Leadership Course contact days go virtual

22 May 2020

A key element of the LOCSU Leadership Course are the two contact days held in Central London. These are a chance for course participants to get to know each other and learn together.

As the April dates for this year’s course drew closer it was clear that COVID-19 restrictions meant an in-person meeting would not be possible. The contact days were switched to a virtual format with participants dialling in from locations as far apart as the West Midlands and Greece. We caught up with some of the students and tutors to find out how things went…


The students’ perspective

Luisa Simo and Imogen Hawthorne attended the course from Devon and the West Midlands respectively. They both felt the clear structure and organisation of the days was good, with agenda items indicating whether cameras should be on for each session. After breaking the ice by sharing photos of their home working set-up, the students got down to work with some initial reading, followed by a practical group exercise.

Imogen found the virtual format suited her personality, saying: “I prefer one-to-one conversations and sometimes find it difficult interacting in a larger group. With a videoconference only one person can speak at a time and that helps a lot. The exercises were very well governed by the course leaders and we all had a chance to contribute.”

As the first day progressed, students grew more familiar with the format and got to know their fellow attendees. To benefit from the more casual conversations that are a feature of contact days, Imogen suggested that the group leave webcams on in informal periods such as over lunch.

Although the sessions were virtual, they were still rigorous, as Luisa recalls: “It was more tiring than you’d think, but it’s an unexpected kind of tiredness. You haven’t got the physical effort of travelling to the venue but concentrating for the full day does take its toll.”

Virtual networking – does it match the real thing?

Luisa acknowledges that there are differences between the connections you make in person and those you form when meeting for the first time online: “If you are queueing for lunch or having a coffee the casual conversations you have are different, but the useful conversations were still there. We had lots of opportunity to find out about each other’s areas of expertise and, since the course, we have set up a whatsapp group where we can ask each other’s advice and opinions.”

Since the virtual contact days Luisa says the group has interacted much more: “Once you’ve met someone face to face – even if only virtually – you are a lot more inclined to participate in subsequent discussions online, when you know you’re not just giving opinions into the ether.”

Imogen agrees: “We have definitely made connections – a group of us are getting on a Zoom call soon to discuss the follow-up to the exercise we did on the course.” Imogen is also lending her expertise to a fellow course participant who is planning to write their final essay on a topic in which Imogen has experience. “It’s nice because we’ve had a call already and I’ve been able to help,” she says.

The tutors’ perspective

Gill Brabner, course module leader, worked hard to transition the course to a virtual format with support from the WOPEC team and director Professor Barbara Ryan. This included considering students’ wider home and work commitments, as she explains: “Our priority was to retain key elements of the programme whilst ensuring the group had time to spend with family before the course started each day, and at lunchtime, as many of our students are juggling work, study and childcare in lockdown.”

The two days struck a balance between Zoom calls where students could interact and build relationships, balanced with time away from the screen for reflection on what was discussed.

LOCSU’s digital learning support officer, Simone Mason, used the change in format to think outside the box about how to deliver her session in an engaging way: “Face-to-face I would have relied on a slideshow, but presenting my topic of “Developing Strategy” online allowed me to add some more creativity and interactivity by using the ‘chatbox’ at various points. On one occasion – I threw out to the group a discussion topic relating to Richard Branson’s leadership style during COVID-19 and how the media was perceiving him – rightly or wrongly – and that created a super debate within the group.”

Both Simone and Gill felt that they still managed to connect well with their students: “Participation was excellent,” says Gill, “by the end of day two there was a real buzz in the (virtual) room.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed the session and it was great to see the students – if not in person. I still felt I engaged with them and got to know them,” adds Simone.

Future potential

Looking forward, Imogen feels that the virtual contact days make a good and convenient alternative to face-to-face sessions: “The individuals who are likely to be taking this course will be integral to whatever setting they work in, so it can be difficult for them to get away. Having a virtual alternative may appeal to many as we get more comfortable with working this way.”

Certainly, Gill feels that this year’s cohort have adapted very well to the unusual situation they found themselves in: “Lockdown is proving to be no barrier to these students.  But that is no surprise as they are all leaders who are ably adapting their leadership to meet the current lockdown challenges.”

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