Higher Education Work-Based Learning and Assessment during Covid-19

Nick Mapletoft & Andy Price


This purpose of this blog is to provide an insight into how an alternative provider of higher education, an English private university centre (University Centre Quayside (UCQ)) specialising in work-based learning (WBL), continued to deliver to degree apprentices throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. WBL is a particular branch of higher education that is based upon work and should benefit the employer, which in itself creates tensions.  The post considers the impact on apprentices, who work for different employers throughout England including NHS frontline workers, through remote tutorials and remote assessment.  It also considers varying employer responses from abandoning or postponing apprentice starts, to maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job training for staff on furlough and starting a programme in specific response to the pandemic.  

UCQ delivers its fully integrated Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship (CMDA) and BA Hons in Professional Management via a modular approach, with subject specific modules lasting seven weeks. Each module consists of two days of taught sessions delivered by a Module Lead with up to twelve students in attendance, supported by one to one tutorials and work based assessment via a Professional Development Assessor.  Whilst for most students the university campus is an inspiring and invigorating place to learn, it is not uncommon for WBL students to do most of their learning at work, or at a business venue. Up until February 2020 all taught sessions were delivered face to face at venues throughout England, tutorials were often conducted remotely, work-based assessment was undertaken at the employer’s premises.  

When the Covid-19 situation started to unfold, UCQ began successfully transitioning to 100% online delivery through the principals of user centred design (ease of use), Human Factors and agile team working.  The curriculum itself was largely unchanged, however different pedagogical techniques were necessary to better facilitate online delivery. Module Leads continuously improved online delivery through an iterative process of continuous feedback  from students and their employers.  

For the delivery of remote lectures, UCQ initially set up additional GoToMeeting accounts, avoiding Zoom due to published security breaches. Some client (employer) firewalls prevented students from joining GoToMeeting sessions, and student feedback requested more virtual small group working and more interactivity between the learners (as we would expect in a normal physical learning environment). Scholars continue to debate the importance of the social setting and interaction on an individual’s learning, with classrooms typically being focused on some social interaction. Replicating a synchronous learning model with strong social and personal interaction is however one of the hardest aspects to replicate on-line. Microsoft Teams was considered to be the best solution to facilitate the desired interaction. All UCQ staff and students now have Microsoft Office 365 accounts including Teams, Teams benefits from additional privacy settings to obscure the background, where there was a potential safeguarding implication with children being home schooled through the lockdown and the Summer. The same technology was used to capture work-based assessments, for example observing a CMDA student chairing a virtual meeting.

Apprentice’s employers were impacted by Covid-19 in different ways depending on their market sector and the attitudes of their leaders.  Those in the hospitality and some service industries were unable to work from home, with staff put on furlough.  UCQ sought to continue to engage furloughed staff in the CMDA programme, maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job activities.  One large employer in facilities management embarked upon a national apprenticeship promotional campaign to extoll the advantages of apprenticeships to their furloughed workforce.  Other employers aborted their enrolments, some because the pandemic resulted in uncertainty or loss of staff, others, for example in logistics, because they became too busy as a result of an increase in workload. Some potential students postponed their enrolments whereas some accelerated their applications as they saw their employer investing in them for the next 40 months as a reassurance.

UCQ’s students have managerial responsibilities which they needed to maintain during Covid-19. This meant that they faced challenges studying as a degree student, whilst simultaneously facing new tensions in their professional existence. As working from home was adopted by those that could, our managerial students needed to adopt new virtual team leadership roles. Anecdotally students started to show a heightened interest in academic areas of leadership and remote working, quickly developing new managerial skills in response to the Covid-19 situation. A core principle of the CMDA being the relating of theory to practice, meant that students now needed to grasp the issues created by Covid-19 as they emerged. Some students fed back to UCQ staff that the CMDA programme had provided a welcome  intervention and stimulating area of focus throughout the pandemic.  Others described how the skills and knowledge they had acquired were helping them to cope as managers through rapid application, contextualisation and critical reflection of new skills and knowledge. 

Some students asked for further consideration but there was no formal grading safety net and all modules still needed to be completed in full and on-time to ensure progression, as the CMDA standard needed to be met in full.  However, a core principle of the UCQ CMDA delivery is to work with students in terms of the pressure of their extant management roles on their academic responsibilities and to have a responsive and flexible approach to successful assignment completion. This would also include a fair and equitable response to any issues of grade erosion. Close monitoring of attainment showed an overall increase in assignment marks and a continuous improvement in progression.

In an attempt to understand the effect on students, UCQ sought student feedback at the start of the pandemic and then after six months, whilst closely monitoring results and progression.  Feedback showed a high level of satisfaction in the UCQ experience, with many students preferring the remote delivery model as it saved them travel time and expense, it also resulted in UCQ staff being easier to contact as they were no longer travelling long distances.

Summary of key findings – There are substantial differences in the way that employers have responded to the pandemic and the resulting effect on their investment in staff learning and assessment. Apprentices have responded differently too, with some having withdrawn from the programme, some postponed their start date, some have taken a break-in-learning, whilst the majority report to have been better able to focus whilst working from home and to have found studying on the CMDA a positive distraction (from Covid-19) and professional support in their new ‘crisis’ management roles.


Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Nick Mapletoft holds a professional doctorate from the University of Sunderland.  He holds graduate and post graduate qualifications in the areas of computing, leadership & management, business & enterprise, and education.  His post-doctoral work centers on work-based learning (WBL) approaches and pedagogies, and the WBL university.  He is the Principal & CEO of the University Centre Quayside, an approved boutique provider of higher education via degree apprenticeships.

Andy Price has over twenty years’ experience in Higher Education and is presently Programme Leader for the CMDA at UCQ. He has held various Academic and leadership roles elsewhere in the sector including Head of Enterprise Development and Education at Teesside University and the Assistant Director of the Institute of Digital Innovation. Andy is a long-standing champion of work-based learning and has led significant curriculum development in this area.

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