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Could universities’ Covid-19 response help us be more inclusive?

The pandemic-driven move to a distributed university has been hard work - but are there new benefits we can take back to the campus? Hannah Bartlett looks forward to a more inclusive way of working.
This article is more than 4 years old

Hannah Bartlett is Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion at Aston University

As universities contemplate the steps they can take to support students through the Covid-19 pandemic, our focus has been on digital platforms, online learning and video conferencing.

As disruptive and worrying this period is for students and staff, I wonder whether in the longer term there may be a positive impact on the inclusivity of practice across the sector.

Digital takes centre stage?

Provision of online learning materials is not a new concept; students are used to accessing their learning materials, submitting assessments and receiving feedback via virtual learning environments. However, the current situation forces a step forward. The increase in remote learning and working means that staff who have not previously used online teaching and learning platforms may now be encouraged to do so. The positive effect of this is the potential for a cultural change across the sector with wider engagement by staff and students in virtual classrooms, discussion boards, technology-focused approaches to revision and also the delivery of new forms of assessment. As David Glow advises, different technologies will be helpful in different circumstances, so there is a real opportunity for sharing of best practice within and between institutions.

This shift in staff experience level could be beneficial for some students with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or those who are experiencing challenging personal circumstances. If online delivery and support becomes more commonplace, then, for example, students attending on-campus learning environments virtually could become the norm rather than the exception.

There may also be a positive impact on staff morale. Many institutions are committed to providing recorded lectures and seminars for students to access online. The challenge of such commitment to this element of inclusive practice is that attendance tends to reduce. But what if students could choose whether to attend the session in person or virtually? Would this create a more engaged learning environment? The step change would be the design of learning materials and styles that incorporate both face to face and virtual attendees, but perhaps staff would welcome a different challenge if it made for more effective learning? As much as staff appreciate the importance of making learning materials available online, even the most enthusiastic among us can feel demoralised about creating engaging learning opportunities when just a fraction of the total cohort turn up.

Opening up leadership

Of course, thinking more inclusively about how we engage with students, will also help us to think about how we engage with each other. Being more flexible may well make it easier for people with seen and unseen disabilities to engage in a wider range of activities, providing the opportunity for progression and development.

From a leadership perspective, many of us have already been shifting towards telephone meetings and videoconferencing. This presents a real opportunity to embed more inclusive working practices. And creating those inclusive working environments is key to diversifying leadership. It is time that we moved away from the hierarchical expectations that the more senior the role, the less work life balance staff are expected to endure.

Covid-19 may help us to move on from the perceived need for senior staff to be present or available around the clock for dinners, keynotes, and meetings. A perceived need that plays firmly into structural bias against career progression for anyone who has any kind of responsibility outside of the workplace. This isn’t just about parents with young children; it is about anyone who has responsibility for any other person (with emphasis on ‘responsibility’). So it could be working parents, those with family members who are unwell, those who are supporting people with seen or unseen disabilities, or anyone with older relatives. The bottom line is that we are missing out if we can only allow those who can turn up at all hours into our senior leadership positions.

It is also likely that more of us will experience the challenge of caring over the coming weeks and months. The result of this could be wider acknowledgement of the challenges that carers face, but also of the empathy, resilience and broader perspective that those with caring responsibilities can bring to organisations. And how valuable these attributes are.

Moving forward, we will be forced to work differently. We will all have to think more inclusively about how we plan our teaching, learning, administrative and management load. Although it is happening under very challenging circumstances, it does provide the opportunity for positive change in the longer term.

One response to “Could universities’ Covid-19 response help us be more inclusive?

  1. A very nice perspective. Indeed a new challenge moving forward will be designing materials and activities which are equally engaging both in the face-to-face and online modes. Thank you for this article.

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