Pivots and Pirouettes: Widening Participation during a Pandemic
Bethany Ross (U@Uni Academy, Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion, University of Technology Sydney)
COVID-19 has exposed and magnified existing structural inequities within our public education system. Like widening participation teams in universities across the country, the Student Equity Team at the UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion has been grappling with how to adapt yet stay true to the ethos and principles of widening participation during this period of unprecedented disruption. So, what’s worked and, importantly, what hasn’t, in this rapid transition to online student engagement?
The U@Uni Academy is a unique alternate entry program into the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) for high school students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. In response to the mounting evidence of the inequities imbued within the ATAR system, the U@Uni Academy is a non-ATAR pathway which tracks students’ 21st century competencies and transition skills, such as communication and collaboration; students’ attitudes and values toward learning; and their analytic capabilities. Informed by UTS Graduate Attributes and General Capabilities as outlined in the National Curriculum, the U@Uni Academy utilises a tailored CAPRI framework, developed by Dr Thompson, to measure, assess and report on student competency attainment. Using the REVIEW online tool (originally developed by Dr Thompson, used widely across UTS and other universities, and now in several high schools) students self-reflect on their progress against the CAPRI capabilities, provide feedback to their peers, and receive feedback from Faculty coordinators and mentors. Aligned with the recent recommendations from the Report of the review of senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training (“the Shergold Report”), the U@Uni Academy moves away from the ATAR as a single indicator of student readiness for university, and instead takes a student-centric approach that comprehensively details students’ individual abilities and attributes as 21st century learners across the two-year program. Successful completion of the U@Uni Academy and attainment of the key program outcomes, ensures direct entry to UTS for up to 300 students annually from 23 low SES partner schools in South Western Sydney.
Pre-COVID-19, the journey through the first year of the U@Uni Academy was set to begin at the end of Year 10, and consist of an intensive, on-campus two-week Summer School; on-campus Faculty-based workshops and in-school mentoring and academic support.
When COVID-19 forced school closures and remote delivery in Term 1, there was no choice but to postpone and redesign the first block of in-school mentoring and the first of four Faculty workshops, co-designed in partnership with academics from all Faculties across UTS.
Faced with the realities of the “digital divide”, which disproportionately impacts young people and their families from low SES backgrounds, our team quickly redirected energy and resources into securing digital devices and reliable internet for our partner schools. The basic tenet of effective, people-centred community engagement is to listen to key stakeholders, working with and not for them, in order to respond to their needs. In this instance, at the height of the pandemic, this meant taking a step back, and giving schools the time and space to adapt to the incredible and unprecedented demands of remote teaching, in a public education system not designed for this purpose.
Inspired by the tenacity of our school partners and their ongoing commitment to teaching—notwithstanding the complexities of navigating the online learning environment—we, too, committed to transitioning key elements of the program online. Our challenge was to ensure equitable, meaningful connection and engagement with the U@Uni Academy students in an online environment, with varied levels of digital literacy across the cohort.
Zoom and Mentimeter were key platforms to deliver these sessions. Current UTS students (”Ambassadors”), with similar lived experiences to our Academy students, helped co-design the U@Uni Academy online mentoring program. Sessions were delivered online, with students able to engage in real time using Zoom breakout rooms and Mentimeter polls to connect with their mentors. Student feedback from the 248 students who attended these sessions was overwhelmingly positive: 93 per cent of students found the sessions valuable; 95 per cent of students reported it “…helped me to learn more about life at university from a UTS student”; 87 per cent reported that the program encouraged them to want to go to university; and 73 per cent agreed that the program provided them with ideas about career choices and/or courses they could study at university. Authentic, generous storytelling is key to a successful mentoring program. The success of the U@Uni Academy online mentoring program demonstrates that the role of the current university student mentor is one that translates well to the online environment.
To ensure rigorous and appropriate lesson planning and assessment, we partnered with UTS transdisciplinary academic and PhD candidate, Melissa Silk. Partnering with Academic staff to co-design the workshops and associated assessment tasks is a unique and crucial element of the U@Uni Academy. It ensures meaningful collaboration and, importantly, represents a whole-of-institution approach to widening participation.
