Reaching out in lockdown
Nathan Stazicker, Outreach & Communications Officer
A year into lockdown and my job is almost unrecognisable. While it’s now second nature to screen share a presentation to a webinar full of prospective applicants, I have to remind myself that not so long ago I filled my days shaking hands with teachers and delivering workshops to 30 school students crammed into one of Hertford’s petite seminar rooms. I certainly don’t miss scrabbling round for enough chairs or managing the queue for the toilets, but it would be wonderful to actually take a group on a tour around college and see those excited faces as we wave to the tourists from the bridge. And though I’m sure face-to-face events will be back on the cards in the not too distant future, a year of remote working has fundamentally changed the way we do outreach – often for the better.
So, let’s think back to this time last year. On 2 March 2020 we hosted a taster day for a group of Year 12s from Harris Academy Riverside. They drove up from Thurrock, listened to me talk about Oxford, met our students for lunch and a tour, then headed up to the Department of Materials Science to make batteries out of kitchen foil. Three days later, I took a train, tube, another train and a bus to Plume Academy in Maldon, the Essex town famous for its sea salt. I elbow bumped the teacher who greeted me at reception then gave a talk to a room full of students and parents before spending two hours answering questions and chatting about Oxford. On 10 March I accompanied a photographer around our refurbished Holywell bedrooms with a group of volunteer models to take photos for the website (the communications part of my role). A week later – weighed down with computer screen and office plants – we said goodbye to college and started working from home.
In March 2020 I couldn’t have imagined that we’d have a fully-fledged digital outreach offering a year later. Some things transferred from in-person to online – our Swiftstream sustained contact programme for schools in Medway, our Unsung Heroes of Science celebration day and, of course, our virtual open days – while others came about because of the pandemic itself. The almost immediate adoption of Zoom and Teams in everyday life fast-tracked digital provision, achieving in a matter of weeks what would otherwise have been put on the back burner for years.
Suddenly we were able to set up groups and events that were easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection and know that we’d have decent engagement. Having struggled to get traction for an in-person conference to support girls studying physics and computer science, for example, we now had excellent uptake and positive feedback for our online problem-solving group which served the same audience. My colleague Kathryn built on that success with an online ‘Reboot Camp’ at the end of August to help new Year 13s kick start their university applications and get ready for the new academic year. Since then, we’ve supported the University’s remote interview workshops and organised a new series of webinars with our Cambridge counterparts called Next Steps Essex, offering information, advice and guidance to Year 11 and 12 students across the county.
Another area we’d been struggling to make headway with was our plans to connect teachers in our link regions and create some sort of professional network. Yet again, Zoom saved the day and we’ve now run four Teacher Forum events with our colleagues at Wadham and Balliol, with whom we launched the East England outreach consortium back in November. These events, combining information with a chance to ask questions and share best practice, have linked up teachers across the whole eastern region while taking up the minimum of their precious time.
Another project we’ve been working on within the consortium launched just last week. Springboard provides a bank of videos recorded by graduate students across the University. These students introduce a topic from their area of research, set up some activities, and provide further resources at the end of the video. The intention is to give sixth-formers a helping hand in developing their academic interests outside the classroom; ‘super-curricular’ engagement can be beneficial in demonstrating the motivation and enthusiasm for a subject that university admissions tutors are looking for. So there’s another initiative that wouldn’t have come about without remote working and collaboration between colleges.
Looking forward to the rest of 2021, we’ve got even more projects coming on stream. This week sees the second instalment of our new Geography Club, inspired by the success of last year’s problem-solving course. This new programme brings Year 10-13s from our link regions together to discuss geographic topics with undergraduate ambassadors. Our wonderful Geography students have been instrumental here, choosing the discussion topics, setting readings in advance, and running the live sessions. The second iteration of Swiftstream starts this week too, supporting 30 prospective applicants from the Medway local authority with six weeks’ worth of academic enrichment and application advice. This year’s cohort will enjoy the added benefit of a VLE (virtual learning environment) to connect with each other and access further resources.
Even when face-to-face events are possible, the success of programmes such as these has given us the confidence and experience to make the most of digital content. Without a doubt we’ll keep the best aspects of our online shift, chiefly the ability to connect with people. We couldn’t expect teachers to take four days out to travel to Oxford for conferences and it would be impossible to bring together students from Camden, Essex, Medway and Peterborough for seven sessions of Geography Club in person – the executives at Zoom don’t need to worry about us cancelling our subscription!
When we can eventually come together then, in-person experiences will serve to build on our digital work. Whether it’s the chance to stay in college for a residential at the end of the Swiftstream programme or the opportunity to meet the graduate behind a Springboard video and quiz them in person, our outreach programme will make the most of these blended opportunities. The shift online has undoubtedly opened our eyes to the possibilities of working virtually but I’m sure I’ll be back to managing that queue for the toilets before too long (while checking our YouTube stats on my phone of course)!