Step Up members rise to the challenges COVID-19 poses to higher education

The realisation that we are living in unprecedented times is now a fact of life. COVID-19 and the subsequent global lockdown has meant the higher education sector needs to adapt its technology rapidly. Universities are working to minimise the impact to existing students while preparing for a new cohort. 

Step Up is a community of Jisc-assessed startups with the shared goal of increasing innovation to support change in UK education. At no other time has the edtech industry mobilised so rapidly to meet the demands of a sector in transition. The Step Up community is rising to the challenge. Working at the chalk face, startups are in a unique position to be able to move quickly. Agile teams and creative approaches mean faster engagement providing more focused solutions.

The transition to on-campus study remains uncertain and international travel is unlikely in the coming months. Retention and recruitment of international students, for example, has never been more challenging. Delays are creating challenges that could mean processing of thousands of applications in a much shorter timescale. Enroly provide the tool CAS Shield and have been working with the University of Greenwich who have reported a reduction in their processing time from 9 to 2 days with less staff time needed for help with basic tasks.

UK medical schools are experiencing the disruption of bedside learning opportunities. They are developing new strategies to manage progression requirements which maintain academic integrity. Many are considering using open-book exams or delaying their assessments completely. Open Campus provides campus management support and has been quick to respond. They have developed a new app which provides remote-invigilated exam functionality.  This supports the continuation of academic activities, particularly students’ assessments and progression.

It is obvious that one of the main concerns at this time is assessment. Step Up companies are working hard to react to the move to online. Synap is a platform providing exam preparation that uses personalised learning. They have been working with institutions in law and medicine to support examinations now taken on their platform.

During this period of isolation it’s crucial that the student experience remains central. Unitu is a student voice platform where issues can be raised, discussed and voted on. Unitu reports that 85% of its students have engaged in the last 30 days. They also report that most issues are resolved by staff or reps within 2 days, a much faster turnaround time than usual providing reassurance and alleviating anxieties. Vygo provides a platform for peer mentoring and student support – straight to students’ smartphones. They are working hard to achieve fully online delivery of all student support services at a time when they are needed most.

Startups can also provide tools for staff, with long-reaching financial implications for institutions.  COVID-19 has made conferences impossible for the foreseeable future. Morressier digitizes conferences and provides workflow tools to showcase research. Academics can still get credit for their research and attract new commercial or publishing partnerships which can secure much-needed revenue streams.

It’s important not to underestimate practical help available for students and institutions. Handshake is launching a series of 15+ virtual events from companies still hiring graduates. They are covering all the costs associated with hosting these events. Many companies in the Step Up community are giving away free access to their resources. Handshake is giving free access to UK students and free periods to institutions. Vygo is offering strategy support whether the institution uses their platform or not.

The message is that edtech startups are a vital source of innovation now more than ever. They are able to address issues and turn development around quickly – removing traditional communication barriers and allowing institutions to make faster decisions. Without the complex internal structures of larger providers, support and troubleshooting can be easier and faster to access. Step Up members have been successfully ‘Assessed by Jisc’ and are ready to work with institutions. Is now the time to think differently? It could very well be.