“Connected Forces” (Figure 1) encourages students to appreciate how connection, collaboration, communication and curiosity help to share discoveries and feelings about being human in a changing world. Learners are introduced to Floric Antenna 1, an interactive transdisciplinary art installation by Joyce Hinterding, owned by UTS ART, which illustrates the intersection between science, technology, mathematics and creative art.
Using a journey map to structure the interactive module (Figure 2), we developed a combination of videos, quizzes and immersive activities including active observation, data visualisation, mapping and reflection to respond to a series of provocations:
- What are the fundamental forces that connect us?
- How can we visualise our connection with others?
- How can we share what unites us, with the world around us?
- How can we share who we are and what we have discovered?
Tracking 21st Century Capabilities and Transition Skills
The workshop encourages students to reflect not just on what they learn but how they learn — a critical skill of the 21st century learner. The CAPRI capabilities tracked in this module are: Growth (self-awareness and flexibility) and Information Literacy (critical and analytical skills).
Throughout the module, students were required to create and submit unique artefacts (or evidence of their learning). These artefacts included:
- a diagram of their own name, using Voronoi partitioning;
- abstract and concrete maps (using rumbh lines in Scribble maps) to signify the connection between the U@Uni Academy students, UTS and their school communities
- an analogue data visualisation of a 1.5 square metre space, inspired by the Dear Data project; and
- a video or voice recording, reflecting on their journey and connection to place.
To demonstrate the theme of connectedness and foster a sense of belonging for these students during a time of great uncertainty, these individual artefacts will be compiled to create a collective artwork. This artwork will be displayed by UTS ART and shared back with the students when they’re able to return to campus — an important recognition of their contribution and a reminder that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.
Early qualitative feedback suggests that students were challenged and inspired by the module, which introduced advanced concepts of concrete and abstract thinking or knowledge transformation, which is very much outside the norm of both school curricula and widening participation practice. One student from Canley Vale High School remarked that “the workshop was overall a very interesting and fun experience especially when I have never learnt anything like this before, and it was a very enjoyable time learning about all the different concepts and ideas about the world”. A Sir Joseph Banks High School student observed that “It is very unique — never done anything like it”.
When designing the workshop, we were acutely aware that ensuring accessibility is vital. A single, live-streamed workshop as opposed to a self-directed module—whilst desirable from a resourcing perspective—would not be appropriate for a cohort as diverse as the 264 students in the U@Uni Academy. In the literature, this choice between possible modes of delivery is referred to as synchronous versus asynchronous learning environments. Synchronous learning, such as a webinar or live-streamed workshop/event, favours students who can log in at the specified time, from a safe environment that is conducive to meaningful participation. Given the diversity of our student cohort, we made the early decision to establish an asynchronous learning environment for the U@Uni Academy, utilising Canvas (an interactive Learning Management System used by a number of UTS Faculties) to house the module and discussion board. Asynchronous delivery lends itself well to tailored, individualised learning and ongoing support — key elements of effective widening participation practice and successful online learning.
Whilst facilitating access to internal UTS systems for non-student users was not without its difficulties, providing exposure to a university technology platform was a valuable learning experience for students. Qualitative feedback illustrates that students were grateful for the opportunity to familiarise themselves with Canvas. A student from Belmore Boys High School commented that he felt like he was “allows [sic] to be an independent learner” and experience what it’s like to complete work at university.
Mode of Delivery
The online workshop was first introduced to students by Ambassadors during their mentoring sessions. They were guided through the process of logging in and given the opportunity to demystify and ask questions about the process, building bonds and increasing a sense of connection and belonging to the Academy and to UTS more broadly. The module itself was live for a period of six weeks, with around-the-clock support provided by Ambassadors throughout this period.
Students expressed gratitude for this flexibility. One student from Fairvale High School commented that it helped him “find a purpose other than sitting idle and wasting my life on games all the time, giving me something to look forward to when I got home”. Another student from Sir Joseph Banks High School commented that the thing she liked most about the online workshop was that “we could do it in our own time whenever we want”, whilst a student from Canley Vale High School was grateful for “the opportunity to explore and to have a great adventure in our own home!”
