Nursing studies

The ‘corona class’: starting a nursing degree during the COVID-19 outbreak

The University of Northampton’s April student intake began their course in lockdown and are yet to meet their tutors or each other

The University of Northamptons April student intake began their course in lockdown and are yet to meet their tutors or each other in person

When the UK went into lockdown in March, the University of Northampton faced a dilemma. It had been due to welcome a new cohort of nursing students in April for the last of its three annual intakes, but with all face-to-face teaching and in-person activities suspended, should they postpone the course or press ahead?

They chose the latter, which means that the class of 46 students have spent the first months of their degree working entirely online.

Five months on, they have yet to meet their lecturers or each other in person, and instead of learning in the universitys brand new Waterside Campus, they have been working

The University of Northampton’s April student intake began their course in lockdown and are yet to meet their tutors or each other in person

Student online learning Picture: iStock

When the UK went into lockdown in March, the University of Northampton faced a dilemma. It had been due to welcome a new cohort of nursing students in April for the last of its three annual intakes, but with all face-to-face teaching and in-person activities suspended, should they postpone the course or press ahead?

They chose the latter, which means that the class of 46 students have spent the first months of their degree working entirely online.

Five months on, they have yet to meet their lecturers or each other in person, and instead of learning in the university’s brand new Waterside Campus, they have been working from their bedrooms or kitchen tables.

Students have pulled together to form a cohesive group

Curriculum and programme leader
Fiona Barchard

Despite that – or perhaps partly because of it – they have formed an incredibly close bond as a group, with feedback about the course so far being positive, says senior lecturer and curriculum and programme leader Fiona Barchard.

‘At the time, we did think about what was the best thing to do. Should we try and carry on or defer the students, perhaps to September and have a bigger cohort? We made the decision to go ahead and the April cohort that started in lockdown have just amazed us,’ she says.

‘They thought they wouldn’t be able to start their course and have all said how glad they were to do that,’ she adds. ‘It’s too early to say if it’s because of COVID-19 or because they would be a particularly cohesive group anyway, but they have pulled together.

‘They’ve set themselves up a WhatsApp group and are already engaged – and they’ve not even set foot on campus yet. All credit to them.’

Delivering nursing education online

Students at the university usually have a combination of online and face-to-face learning, but since the pandemic struck, it has all been delivered online.

It has been a learning curve for staff as well as students, says Dr Barchard, but the university is fortunate in that it was already set up to use the necessary technology.

Setting the tone at the start for what has inevitably become known as the ‘corona cohort’ or ‘corona class’ was important.

‘Normally, they would have a welcome week, face-to-face with sessions welcoming them to the university and to nursing, talking about their subjects and getting to know each other,’ says Dr Barchard.

‘But we did it all online. It was manageable because they were a smaller cohort, so we phoned them one-to-one first off.’

Changes in working practice driven by having to use technology

Other measures have included setting up smaller group sessions to help students get to know the software, ‘drop-in’ rooms held at different times of day where anything could be discussed, and increased contact with personal tutors.

The university uses software called Padlet to deliver online lessons. As well as sharing presentations, it allows students to break off into smaller groups in ‘rooms’ to discuss various points, promoting collaborative working and improving interactive learning.

This meant a change in working practices for staff as well, says Dr Barchard.

‘In nursing, obviously a lot of things must be face-to-face, such as clinical skills, but you can do lots through simulation. We were already doing a mix of online and face-to-face but going 100% online has been a bit of a challenge,’ she says.

‘Across the team, some of us were au fait with the technology and already using it a lot, others less so. But we’re all a lot more skilled with it now than when we started.’

Advantages and disadvantages of remote learning

Students do miss the social side of meeting up for a coffee before or after class, she says, but the current system works particularly well for some.

‘You get people who will participate online who probably would never put their hand up in class,’ says Dr Barchard. ‘The April cohort have set up their own WhatsApp group to facilitate the social side but are still keen to get in and meet each other.’

The school has learned from the necessity of moving online and some features are likely to remain part of the delivery of nurse education in the future.

‘Anatomy and physiology is a good example,’ says Dr Barchard. ‘We’ve just had the feedback from the April cohort – we do a little evaluation at the end of each module – and they’ve been particularly enthusiastic about being able to break off into the small groups [virtual rooms]. Obviously at the moment they’ve got no frame of reference to say whether they prefer it, but in future we’ll certainly look at things like that.

‘Sometimes I don’t feel like a student’

Natalie Shilcock: ‘It will all work out’

For Natalie Shilcock, life as a nursing student has not exactly been what she had anticipated. The 35-year-old mother-of-four began studying adult nursing at the University of Northampton in April, during lockdown.

‘We’re nearly halfway through the first year and I haven’t met a soul in person,’ she says. ‘I’m quite a sociable person, so that’s been hard. Sometimes I don’t feel like a student. I feel like a bit of a fraud, actually, because I drive past campus most days and think “oh, I’m supposed to be there”. I’m looking forward to walking around the university, having a coffee, just being normal or normal-ish.’

Having previously worked in a school for children with special needs, Ms Shilcock had completed an access to nursing course before successfully applying to Northampton. The course was online and involved self-directed learning, which helped prepare her for the current set-up and she has found no difficulty using the technology.

‘It will all work out. The work the tutors have put in to accommodate us has been great – it’s not ideal, but it’s making the best of a pretty crap situation’

Natalie Shilcock, nursing student, University of Northampton

Students would usually have done their first placements by now, but that has not been possible.

‘I’m going to have to make up those hours in years two and three, which isn’t going to be great for my family. But I know the staff are trying their best – it’s new to them as well, so we’ve just got to be patient.’

Ms Shilcock was hugely relieved that the university went ahead with the course, but she admits it is not perfect, especially as, like other nursing students in England, she is responsible for her own fees.

‘It’s £9,250 a year and I’ve spent half the year in my bedroom,’ she says. ‘But it will all come together, it will all work out. The work the tutors have put in to accommodate us has been great – it’s not ideal, but it’s making the best of a pretty crap situation.’

Continuing to use virtual technology beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

‘We’ve also been using virtual technology to interview prospective students and I can certainly see there’s a place for that in the future,’ Dr Barchard says.

‘Although most of our students are relatively local, we do get students coming from London, Birmingham, Coventry, or even further afield. For them to travel to the university, when they’ve already been to an open day is a lot and, actually, you can do that online.’

Although some students in previous cohorts have struggled to get to grips with all aspects of the technology, Dr Barchard says the April cohort have mastered it, perhaps because that is all they have known. There are other advantages too, she adds.

‘We have always felt we have good relationships with our students, but perhaps one of the benefits to come from the COVID way of working is that students see us in our home environments. This can further improve our relationships with them as they see our human side,’ she says.

‘Many staff have young children at home, like the students, so they can see that we have some of the same problems as them. That has been a benefit – we always need to try to look for the silver lining.’


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