23 November 2020
STEPping up to the challenge of COVID-19: Reflections from a new online skills development programme
Fourth-year undergraduate and Research Intern, Centre for Educational Enhancement and Development, University of St Andrews
PhD graduate and Student Developer, Centre for Educational Enhancement and Development, University of St Andrews
The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching and long-lasting implications for every sector, with higher education being no exception. Anticipating this, the University of St Andrews created the ‘Summer Team Enterprise Programme’ (STEP) this year. Arising from the midst of the pandemic, STEP has a lot to teach us about the impact of the pandemic on students last summer and how COVID-19 will shape the design of future skills development programmes.
Starting in June 2020, units at the University of St Andrews, including the Centre for Educational Enhancement and Development, the Careers Centre and a student consultancy society joined forces to launch this new co-curricular skills development programme. Over 200 undergraduate students, of all years and disciplines, participated in this eight-week summer programme.
Participation in the programme involved attending weekly skills development workshops, team meetings, project work, meetings with the project’s University sponsor and submitting a weekly reflective log. Participants were expected to spend four to five hours per week on the programme. Although the voluntary programme was unable to replicate many aspects of the summer internship, it provided the opportunity for students to share ideas and formulate plans on real-life problems around the University. Students gained experience of working in remote groups located all around the world on projects for a university service unit, such as the Estates Department or the University Library, and created outputs such as podcasts, reports and lesson plans.
STEP was created with two primary aims - the first was to further develop students’ enterprise skills, as a key part of the University’s strategy. The programme was created around the University’s six Enterprising Behaviours: 1. Creativity and innovation; 2. Opportunity recognition, creation and evaluation; 3. Decision making; 4. Ideas implementation through leadership; 5. Reflection and action; and 6. Communication and strategy (adapted from QAA’s Enterprise and Entrepreneurship: Education guidance). The second aim was to provide students with teamworking experience (and, to a lesser extent, entertainment) over the summer, with many students finding themselves with little to do and many lost internships.
The programme was not without its challenges; meeting the expectations of hundreds of students across differing time zones and year groups, while the coordinating staff were still learning how to use new software, was far from easy. Beyond the foreseeable hiccups of VLE uploading issues and muted microphones, our primary concern was that of the students’ engagement. As a voluntary, non-credited, skills development programme, there was no way of ensuring students would commit to the programme. We were also concerned that the students would overcommit. To overcome this, we ensured that the aim of the programme was the students’ skills development, rather than their output.
The large number of applications, and subsequent retention of participants, were early indicators of the programme’s overall success. Anecdotally, students spoke of how the programme met the need to fill time and experience over the summer. When asked about their motivations for participation in the programme, survey participants in their third or fourth year put more emphasis on developing remote working skills than second-year students. This could reflect those closer to graduating looking to prepare and prioritise the skills required for the post-Covid job market.
The survey also asked students to rank skills in order of perceived importance, based upon what the individual wanted to develop most in the next year. Interestingly, on average, ‘adapting’ was ranked as the second most important skill for development, after communication. This may reflect the impact of COVID-19 on what students want from skills development programmes. Students are placing an emphasis on skills involved in coping with the dynamic changes and challenges faced in the workplace worldwide. When asked to justify their prioritisation of skills, many students expressed the desire to be ready for the post-Covid workplace, with one student writing: 'with the changes caused by Covid, I have struggled with clear focus and been challenged to adapt, which is why I have ranked those two first.'
The pandemic has shown a need for flexible skills development programmes, which students can fit into their busy and constantly changing schedules. Beyond that, COVID-19 has led to students emphasising a want, which matches the need, for skills that enable students to cope with the vast uncertainty that faces them from their graduation and beyond, especially in the current climate. These skills, such as adaptability and focus, are perhaps more authentically developed from real-life experiences. This was reflected in the questionnaire’s findings that students want these real experiences, like those provided by STEP.
With the reported rise in online courses and personal development during lockdown, this could pave a new way for co-curricular and extra-curricular skills development, with an increasing emphasis on online programmes which can be easily placed into students’ timetables flexibly. This need for flexibility, and especially online support, has been reinforced in both the Developing Graduate Employability Support in Scotland collaborative cluster and in the recent International Enhancement Conference. According to feedback given on STEP, this flexibility was a core part of the programme’s success, both meeting students’ current needs and providing opportunities to gain skills post-graduation. This approach has also been fundamental to implementation of the University of St Andrews’ new Graduate Attributes. STEP has shown that students understand the changing shifts in workplaces and want to develop themselves to meet these needs.
The largest incentive to participate in STEP was the opportunity to engage in real-life problems and to be given a chance to make a tangible change. This desire for engagement beyond the hypothetical should influence our future design and delivery of skills development. Yet, it is imperative that there is a careful balance; programmes like STEP should not become a substitute or a supplement for paid work experience and internships, but should instead supplement these experiences to help to give all students equal opportunities for development.