Build Back Higher: dialogue and community will return to post-Covid learning

Tansy Jessop, Helen O'Sullivan, Matt Johnstone, and Emily McIntosh examine what we have learned about learning during the pandemic.

Tansy Jessop is PVC Education at the University of Bristol. 


Helen O’Sullivan is Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of Chester. 


Matt Johnstone is Academic Officer at the University of York Students’ Union


Emily McIntosh is Director of Learning, Teaching and Student Experience at University of Middlesex, London.

Online education is different, but not a deficit

Tansy Jessop 

Last June I wrote a blog for Wonkhe cautioning against a deficit view of online education. One year on, it seems that early evidence demonstrates that the sector has proved the value of online education, surprising some of its detractors.

In the recent Jisc Digital Insights Survey 68 per cent of over 21,000 students rated the quality of online learning as “best imaginable”, “excellent” or “good”. In Bristol’s internal pulse survey, 83 per cent of students said they were learning a lot about their subject.

In the words of one of my colleagues:

There has never at any time been anything close to the genuine enthusiasm and momentum for improving and innovating in teaching.

David Baume’s insightful blog posits that we are witnessing a shift from teaching to learning, the painstaking and incremental life’s work of many an academic developer coming to fruition during the pandemic. But this accelerated movement into student-centred learning design has come at a cost.

Academics, academic developers and learning technologists have worked enormously hard to help refashion teaching into interactive online learning. Initial excitement has given way to the highest levels of exhaustion many of us have ever experienced. Hours of preparation and endless pixelated versions of reality have a price tag, particularly as staff and students juggle caring responsibilities.

While online learning has proved its potential and shown us a new side of teaching, expanding the possibilities for flexible, personal, and “slow” learning, we have discovered that there are some things for which it is a pale shadow of the original. The power of absence has heightened our longing for interstitial conversations, for laughter without time-lags, and for easy connection without the interference of poor wifi or buffering platforms.

Virtual labs or Zoom theatre performances are useful simulations but without the smell of chemicals or the joy of a communal experience, they fall strangely flat. The challenge for us all will be to identify where the main value of in person and online education lies, and to make that blend as coherent, expansive and exciting as we can over the next few years.

This will take courage because it is not just about “what works”, but about what we value as higher education communities. We are in the middle of an unfinished symphony, and it is going to take reserves of patience, wisdom and imagination to create the next movement. And energy – let’s not forget that.

Building and sustaining communities in a digital age

Helen O’Sullivan 

The narrative has switched from “emergency remote learning” to “post Covid learning”. Everywhere I look across all sectors of society, there are articles and discussions about how we must learn from the positive changes that have occurred during this pandemic.

I think there is a small minority of university colleagues who are hoping that things will go back to how they were before the pandemic but most are planning for a “new normal” – but it seems as though staff and students are conflicted about what comes next.

Many people have enjoyed the convenience of working remotely and have spent the time saved on commuting on things that contribute to their health and well-being. On the other hand, one of the single most critical factors in being human, our connection to other humans, has suffered and we miss the corridor conversation, the pre-meeting discussion, and supportive chat. Students have missed their social life, but also, the collaborative, social learning that engages, challenges and develops critical skills.

One thing seems certain – we will be doing more things online. So how do we foster and nurture a sense of community as we accelerate the blurring of our online and in person lives?

We should have a clear sense of the difference between asynchronous and synchronous online activity and make sure that synchronous activity is prioritised for tasks that build collaboration, creativity and communication. The same principles apply for student facing and staff activity – does this really need to be a meeting or could I post document that colleagues can work on and comment asynchronously? Deliberate and purposeful development of in person activities will complement and add value to the online world.

New ways of building community among staff could be through collaborative course development. Many academics work in teams for research, and team teaching is not new, but the days of a lone academic module leader creating their own module is probably over. Relevant and engaging programmes and modules need to be developed and delivered in collaboration with academic teams, learning designers, learning technologies, employers and students.

We can build genuinely inclusive and supportive communities by having a greater understanding of the challenges that many of our students face as a result of difficult home circumstances and/or unequal access to resources and by recognising the role that institutions as and educators have in the care and support of the whole student.

