THE global Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on all aspects of 21st-century living. Physically constrained and limited to our homes or to front-line work, mobility and education have never been so important, or so disrupted. Indeed, higher education as a sector shifted almost overnight to embrace digital learning and hybrid models of teaching.

With the railway industry being pushed into a period of massive change, it is unsurprising that so many railway professionals see this as a good time to pursue personal development opportunities. 

The Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) is part of the University of Birmingham. And with over 150 academics, researchers and professional support staff delivering research and thought leadership, BCRRE is comfortably the largest centre of its type in Europe and is playing a big role in the change taking place.

BCRRE has two main flagship programmes: Railway Systems Engineering and Integration (RSEI) and a relative newcomer, Railway Safety and Control Systems (RSCS), which are both offered at MSc level with optional exit points at PGCert and PGDip. Although offering differing academic learning pathways, both programmes have the same overall aim: to provide the learning experience that will produce a more rounded railway engineer or railway professional who is knowledgeable of the engineering, operational, leadership and management challenges particularly when operating across the interfaces of a railway system.

BCRRE is also increasingly working overseas, partnering with professional institutions to deliver courses directly to personnel. For example, the PGCert Urban Railway Engineering programme developed by BCRRE for Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) involves bringing the teaching to the customer using the BCRRE ‘Flying Faculty’ whereby, twice a year, BCRRE and guest lecturers converge on Singapore to deliver the courses to multiple cohorts.

BCRRE has been expanding its overseas operations, including working with Singapore Mass Rapid Transit to deliver its PGCert Urban Railway Engineering programme.

However, the pandemic presented a fresh set of challenges to the provision of railway education, and especially in-person instruction. This has resulted in BCRRE adjusting our courses to a new blended learning provision.

Education is fundamentally a social activity. At its very basis, it is a two-way relationship between tutor and student who develop together.  

In the eight months since Britain first went into lockdown, closing university campuses for the first time in living memory, a lot of lessons have been learnt - and not just by the students. We all value the ease and normality of face-to-face contact, but the challenge of moving to online study has also pushed us to innovate our courses and helped us to identify areas for change. 

Beginning last spring, the shift towards digital methods of learning has led us to several conclusions: 

Online takes time 
It is easy to underestimate how much time it takes to operate in a fully digital - or even hybrid - space. We are quite used to digitisation as passive consumers, for example streaming media in an instant on a whim, accessing information, or online purchasing. However, as producers, developing this content and its interfaces is a lengthy and highly skilled process.  

For online teaching and learning it is important that the digital materials produced are not materials for passive consumption but rather require active engagement. A concern of students learning online for the first time is that they will simply be left to watch hours of lectures. However, few consider the opportunity available to have a discussion between people in 10 or more countries who can immediately turn their laptop around to illustrate an issue or solution where they are. Digital also gives us the opportunity to take students to places where otherwise it would be difficult to visit. Yes, a digital course takes time, but the possibilities make it worth it. 

Less is more  
There has been a lot of press in recent months on ‘Zoom fatigue.’ However, what has not been noted is the ease of contact. A meeting which may previously have taken up a whole day, once travel time is considered, now might only take an hour. It has also been possible to bring people working around the world together for the first time. This has made it possible to introduce our students to a greater range of industry professionals who have been willing to give up their time to discuss real world examples, both in Britain and overseas.

Peer engagement is as important as tutor engagement 
Education is fundamentally a social activity. At its very basis, it is a two-way relationship between tutor and student who develop together.  

One of the difficulties of online learning can be simulating the organic interactions between students - sharing a coffee break, a quick question to check an understanding, or a seemingly insignificant comment on the weather, traffic, construction or current affairs issues pertinent to the day. These innocuous passing remarks, instigated by bringing people together in time and space, serve a vital function when building community.  

Online, it is very difficult to catch someone’s eye, or comment on a shared experience in quite the same way. At BCRRE we have always understood that many of our students are experienced railway professionals and discussion between students is just as important as between students and staff. It is true that at present the online environment may not feel natural to all of us, but by encouraging students to come together and share their ideas and experiences we can ensure learning is both social and supportive.  

A home is not a recording studio, but this doesn’t make it less effective 
When recorded materials and online classes were first raised, there was a lot of anxiety about being able to produce digital content at home amidst the distractions and sounds of day-to-day life in your own personal space. Going to work involves inhabiting a space, place, and persona associated with our trade, that is typically rooted in expertise. The loss of this through performing professionalism in our homes is naturally unsettling. It takes time to learn to function confidently in alternative means and professionalism acts as a shield or veil here.  

The performative nature of teaching from our homes makes education a very personal, intimate experience that many of us have not experienced before. While we might want to shy away from this, it also allows for a more personalised teaching and learning experience. As tutors, we can be seen and read as individuals, with our own likes, dislikes, traits, and, of course, slip ups and interruptions. Within a digital context where we are strangers, never having met before, this creates an opportunity to develop the supportive and approachable environments where teaching and learning can thrive.  

Of course, digital learning is not for everyone and at BCRRE we are committed to returning to face-to-face teaching when the current Covid restrictions are lifted, and encouragingly, this year’s application rates have remained in line with previous years.   

For those who have appreciated being able to study part-time while continuing to develop their careers at home or those who have enjoyed the flexibility online learning can bring, we will certainly be looking to continue to develop our digital output in the future.