Staff Experiences of The Rapid Move Online: Challenges and Opportunities

Eileen Kennedy & Allison Littlejohn


The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated major changes to research, teaching and professional working in Universities. In the UK more generally, there was surprise at the degree of public support for lockdown, and the Prime Minister’s directive to “join together” to beat the virus. Commentators have observed, however, that despite the constant suggestions that we are all in this together, the pandemic has affected people very differently. For example, the UN has observed that while the virus may not discriminate, but the impacts on individuals certainly do

We wanted to investigate how far this picture of uneven impacts may be affecting university staff. So, to capture staff experiences as they changed how they worked during this period, we launched a programme of research at UCL which involved a series of staff surveys and follow up interviews, Moving to Online Teaching and Homeworking (MOTH). This research was led by Allison Littlejohn with Martin Oliver, Lesley Gourlay, Eileen Kennedy, Tim Neumann, Kit Logan, John Potter and Jennifer Rode. Our aim was to understand how the crisis might be exacerbating pre-existing structural inequalities that impact adversely on staff, as well as posing challenges and opportunities for teaching and research.

We had 421 responses to our initial survey, which included asking about the challenges and opportunities of the shift to online teaching and researching at home. We also asked participants to share images that they considered communicated their experience. We sent out follow up surveys throughout the summer, and invited 32 participants to take part in in-depth interviews to explain their responses in more depth. 

What the findings showed us quite clearly was that the impact on staff was not the same for everybody.  Although respondents who identified as men and women reported caring responsibilities, caring appeared to manifest differently. Women found it more difficult to focus on research because of the caring labour they were doing – caring for children and adult dependents, for students, for colleagues. These activities lead to reduced time for research and to publish research papers with potential consequences for long-term career progression. 

Staff with physical and/or mental health challenges – either pre-existing or as a result of the pandemic – also experienced the lockdown differently, with reports of headaches, eyestrain, aching back, shoulders or wrists health impacts from 7.7% of survey respondents. Those with more space were more positive about the move than those with fewer rooms to work in, and staff on fixed term contracts experienced anxiety about the impact of the pandemic on their careers. 

The research we conducted showed very clearly that University staff experience is not uniform. This is an important message to those making decisions about how to support staff at universities during this crisis and beyond.

As for the move to teaching online, once again, experiences greatly differed. A slightly higher number rated their feelings as positive or very positive than those who rated their feelings as negative or very negative. Most people, nearly 40%, were undecided. 

A number of themes emerged, however. In terms of the challenges they described, the biggest issue were the lack of interaction and engagement with students online, technology problems, time and resource demands and the need for professional development. 

It became apparent from the survey, that the most reported challenges that concerned teaching involved using live video systems like Teams or Blackboard Collaborate, and the key problem was the lack of visual cues, impacting interaction and engagement from students. This made online teaching more difficult and stressful for staff. 

This was borne out in the interviews. Staff said that students would not switch their cameras on,

so, I was talking to a picture of myself on the screen (interview participant).

Staff really missed the energy from students they were used to in traditional teaching, and without this teaching online was stressful and exhausting. 

What made the difference for those staff who were more positive about online was prior experience. Those participants were also much happier with student engagement, and saw the move online as an opportunity presented by the pandemic.

I feel positive about the probability that one of the outcomes of the COVID crisis will be more widespread general understanding about productive ways to use technology to support learning, not least among academics, but also, I hope among education administrators and managers (survey participant).

This research has given us insights into how university staff have experienced the pandemic. But it has told us more than that. A defining feature of the data was the central role that emotions played in every aspect of the move to online teaching and homeworking. Participants regularly described their anxieties about colleagues and students, the extra time they were putting into tutorials,  pastoral  care for students who experienced extra difficulties during the crisis and the impact this was having on themselves. This has led us to revisit the theme of emotional labour in teaching, and how we can make sense of the care that participants show in digital education. This is an aspect of online teaching that is seldom discussed. Our question, therefore, is what is the role of technology and the move to online and home working in supporting the caring labour of University staff?


Photo by Clemens van Lay on Unsplash

Dr Eileen Kennedy is a Senior Research Associate based at UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Her research focuses on ways of enhancing and sharing practice in online and blended learning. Eileen works with two ESRC-funded research centres: the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) and the RELIEF Centre. With CGHE, Eileen is exploring the transformative potential of digital technologies for higher education. With RELIEF, Eileen is researching ways of using digital education (particularly in the form of MOOCs) to build inclusive prosperity in the contexts of mass displacement.

Professor Allison Littlejohn is Director of UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Allison works in the field in Education, specialising in Digital Higher Education. Her expertise is in applying learning theories to complex interventions for professional learning that capitalise on digital technologies. The context of her research spans the energy, health, finance, education, and international development sectors across various countries.

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