David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Gravity Assist isn’t named after the 2013 film Gravity. But the movie would offer a better parallel to the story of pandemic higher education than the official explanation couched in the intricacies of orbital dynamics.

It’s not that we’ve used the pull of a massive body to head towards a defined target, more that – in the face of an unlikely disaster – we’ve upended a well-documented, rule based system, to grab on to any and all technology that might help us survive in the short term as we battle moment-to-moment simply to keep things together. It’s an against the odds moment, not a blueprint for the future.

Just point it at the Earth and go forward. It’s not rocket science

Super-imposed on what was and is done with technology during the pandemic is what could be done in the future. By this point you’ve probably read enough about the inevitable ascent of digital higher education to know that the things the sector has learned due to emergency online learning will scaffold our future. By those standards, this is a fairly tame report.

Instead, bolstered by 52 interviews with global digital learning experts and by a couple of surveys (which I have concerns about, that I’ll come to) we get a collection of recommendations and case studies which could easily have come out of the last decade or so of Jisc reports.

Whither pedagogy?

The text is littered with diagrams and box-outs – six components, six actions, six recommendations. Of these I appreciated in particularly a six-fold definition of digital access:

  • Appropriate hardware
  • Appropriate software
  • Robust technical infrastructure
  • Reliable access to the internet
  • A trained teacher or instructor
  • An appropriate study place

Even a shortish 2020 Jisc guide to digital inclusion managed to get into the idea of accessible learning design and appropriate pedagogic choices. I was momentarily cheered to see a “pedagogy-first” approach for digital delivery in the recommendations – however diving in to table three suggests that otherwise inspiring ideas like “for digital teaching and learning to be effective, it must start with pedagogy” actually means that we should decide what we are going to teach before we decide what tools are going to be used. Which is fair enough as it goes.

But a transformation towards blended or online learning requires a radical rethink of our theory of teaching – or perhaps a questioning of historic norms for the first time. Lecture, seminar, exam – these are not concepts that could or should be translated directly to online learning. Again, there’s any amount of old Jisc reports that could have been used to back this up – the work of the team around Sarah Knight and Helen Beetham is world class, and this guide to Designing Learning and Assessment in a Digital Age is a great place to start.

The same guide talks about student “co-creation” as a disruptive act that can shape the course of a lesson in real time. In Gravity Assist it’s about bringing the student voice (via feedback and representation) into the design process – a fine thing in itself, but very much something that should have been happening all along.

Cognitive load

Among the designed-to-be-startling survey findings we note that 48 per cent of students were not asked for feedback on the teaching that they have received. Now, unless everyone decided to scrap the module feedback forms that have been used since time immemorial I suspect this is not actually correct. Rather – and this is a decent exercise to do with any startling survey finding – I suspect the survey question may have been misunderstood.

In academic and government surveys, this is generally addressed via cognitive testing – using volunteers from the population to be surveyed to understand what meaning is taken from each question. The feedback question was a simple yes/no:

Have you been asked for feedback on the digital teaching and learning you have received since the beginning of this academic year (2020/2021)?

And was asked on 18 November 2020, midway through the usual module delivery pattern. A question along the lines of “will you have the opportunity to feedback on the the digital teaching and learning you have received this year” would have a very different answer – as would “do you feel as if your experiences are being actively taken into account during the design and delivery of online teaching this year”.

Let’s do another one. Staff were asked if they felt confident that they had the “knowledge and skills to design and deliver digital teaching and learning”. Nearly a fifth were not confident. Again, a bit of cognitive testing would have moved the question away from the concept of “confidence” – confidence to do what?”. Having the broadly based adaptable skills to do something straightforward during an emergency is a big difference from being a domain expert ready to set up an entire taught masters delivered entirely online.

I’m not saying we discount these findings entirely. But, like much Covid polling, I’m not sure anyone is making considered assessments of questions about experiences and feelings right now. We’re all broken, we’re all hurting, and some days it’s just all too much to deal with. See it as an indicator of the level of stress we’ve built up, and start thinking about ways to deal with this onslaught of emotion when this is finally over.

