Foundation year programmes aim to prepare ‘widening participation’ students for university-level study, and focus on developing study skills and underpinning knowledge on their chosen subject (Sanders & Daly, 2013). However, foundation year students often lack study skills and confidence, which affects their ability to succeed in higher education (Murphy, 2009), and this reflects my experience with students. Therefore, my concern when faced with facilitating virtual learning (due to the Covid-19 pandemic) was how my foundation year students would cope without face-to-face interactions and a high level of staff and peer support. Would they be prepared to embrace this new way of learning?
‘How would foundation year students cope without face-to-face interactions and a high level of staff and peer support? Would they be prepared to embrace this new way of learning?’
To research this question I first sought ethical approval from the University of Plymouth, then conducted research interviews (and one questionnaire) with six students to ascertain their perspectives. I have grouped the results into three main areas.
Firstly, the foundation year students were very satisfied with their course. Several students mentioned that they had signed up for the foundation year as a last resort; they hadn’t received the A-levels they were hoping for, or had been out of education for an extended period. The foundation year was the only way for them to access the course they really wanted to be on. Now, at the end of the year, many participants said that the course had fully prepared them to work in an academic way, addressing skills needed at university such as referencing, researching and communicating ideas. Jody said,
‘I think it was really helpful everything we had done up until March [pre-lockdown]… I would say it is needed for most students not just for people who can’t go straight into a year one.’
The second major theme that emerged was just how hard it is to study during lockdown. Although, like Jody, Terri felt prepared – ‘…it [foundation year] was really good for getting into that… academic kind of mindset’ – it was still hard. Several of the foundation students were parents, which resulted in juggling home learning for their children (Fisher et al., 2020), so finding time to focus on university work was a challenge. A major discussion point was the increased use of Zoom as a teaching and research tool (Gray, Wong-Wylie, Rempel, & Cook, 2020). Some found Zoom to be very intense, staring at a group of faces and struggling to read social cues. As Diana said, ‘A lot of the time is taken up with just making sure everybody’s there and they can hear and they can see’.
Others found the constant distractions, poor connections and the inability to ask for clarification difficult. They all missed the library and physically being on campus; they also appreciated the classroom spaces (Corbera et al., 2020). Diana stated, ‘I didn’t place an importance on being present, but [now] not being present I do appreciate it more.’
Lastly, the good news is that lockdown has not changed their plans for September: they all plan to continue their education at the University of Plymouth, but none of them want it to be online. Tony said,
‘Yes, it works, for now, that’s brilliant. But long term it’s definitely one of those things I would keep as a backup… It’s worked really well considering the situation. So, it’s not ideal, but we’ve managed.’
So what lessons can higher education academics learn from this analysis to support planning as we move forward to possible blended learning in September? What questions should be reflected upon? I would suggest the following.
- How can we help students to be part of a community in which they feel connected with others and supported to develop their skills as university learners?
- How can we fully utilise online conferencing platforms to enable students to feel included and part of the sessions rather than isolated or frustrated?
- How do we support students who find online learning challenging? What other forms of interaction can we use to ensure inclusivity?
For me, the important point is how can we continue to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ students to ensure that we do not reinforce inequalities (Corbera, Anguelovski, Honey-Rosés, & Ruiz-Mallén, 2020)? It is vital that we help new students to feel valued, supported and guided through their new experiences of learning at university, whether that experience is face-to-face, blended or completely virtual.
Corbera, E., Anguelovski, I., Honey-Rosés, J. and Ruiz- Mallén, I. (2020). Academia in the time of Covid-19: Towards an ethics of care’. Planning Theory & Practice, 21(2), 191–199. doi: 10.1080/14649357.2020.1757891
Fisher, J., Languilaire, J., Lawthom, R., Nieuwenhuis, R., Petts, R. J., Runswick-Cole, K., & Yerkes, M. A. (2020). Community, work, and family in times of Covid-19. Community, Work & Family, 23(3), 247–252. doi: 10.1080/13668803.2020.1756568.
Gray, L. M., Wong-Wylie, G., Rempel, G., & Cook, K. (2020). Expanding qualitative research interviewing strategies: Zoom video communications’. Qualitative Report, 25(5:8), 1292–1301.
Murphy, P. (2009). Higher education access/foundation courses: A research report. Retrieved from http://edepositireland.ie/bitstream/handle/2262/79887/Murphy%202009%20Access%20Courses%20Report.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Sanders, L., & Daly, A. (2013). Building a successful foundation? The role of foundation year courses in preparing students for their degree. Widening participation and lifelong learning, 14(special issue: winter 2012/2013), 42–56.
World Health Organisation (2020). Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (Covid-19) [webpage]. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen