, and not participate and to respect that as a legitimate choice.  

So, can I run online synchronous sessions? 

Yes. Online synchronous should be used when the pedagogy requires student interaction. Decisions around how to offer a teaching event lie with staff and should be driven by what you know to be the best approach for meeting learning outcomes.

Be guided by your programme, your cohort, your staffing and their capacity and expertise. And seek advice from Connected Learning Leads and Faculty Learning Technology Leads as well as colleagues in Arena and Digital Education.

Can I run online synchronous sessions for a large group? 

Yes, but there should be a focus on interactivity and active participation. Consider having a second teacher or moderator present to facilitate interaction.

Should I record any synchronous sessions for those who can't attend? 

UCL does not currently have a policy on this. At the moment we recommend that synchronous events are not recorded and used asynchronously.  This is because it raises difficult questions about whether students in the live session gave their permission to be recorded.  Also they might be inhibited from contributing freely to the session.

An exception are classes where a student with a SORA requires a recording or equivalent this should be made available to the student in question (as opposed to the whole class).

Do I need to plan to teach synchronous sessions for students in different time zones? 

No, students are expected to understand they are attending a UK programme run on GMT.  Good planning and spacing out of synchronous online teaching and communication should help. If you run your synchronous online activity in multiple groups to manage cohort size, you could offer a couple of different times be careful of inadvertently segregating students. This is also reason to avoid over-reliance on synchronous delivery.

Dual-mode teaching: not recommended

‘Dual-mode’ teaching is where students are taught face-to-face in a classroom and online simultaneously. We strongly recommend this be avoided unless pedagogically appropriate for both groups and adequate staffing is in place to manage and integrate remote students into sessions fully. 

Why don't you recommend dual mode? 

While it could bring a cohort ‘together’, it has two disadvantages:

  • It is staff-intensive, involving an additional member of staff to moderate and facilitate the online cohort, monitoring and summarising contributions and feeding them into the session.
  • There is a danger that remote learners will feel that they are getting an inferior experience unless they have deliberately chosen to study remotely. 

Instead, we recommend that any face-to-face teaching should be accompanied by an equivalent activity that enables online students to meet the same learning outcomes. 

Process and scheduling of timetabling and rooming

The Estates and Central Timetabling Team are currently completing their assessment of the teaching estate using 2-metre social distancing guidelines.  They are working with faculties and departments to identify suitable teaching space for face-to-face teaching in Term 1.  Room allocations will be confirmed to departments by 24 July at the latest.

Can I move modules to Term 2 or Term 3 to maximise face-to-face teaching? 

Departments have the flexibility (within curriculum constraints) to swap teaching from Term 1 to Term 2 or Term 3 in exceptional circumstances. However, with the exception of certain activities that may be difficult to offer in alternative ways such as lab- and practice-based activities or essential field trips, modules and teaching events should not be postponed on the expectation of a return to more usual face-to-face teaching activity later in the year, as we are expecting to have to operate a reduced classroom capacity for the whole academic year – and social distancing will most likely still be in place. 

Do I need to timetable online teaching events? 

Yes. It is important that students understand and can plan their learning load and that clashes are avoided. All synchronous and face-to-face teaching must be entered into CMIS and every time-defined teaching event must be accurately recorded as online synchronous or face-to-face. We are aiming to provide students with a full timetable of face-to-face and online synchronous. Ideally, we would also like to provide students with details of their online asynchronous activities to support them to plan their learning where possible identifying timebound asynchronous activities, i.e. when new module material will be released, on a weekly basis, and ISD are exploring options to do this. 

See the Emergency Timetabling Policy, 2020-21 and FAQs for further information. 

Communicating with students

Student expectations need to be managed carefully. We are finalising how much space will be available. As previously noted, the current estimate is that the face-to-face learning feasible in standard teaching rooms will be 2-3 hours per student per week. This excludes any labs, tutorials, studio etc.

We are developing communications to help students envisage the likely shape of their education and wider student experience in Term 1. These will take the form of general broadcast messages (including messages about health and safety on campus) and template messages for Faculty Tutors and Vice-Deans Education to tailor to local circumstances and send out via their departments (as per the teaching continuity communications at the start of the Covid-19 crisis).  These messages are being developed in concert with ongoing timetabling and space allocation processes. We propose to share these messages with staff by the end of July, when the outcomes of those estate planning processes are known – ready for local customisation and cascade to students from the following week. 

We are currently developing a detailed central student communications plan for the eight week period from the beginning of August until start of term on 28 September (including Enrolment, Countdown to UCL, and contingency communications in case of further restrictions related to Covid-19) so that faculties and departments can align their own communications to new and returning students. These messages will encourage students to enrol early, by early September, and signpost them to further online resources (in development) to meaningfully prepare them for their studies. 

In the meantime, if a programme is to be taught wholly online (either for Term 1 or for the whole year), the department must inform new and returning students as soon as possible.