Consistency is king, experimentation is queen

When universities moved online during the early weeks of the pandemic it was with the support of a grab-bag of provider and consumer tools that could be used to facilitate remote working. Even where a provider had standardised on a technology, the needs of a particular subject or module could take provision elsewhere – and frankly if the whole class is happy using Zoom why force them onto Teams?

Students do like consistency in technology – designed digital courses that are customarily delivered online do a lot of work on standardising the collaborative toolset and even the design of web pages. Students, of course, also don’t like technology when it is demonstrably inferior to what they are used to using elsewhere – creaking old VLE forums spontaneously get replaced by class WhatsApp groups and shared google docs if that’s what keeps the discussion flowing.

There is perhaps an overload linked to every module having an independent tool ecosystem, and virtual learning environments are legendarily difficult to navigate to those unfamiliar with the late 90s patterns that underpin the conceptual frameworks that define how they work. It feels alarmingly like working at pretty much any large employer when any amount of pro-Sharepoint propaganda doesn’t stop teams knocking together a trello board or (again) a google doc if that’s what the job needs – centralised procurement be damned.

For me this is a digital skills issue. A long time ago, I used to teach students how to use digital audio workspace software – there are a few examples each with workflow and design differences, and each has its own quasi-religious fanbois and haters, but any professional would be adept with most of them. Mark Leach was once astounded that I insisted on being the only PC user in a then all-Mac Wonkhe. But really, is higher education a place to learn one software tool or a range of concepts and approaches you can use anywhere?

Walking with the futurists

Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality (there is a difference, but not one you will ever care about), learner analytics. No forward looking learning technologies would be complete without topics like these (I’m just grateful there’s no blockchain). And, in fairness, Barber’s report situates these towards the end of the text – devoting most time to the now and next of basic digital delivery.

Ideas about the far future of higher learning have already been colonised by vendors and wannabe-vendors, but – as is shown here – take up starts low and tends to remain low (according to the old NMC horizon reports augmented reality has been four or five years away from the mainstream since about 2005). Learning analytics is an outlier in that the capacity is everywhere (it’s a part of every VLE now) but usage is sporadic and basic – more spotting disengaged students in the same way library records and registers used to than learning about learning.

That said, the recommendation that we should “foster a culture that is open to change and encourages calculated risk taking” is exactly the right response to technology like this. The underpinnings give it away a little (we get to senior leadership a little too easily for my liking), but the idea that there may be a technology-mediated idea that makes teaching something easy that we haven’t identified yet is a powerful one – and we should be encouraging all staff to be making and owning these decisions. Some of the very best pandemic (or indeed blended) learning I’ve come across starts from a lecturer with a mad idea, who is willing to adapt it in conversation with enthused students.

What if the real infrastructure was the friends we made along the way

There’s a lot of talk about infrastructure in this report, but we don’t really get a proper definition. Is “infrastructure” all the environmental factors a student needs to learn (like a personal learning environment?), is it some nebulous thing that providers need to spend money on, is it a collection of centrally managed software?

Well – it’s all of these things, and more – even people can be infrastructure. And the failure of this report to get to grips with the idea that infrastructure is really how all of these things fit together is a worry.

Most problems in information technology come about when you try and use two systems together, and move data between them. The only way to solve these problems is to talk about interoperability standards and metadata, and that’s the last thing that anyone wants to do. I used to think this – such discussions got in the way of the fun that was early days learning technology – but I have since recanted and am happy to admit that I was wrong.

Through conversations with people like Lorna Campbell, Sheila MacNeill, Tish Roberts, Phil Barker, Paul Hollins, Rachel Bruce, and Wilbert Kraan I gradually came to understand the scope of interoperability as a defining class of digital problems. It’s one of those things that you don’t notice if it is done right, because everything just works and you have data flying everywhere seamlessly. You know where it doesn’t work because you’re losing hours switching between systems and manually retyping stuff.

The absolute best thing that could happen to digital learning is a set of common, agreed, standards – file formats, linkages, descriptions. That way it wouldn’t matter which vendor wrote the software or which manufacturer built the hardware – stuff would just work. We don’t need five competing ways to do video calling, we need one standard technical protocol and as many different specialised clients if you like. We wouldn’t need a timetabling tool compatible with Teams, our student information system, and the VLE – we’d just need a timetabling tool.