Connection with Student Mentors
The risk of losing meaningful connection with the students was one of our greatest anxieties about moving the workshops online. However, by utilising the Canvas mail functionality and embedding discussion boards throughout the module, we were able to effectively mitigate this risk. This encouraged and sustained meaningful dialogue between participants in the program and our U@Uni Ambassadors, who themselves completed each of the activities and moderated the discussion boards. There were also promising instances of peer-peer engagement, with students from different partner schools discussing the activities and answering each other’s questions — fostering collaboration and leadership amongst their peers.
A number of students reflected on their feeling of connectedness to the U@Uni Ambassadors when completing the workshop online. A student from Fairvale High School described her positive experience reaching out for help via the discussion board: “The thing that I liked most about the workshop was the interactivity with the mentors, seeing them do the same task that we did and what they ended up with, as well as their ability to answer questions at a rapid rate, was just so helpful”. Indeed, the ongoing engagement with their student mentors was warmly received by a majority of students, with 86 per cent signalling that they felt supported in the online environment.
As a U@Uni Ambassador, delivering the online mentoring session provided a challenge in connecting with students and developing rapport as effectively as the in-person experience entails. However, the collaborative nature and positivity shown by teachers and students in aiming to get the best out of the online mentoring sessions, along with the continual effort into learning new ways to connect contributed significantly towards the program’s success.
Jeevan Kullar, U@Uni Ambassador
The redistribution of resources and opportunity is a familiar theme of widening participation practice. Guided by this ethos, we delivered resource packs to our partner schools in the lead up to the workshop, ensuring all students were provided equal access to resources necessary to complete the workshop and associated activities. This was appreciated by school staff and students alike, with a student from Ashcroft High School thankful for being provided “with everything we needed in a pack rather than us having to search and locate our required equipment”.
So what hasn’t worked?
The disruption to schooling and widening participation caused by COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Nor can the impact on access to higher education for underrepresented groups, which will be significant and long-lasting. In a climate of uncertainty, where information is changing daily, it is incredibly difficult to get consensus from all stakeholders across the program and lock in contingency plans (and indeed, back up plans for when the contingency plans, inevitably, fall through).
Understandably, the asynchronous environment was not the best fit for all learners. Some struggled in the online space, feeling less motivated at home than they would have been face-to-face, more prone to distraction and missing the opportunity to collaborate and engage with their peers and mentors. This was reflected in the feedback, with 63 per-cent indicating they would prefer a return to campus, if given the option.
Partner schools with higher numbers of non-English speaking background (NESB) students and students from refugee backgrounds were understandably apprehensive of the move online, and the perceived loss of meaningful support from Ambassadors. In an attempt to mitigate this, we offered opt-in, in-school sessions, delivered in-person and via Zoom by Ambassadors. The 5 schools who opted in for these sessions welcomed the blended learning experience; students appreciated the time being provided in class and shared their relief in not needing to navigate the distractions of completing work at home.
For the U@Uni Academy team, 2020 has served as a timely reminder that, as widening participation practitioners, we must always be guided by our school partners, communities, and by consideration of what is in the best interests of the students. At key points, this has required us to step back entirely, and even cancel planned elements of the U@Uni Academy to allow students the best chance of success in their coursework and exams which, understandably, has remained their key priority. However valuable and well intentioned—widening participation program deliverables should complement, add value to, and never detract from the in-school experience. When you listen to the needs of your students and respond as best you can to their unique circumstances, it is possible to stay connected — even during a global pandemic.
Universities across the country have performed impressive “pivots and pirouettes” to ensure that widening participation practice remains relevant and responsive during this period of unprecedented change. However, now is the time for the higher education sector to re-examine its strategies and approaches towards widening participation to ensure that we can move beyond this period of reactivity, and once again become proactive in addressing the emerging needs of underrepresented young people and their families.
Acknowledgments: Sonal Singh, Sarah Ellis, Emlyn Dodd, Melissa Silk, Kendell Powell, Melissa Ronca, Rithu Narendra, John Tran and Amanda Moors-Mailei
We would like to extend a special thank you to NCSEHE video bloggers Monica Dinh and Jeevan Kullar for their ongoing contributions.