A chance for change

Matt Johnstone 

I’ve been watching a lot of Community lately. It’s one of my recent lockdown binges, after altogether too much Star Trek (thank you, Netflix). It’s a modern classic with a cult following, but there must be something more than Chang puns and Winger’s abs that makes me put up with all of the misogynist and racist observations from Pierce. The conclusion I’ve come to is that the campus life of Greendale Community College is a fantasy that I can escape to too easily.

It’s not just a fantasy in that there are both a tufted capuchin and a disgraced academic living in the air vents, but in the pertinent sense that a group of seven friends from five different households can sit in a room and study together. They can go to their lectures, they can go and get some lunch, they can socialise freely. It would have been a totally different series if they just sat through repeated zoom quizzes, or online lectures, and dealt with unreliable wifi connections from behind the locked front door of their residence.

Graduating last summer, I now consider myself lucky to have experienced two and a half years of “normal” university life (industrial action, and a dissertation written while watching the early Number 10 coronavirus briefings from behind the sofa, notwithstanding). I actively enjoyed going to many of my lectures, seminars, tutorials, and meetings. I wasn’t the perfect student, so what made my time learning so enjoyable was the social interaction on campus with colleagues outside of lecture rooms; chatting on your way from one room to the next, bumping into your project partner in the café queue, battling a herd of geese who are blocking your path when you’re running late for a seminar (the trick is to clap and walk through them confidently).

As a sabbatical officer, I find myself not just longing to give students back the experiential face to face learning, the intimacy of the seminar room with the academic debates, exploration, and hands-on experience – but keen to see how that experience could be enriched by blending it with the increased digital literacy and software that covid bought to a generation of academics and learners.

I know that many students pre-Covid were frustrated by the measly four hour contact time offered on some courses and they were desperate for more of that precious time with inspiring academics to engage in thought-provoking discussion. If I had a pound for every time I heard or read the phrase “Covid has taught us a lot” then I might finally be on a respectable salary, but I wonder whether the return to the classroom will see those four hours not just return but be built upon, retaining some of that online engagement and interaction as an extension of the seminar room. Something that can bridge the gap between the academic and the wider student community. Perhaps Greendale can exist in real life and on my screen.

It’s not what you do it’s the way that you learn it – that’s what gets results

Emily McIntosh 

In early May 2020, Aula ran a conference with Wonkhe called No buildings from September: what on earth do we do about the learning experience? A key feature of the discussion that day was about how we could recreate, virtually, the types of learning and teaching activities available to us on campus.

Much of the conversation revolved around the building blocks of our learning environment, such as lectures, seminars, lab and studio sessions – and how different technological platforms could help facilitate these experiences virtually. Conversations also touched on the mortar that holds this all together: the foundational quality of relationships and dialogue between colleagues we work with, and the students we teach. We didn’t have enough time for a Grand Designs approach to the online pivot, more like a hurried episode of Changing Rooms.

Fast forward eleven months: everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. The emergency online pivot has happened, colleagues and students have been forced to migrate to online learning. Only a hint of on-campus activity has been permitted.

With opportunities for relational working and learning in a face-to-face setting less available this year, anxieties about creating a sense of belonging and connectedness in a virtual world have inevitably become the higher education zeitgeist of the pandemic. As the country gradually opens up and the sector has the possibility to embrace all that blended learning has to offer, how can we put relational working and learning at the forefront of our thinking? How can we expand the curriculum to allow for these opportunities?

If there is one thing we have learned since the pandemic, it’s that the medium is the message and that the message, indeed the experience, can never be the same in a different medium. Trying to re-create the on-campus experience online is extremely difficult. Deciding what should take place on campus and what should take place online must be driven by a desire to facilitate dialogue and interaction amongst colleagues, students and their peers. A dialogue intent on building relational pedagogic practice as a hallmark of our shift to the blended model. It has been the worst of times, but with a focus on building back with relationships at the heart of future blended learning design, it could yet be the best of times.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here

Leave a Reply

Copyright © 2021 Wonkhe Ltd.

Company Number: 08784934

Wonkhe Ltd, Lower Third Floor Evelyn Suite, Quantum House,

22-24 Red Lion Court, London, United Kingdom, EC4A 3EB