In some areas UK HE is a big enough market to make this happen (in others, the international HE market could do it) with the support of vendors. Imagine this as the moonshot we need to truly reach for the digital learning stars.

We want to be free – we want to be free to do what we want to do

Barber says that:

I do not predict that higher education will ever be fully online, nor should it be. But the pandemic has changed the situation forever. It may not have taken the form expected, but a disruptive avalanche has arrived. We should all work together to rise to the occasion and seize the opportunity – with the help of a gravity assist

Here he namechecks the elephant in the room, his 2013 “provocation” An Avalanche Is Coming. Gravity Assist is a far more sober, and frankly far more useful, report than the forebearer – by design I should add.

But this line gives the game away somewhat. In part, Gravity simply replaces the Sao Paulo start-up hoodie of Avalanche with the grey suit and muted tie of government. The underriding animus – that the revolution is at hand and golden years don’t have to be in the past – is the same.

Online learning has been the future for so long some of us have a legitimate nostalgia for the early days of experimentation and fun. Some days we still pretend that’s where we are – one breakthrough or one inspiring keynote away from… what? The domain has been about the pursuit of the future for so long I’m not sure what the problem we are trying to solve or the benefits we are trying to reach even are any more.

There’s never been a great demand for online learning – niches have grown: the online professional masters, the bite sized MOOC – but the demand for campuses and lecture theatres has always hung on in there. Hip ideas like micro-credentials (I remember them as “digital badges”) and virtual words keep reappearing not because they are good, but because nobody wanted them.

I’m not convinced that we’ll be as keen to leap onto a Zoom quiz when the pub is open. I’m leery that higher education being an activity that happens in a single room has legs beyond the day it can safely happen in a whole town filled with people, ideas, and experiences. We’ll take some of what we have learned with us, but the immediate future feels more like hedonism than hegemony.

4 responses to “Gravity Assist lacks force

  1. I fully agree with all you say and we have both been in this game too long not to see new wheels being (re)invented. The one thing which reviews like this do not address is that to do ‘digital teaching and learning’ (to use the reports phrase) as a standard rather then emergency mode of operation requires a considerable shift away from the heroic individual teacher versed in all forms of pedagogy and expert in all technological tools to teams of people (teachers, learning technologists and many more) all bringing their professional knowledge and skills to bear on developing and testing learning experiences and supporting students. Such an approach almost certainly costs more money to do well or sets up dilemmas of opportunity costs when choosing between or when blending together teaching and learning modes. so a better revolution would be to wean the system off the causal academic workforce and invest properly in university staff to do their professional job rather than think there is digital silver bullet (although I agree about investing in appropriate digital infrastructure that enable staff to do that job as well). Less assisted gravity and rather more oxygen to breathe properly.

  2. Jisc programmes invested in groups of people who cared about learning and teaching. Engaging with real-world teachers and learners were pre-requisites of funding, I remember. So were getting out and talking to other projects, working out what was valuable, and sharing ideas (Andy’s oxygen) rather than adding to the gravitational pull of the platforms and other shiny stuff. Thanks partly to those projects, UK HE now has a cadre of senior staff in ed tech roles who remember that it’s people, their skills and ideas that create value. That talking to each other is possibly even more fun than system interoperability. Let’s hope, as the oxygen returns to the room, that someone is listening.

  3. “The absolute best thing that could happen to digital learning is a set of common, agreed, standards – file formats, linkages, descriptions…” Yes, but as far as I can see, two of the biggest vendors that I interact with and through, Microsoft and Apple see the stack as a means to monopolise goods and services. They violate at will what was once sacred: Hardware, Operating Systems, Applications and Data should be only very loosely coupled. Interoperability through “common, agreed standards” – the work of CETIS – might have meant we all could choose our favourite tools to run on our favourite machines… iTunes and iOC (and MS Word) completely trashed that ideal, locking hardware, applications and data into a money siphon. Google takes a different approach but it is all still about selling stuff in the end. /sad face/

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