Tutoring in a time of Coronavirus

Spring has come to Cambridge, but most students — following the announcement of the University's closure on 18 March — have left Cambridge. Most staff are working from home and many are furloughed.  Whilst offices are dark and all social spaces are closed, the College is coming up with creative ways to reach prospective and current students.

A selection of Wolfson Tutors

Our current students are now scattered to every part of the world, but Tutorial Office staff, Directors of Studies and our team of twelve Wolfson Tutors (including two for part-time students) are working hard to support them. 

Improvised interviews

As one of the three mature colleges for students 21+ in Cambridge, Wolfson takes part in the University’s March Application Round, with interviews scheduled to take place in early April. When it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to make it impossible to hold interviews in College, the Admissions team looked to technology to help.

Debbie Miles, Undergraduate Administrator, quickly became familiar with the Zoom videoconferencing software and contacted applicants to let them know they would be interviewed on the same date as their original interview, but from the comfort of their own homes.

Rather than the standard two interviews, candidates have had one slightly longer interview with two members of academic staff – who are in two different locations. The interviews have gone “really well” says Debbie, and Admissions Tutor Dr Michael Hrebeniak has found that “if anything, it’s more convivial”.

Michael feels that Wolfson’s style helps: “Interviews at Wolfson are quite relaxed, it’s a conversation. We want to see if people can think on their feet, if they’re excited about the possibilities of the subject. We don’t want to interrogate them or for them to feel it’s traumatic. It’s a pleasure to meet people in this way”. His top tip for candidates being interviewed virtually is “make sure your microphone and speaker work ahead of time!”

The Virtual Tutorial Office

Between 18 and 23 March all Tutorial staff began working from home, logging in to their office desktops via remote connections set up by our talented IT team. "I still pine for my messy College office," said Senior Tutor Dr Susan Larsen, "but the team is working really well together from our improvised home offices, using WhatsApp for quick questions and computer connection tips, Zoom for staff meetings, phone for urgent matters and email for everything. Our inboxes are full of updates from the University and queries from students, but so far we are managing the increased volume of correspondence."

"I confess that I thank my mother every day for insisting that I learn to touch-type when I was twelve so that I 'always have something to fall back on'. How right she was! At the moment the ability to type lickety-split with reasonable accuracy is a huge advantage in dealing with the massive number of urgent messages I am getting.” Senior Tutor Dr Susan Larsen

Everyone in the dispersed Tutorial ‘office’ is developing new ways to maintain connections with our students. Tutorial Manager Rajashree Dhanaraj and Tutorial Administrator Sam Langley are coordinating the recruitment of student volunteers who are willing to support any of our current 100+ residents if they need to go into isolation. Student Finance Office Liz Bland is working on an increased number of applications for financial support from College and University Hardship Funds. 

Outreach and Recruitment Officer Hannah Elkington has been assisting the Communications Manager, Fiona Gilsenan, in updating the College’s growing list of Coronavirus-related FAQs. Hannah has also planned a Virtual Offerholders’ Day for mid-June for students who we expect to matriculate in Michaelmas 2020 and she will also be organising a Virtual Open Day for all prospective students in July, to replace the normal in-person Open Day. Debbie and Postgraduate Administrator Kim Allen continue to admit students and field queries from prospective students. The one question they cannot answer is the one at the front of everyone’s mind: When will we be able to resume normal teaching and research?

Tutors are also working virtually: with students, with one another and in ongoing College and University committee meetings and colloquia. “We have already held a successful Zoom meeting of all Tutors to discuss the many changes that will affect our students in an online Easter term. More meetings will follow as we respond to the logistical, academic and financial challenges ahead,” notes Susan.  

“Face-to-face communication—whether by Skype, Zoom, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams­—will be essential to support students in the coming weeks and months. Ordinarily early April is a quiet time for Tutors, but they are all extraordinarily busy right now, trying to source financial support for students, advise the postgraduates whose research has been disrupted by the University’s closure and address the questions that students have about the format for Easter examinations.”

“Having a chat with me allows students to know that they are still a part of the College and the University and that they will be back again,” says Tutor Dr Lesley MacVinish. “There have been more immediate problems than normal; I’ve been helping some students apply for financial hardship funds. I remind them that I’m here and that what I’m good at is doggedly chasing things down!” 

Lesley has also been using Zoom to meet with her tutees and thinks it helps for students to see a friendly face.

"Students can feel overwhelmed. I want them to know their issues are important, that they’re not alone in them and that there are lots of people working very hard to get everything back to normal as soon as possible."

Perhaps this situation will change aspects of our working lives forever.  We will always want to welcome interview candidates to College to meet them face-to-face, and build personal relationships, but Michael wonders, “Will we want to go back to all travelling at 8 or 9am for meetings and home again at 5pm?”