Covid-19 update: Professor Martin Williams

Recent weeks have seen a remarkable shared effort across the University to keep Oxford open as a world-leading educational institution, even as many of its doors are closed. The COVID-19 pandemic has put huge obstacles in our way – face-to-face teaching has been suspended; laboratories, libraries and exam halls are closed; fieldwork has had to be paused.

In the face of this, we should all take pride in having put in place plans to deliver a full programme of teaching next term, and to enable final-year undergraduate and Masters’ students to take assessments and leave with the degrees they have earnt. Staff in AAD and IT Services are working wonders to facilitate this, and academic colleagues across the University have approached the challenges with goodwill and ingenuity. The Centre for Teaching and Learning has moved quickly to provide support and guidance for the sudden transition to remote teaching (if you haven’t seen its Teaching Remotely advice page yet, I would very much recommend it), and the Bodleian Library is rapidly enhancing its already impressive online provision.

Across the University, everyone has had to develop new ways of working, and new decision-making processes. In education, we’ve put in place an emergency response structure in which two working groups (one principally academic, the other principally professional services staff) meet weekly to oversee policy development and act as a bridge between the University’s Silver and Bronze crisis management committees and the academic divisions and colleges. While continuing to plan for Trinity term, these groups are also looking ahead to the challenges we’ll face in the next academic year.

This is, of course, a time of huge change, some of it likely to be long lasting. For instance, within the space of a few weeks, the collegiate University has bought into the idea that we can deliver teaching and assessment entirely remotely, supported by IT tools such as Canvas, Weblearn and Teams – an extraordinary transformation. The way we’re planning to do this in the emergency situation of Trinity term won’t be sustainable in the longer term, when I hope we’ll start to use the technology in a more optimised way. Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ll all emerge from this period with a better appreciation of the role IT can play in teaching and assessment, and with greater confidence to embrace it in future.

Currently I’m looking ahead with a certain amount of trepidation at some very big tasks remaining to be done, but also inspired by what has already been achieved by many exceptional colleagues. The pace has been frenetic at times and I’m conscious that all of us, me included, need to manage our workload, ask for support when we need it, and make sure we get proper breaks from work.

The period ahead is unlikely to be smooth and well ordered. We’re all getting used to living with uncertainty; we’ll undoubtedly make some mistakes; some measures we’re putting in place will work better than others. But I’m sure we’ll collectively rise to the challenge of delivering the best experience we possibly can to our students, and maintaining the University’s focus on our core missions of teaching and research.