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Published: 2020-04-07

When Umeå University completely transitioned to distance education

FEATURE From literally one day to the other, Umeå University transitioned from on-campus to distance teaching. A historically unique event for the university’s operations. "It runs the whole spectrum from being very painless to having caused rather large problems," says Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

Text: Johanna Fredriksson

On 17 March, the Government of Sweden announced its recommendation that all higher education institutions completely switch to distance-based education in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We were surprised at first,” says Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education at Umeå University.  “Above all, that the decision would be implemented so quickly. We were notified just the day before.”

The University Management was expecting that this type of announcement might come, but the extremely rapid transition became a concern, not in the least about how to reach out with proper information to everyone.

It is now commonly known that Umeå University followed the recommendation and closed the campus for students from 18 March. This decision followed a feverish effort to find out what the  impact would be and to discover solutions to a number of challenges.

There were many catch 22 situations at first

“Basically, there are a lot of formal things that one has to establish during a time like this. For example, what to do when it’s simple and clear in the syllabus that you have compulsory practical components to be carried out on site. And you are unable to do that. And at the same time, we have rules that state that we may not make syllabus changes. There were many catch 22 situations at first,” says Heidi Hansson.

Up to the task

Although it felt very tough, the University Management landed rather quickly in the feeling of "we will be able to manage this". One of the reasons is that at Umeå University there is long experience of distance-spanning technologies. About 30 per cent of the degree programmes are taught remotely in various forms in ordinary operations, compared to some other universities that have hardly any distance learning in normal cases.

“I believe that we did not get as worried in Umeå as I think one might have been in some other places because we know that we have a high level of competence when it comes to digital teaching, and that we especially have such fantastic operational support at the Centre for Educational Development (UPL) where e-learning is one of their one of their responsibilities,” says Heidi Hansson, but emphasises that she does not want to detract from the fact that everyone realised that it would be a very large and extensive work.

That's when you feel so proud of your work colleagues.  

“But I am deeply impressed by UPL, by our teachers, by the Student Services Office, by the Strategic Council for Education and by the educational leaders, students and student unions. All of them. In some way, we immediately got to work on this with a direct focus on trying to solve it. That's when you feel so proud of your work colleagues.  she says, and describes how people have been standing up for each other. It shows that Umeå spirit is functioning well,” explains Heidi Hansson.

Various challenges

The degree of adjustment for students has varied depending on the type of education. Those who have laboratory work and practical components obviously have had great challenges, whilst those who have parallel digital teaching have had it easier.

“It’s actually covered the entire spectrum from the fact that it has gone very painlessly to it that caused quite a lot of problems,” says Heidi Hansson, mentioning that one of the problems is an placements and internships (VFU), where you are dependent on third parties and where some operational units have wanted to refrain from receiving students under current circumstances.

How do you manage these challenges?

“We haven't solved everything yet, but it is something that we are constantly discussing and trying to find solutions to. For example, to add a study period during the summer in order to be able to carry out internships or to change places for course components from the spring to autumn. But there are a lot of logistical problems which I certainly do not want to underestimate.”

No crisis for the University

COVID-19 is impacting society in many different ways, not least economically. But it does not have to mean a crisis for the universities, since the past indicates an increase in applications during financial crises.

“In a situation where one has been fired, laid off or going through other changes, you can also start thinking about what you want, if you should take the opportunity to do something different. In this way, universities are a branch that are relatively well-versed for times of economic crisis. Specifically, because we can offer alternatives,” says Heidi Hansson.

There may be a risk that the number of applications from our international students will decrease.

Neither does she believe that the number of applications will be affected by the uncertainty about how courses and programmes will be able to be conducted this autumn. She once again underscores that Umeå University is accustomed to providing distance learning.

“It may even happen that the transition to remote learning on a large scale can have some positive consequences and attract new types of students groups to submit applications,” she says. “But there may be a risk that the number of applications from our international students will decrease, perhaps mainly because of the uncertainty regarding future travel restrictions.”

A great deal of uncertainty remains

Nevertheless, Umeå University, like the rest of the global community, is in the middle of the transition in the aftermath of COVID-19 and there are many questions left to solve as well as new ones that will certainly come. Therefore, it will be a while before we really get a clear picture of what we are truly going through.

“When this calms down in the future, we need to follow up on this situation and examine whether we had the right groups of people, the right people in the right place, if we were able to mobilize appropriately, and how information and communication worked,” says Heidi Hansson.

Translation of original text in Swedish