University College Cork Transforms the Learning Experience for over 21,000 Students and Staff Overnight
Using Microsoft Teams, UCC staff host 600 meetings and calls daily and deliver student exams across 3000 subject modules despite the campus remaining closed.
COVID-19 didn’t give anyone time to prepare. Over the course of a weekend University College Cork was forced to reimagine it’s learning experience.Through the integration of Microsoft Teams, with its Virtual Learning Environment (Canvas), UCC lectures were streamed live to its 21,000 students and, as a follow up, live chat was implemented to support the exam process and keep people connected. One of the risks with moving online, was the potential that students might engage less and that grades could consequently suffer. However, a combination of Microsoft technology coupled with the commitment of UCC teaching staff, resulted in no UCC student being disadvantaged as a result of COVID-19.
University College Cork (UCC) is an award-winning institution with a history of independent thinking stretching back over 170 years. Ranked in the top 2% of universities in the world, UCC first opened its gates to just 115 students in 1849, and since then has continued to grow while educating students from across Ireland and beyond from its campus in the heart of Cork City.
Normally a hive of activity, the campus plays host to the university’s student population of 21,000 on any given day during the academic year. However, on the 12th of March 2020, the once packed lecture theatres and bustling hallways fell silent, following an announcement by the Irish government that all schools and higher education institutions must close to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Following this announcement, UCC shut its iconic campus and was forced to move its operations online overnight. Staff had to find new ways to work remotely and keep essential services operating virtually, lecturers and students had to adapt to new ways of delivering lessons and learning, and collaboration between researchers had to be maintained despite the campus closing.
According to Dr. Gerard Culley, Director of IT Services at UCC: “All of this happened at a critical time in the academic year, with exams just around the corner.
Time really was of the essence for the University to ensure that our students were supported through these unprecedented times, and the right technology was in place to make all this possible.
A man sitting down using a Surface Pro
To do this, UCC worked in partnership with Microsoft to implement the technology and training required for the university to transform the entire operation to a digital one, born out of the necessity of having to shut the doors of its physical campus.
Connecting people, the core mission of a Univeristy
UCC needed a platform where students, teachers, administration staff and researchers could create, connect, communicate, and collaborate. Microsoft 365 was chosen, as it provides a one-stop-shop for all the features and functionality that the university required across its various locations.
With the campus closed, Microsoft Teams has enabled staff to collaborate with colleagues while working remotely and provided a useful way of familiarising users with the collaboration options available across the range of Office365 apps. On average, there are now 600 meetings and group calls per day among staff, with Teams becoming a key tool in facilitating business continuity during this period.
The University’s examination boards which normally take place in-person, were also moved to Teams meetings which ensured important examination administration could continue despite the campus being closed. UCC’s Academic Leadership Forum decided early in this crisis to use digital services to minimise the risks and stress for its students. The Student Records and Exams Office hosted all its exam board meetings for the summer examinations using Teams, which involved over 3,000 subject modules across the whole University.
Maintaining a connection with students while they learn remotely
For the University, it was important to maintain a sense of community and connection with its student base, despite lessons moving online. To do this, UCC used Microsoft Teams which has been integrated with a cloud-based Virtual Learning Management system (Canvas).
Using this platform, professors can interact with students, post lectures, correct assignments and provide any information required in a way that is highly interactive and easily accessible for students. As a result, students are still able to access tutorials, lectures, and supervision meetings remotely, so their learning has continued with minimal disruption and in a consistent and equal access method.
“One of the greatest risks for UCC Academic Leadership was that this huge change could impact students’ learning experience and grades,” added Dr. Culley. “UCC therefore adopted a strategy that no student would be disadvantaged academically, as a result of these changes.
Feedback has been extremely positive, and early indicators are that exam attendance and gradings are on par or better than previous years. Many students miss the campus, but they have adapted and thrived despite a very different way of learning.
Using technology to collaborate on major research projects
As UCC is an internationally competitive, research-led University, it plays a key role in the development of Ireland’s knowledge-based economy. The University’s research strategy is focused on creating major centres of excellence for world-class research and is closely aligned with key relevant Government and European Commission policies.
Using Microsoft Teams, UCC’s vast team of researchers have continued to collaborate on projects while working remotely. The ability to add external users as guests has allowed Teams to become a platform for inter-institutional collaboration with the University’s global partners too, which has proved crucial in recent months.
While this new way of operating is far removed from that wonderful and friendly hustle and bustle of a University campus, this level of change, at a time of extreme stress, is a credit to both staff and students, who together have embraced this new reality to ensure the institution continues to operate to its own high standards with certainty, during uncertain times.