Imagine someone told you over a year ago that the world would change in a matter of weeks, due to a global pandemic, that most teaching and learning would be conducted online, what would you have thought? Yet, this is our new reality and one we have faced for almost a year. It might be one that continues to impact our lives for some months and years to come, becoming as common as the flu.
Covid19 has highlighted so many societal inequalities and yet, it’s also given rise to new ways to approach teaching, learning and assessment for much of our higher education staff, at a speed not experienced before. Senior leadership once calling for innovation, can’t quite believe what would have taken a decade happened in a matter of weeks.
Amongst all this haste, however, we need time to reflect on what lessons we have learnt from the pandemic, that we must continue beyond this pandemic. This piece is a contribution to this thinking, designed to make all supporters of learning and teaching in higher education think and to make education better for all. It’s not all doom and gloom here, much progress has been made, but for us to see progress across the higher education landscape, we must begin to understand what’s working and what is not, crucially in what context.
Many of our lessons learnt to date revolve around one key notion - one of the literacies needed by all higher education staff, i.e. being able to use tools and techniques to make better use of technology to enable good teaching and learning happen online. This remains an ongoing challenge, which will require consistent effort on the part of all higher education staff. You need to invest more in people to do good online teaching. We must realise it’s not a one size fits all to educate a student in a Post-92 compared to a Russell Group.
The first lesson we have learnt is one of access. We have seen how staff and students don’t have access to basic equipment, space and wifi, to work or study. This inequality impacts the poorest in our society. Members of staff don’t have access to good equipment and struggle to teach in their small flats. Universities must rethink how and where their staff work and the way University estates are configured to make better use of space. This was an issue pre-pandemic, but now we have seen what’s possible, we need to use this, to build more flexible, collaborative spaces on campus. Access to resources is now an electronic issue of access, with libraries and librarians key to increasing this literacy.
The second lesson we have learnt is that online teaching takes more time in planning, better use of accurate language in communication and more support from all supporters of learning and teaching, working together in the learning design. This was not common pre-Covid and it remains to be seen how common it has become during the pandemic, hence the reason to write this piece. These are staff include Academic or Educational Developers, Learning Technologists, Library Staff, Careers Consultants and IT/Media specialists. Initiatives such as the Learning Design Bootcamp help these roles come together and have a space and time to think in what Scrum Agile project management refer to as swarming, also referred to as the ‘hive mind’.
We must not think that pre-pandemic we had good teaching in higher education, we had some good teaching, but mostly it was masked by other factors with value being seen with often overpriced on-campus services, e.g. accommodation, bookshops, student union clubs etc. The pandemic has stripped all this back, leaving just tuition and support services. The pandemic has exposed the woeful lack of quality in the teaching and learning of some courses, something the government and the Office for Students (OfS) are continuing to ask some very tough questions of universities for evidence of how they ensure quality.
The third lesson we have learnt is that our higher education staff, through no fault of their own, have been in a system where research is valued over teaching for promotion for some time. This pandemic must bring this issue to the foreground. The result is underdeveloped pedagogic practices amongst some staff to be able to cope with teaching online. It must be noted, that it takes time to develop anything of quality and see its impact in academic practice, as opposed to academic habit and in the students outcomes ultimately and here behavioural science can help what might happen post-lockdown.
If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that the world is fragile, it’s interconnected, but our policies and practices in higher education are not. Our future challenges as humans are vast, but they fall into a few categories.
Firstly, climate change hasn’t gone away. Travelling to work five days a week, to University for study doesn’t always add value. A question to ask is what does? Electronic resources, provided by University library services should be cheaper, more accessible and easier to use for teaching and learning. All higher education institutions and staff have a role to play here, for lobbying, promoting and teaching everyone about alternatives to overpriced ecosystems. Open Education Resources have never been more important but also having fair ecosystems for authors.
Secondly, the value of some subjects and disciplines has changed during the pandemic - e.g. education and health care, but also the arts. Have you missed going to the Theatre, to restaurants, bars and clubs to socialise with people? These activities add richness to society and are just as important, not least to our mental health and wellbeing. We need to think as higher education professionals what type of society we want to educate and evolve into. Are we focusing on graduate salaries, skills or a more deeper value, that of students gaining knowledge that changes them as a person and their view of themselves in our world, able to face the challenges of our times as Dr David Helfand concludes in his 2013 TEDx talk entitled ‘Designing a university for the new millennium’ Our political systems don’t help us here.
Finally, we have seen the rapid innovation and change in practice amongst many higher education staff. It’s our challenge to make this change stick. Not to let apathy and the strong feeling of pre-pandemic ways to creep back in. They will if we let them. It will take brave leadership and collective action to continue a path to a greener, more equal and progressive, people-centred, collective society. This is a crossroads for us a species and to the world, we leave our children. It’s a choice, one we need to take with time to think, robust evidence and with passion.
We can only do this, if we involve, listen to and value everyone in the design of this future. This is our ultimate challenge and now has never been a more pressing time to act collectively. Whatever your role in higher education, speak to another department, another professional service. Do it today. I believe it starts with a common purpose and none greater than designing curricula together. This is my challenge to anyone reading this.
About the Author
Santanu Vasant, Head of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of East London and founder and host of TalkingHE podcast. TalkingHE is a monthly podcast for the Higher Education community, available wherever you get your podcasts.