Here’s something you don’t hear very often. The summer of 2020 will be much like any other.
It will certainly offer the usual and varied challenges of balancing research and teaching workloads. But where planning for teaching is concerned, there’s the need to convert modules previously delivered face-to-face into blended, or entirely online offerings before the new academic year. And the temptation may be for simplified, quick wins at the expense of innovative work.
Avoiding mass cut and paste
Time is tight. And when you add in the pressures of homeworking, caring responsibilities, precarious contracts and so on, diversions abound. In translating modules to online formats, the easiest and quickest option is a wholesale “cut and paste” of lectures and associated content to virtual realms. But to do so reduces online education to a paltry imitation of lectures.
In any event, lectures are a form that many already view as old and tired, positioning students as passive recipients, struggling to replicate practice-based activities and generating multiple casualties through death by PowerPoint.
The good news is that there’s a wide range of support readily available within institutions to help make the transition to e-learning environments. And the work that will take place this summer will perhaps move teaching and learning forward a decade or more.
But with the focus on e-learning, and with face-to-face delivery looking unlikely for the time being, do we risk neglecting the innovative learning that takes place outside of lecture halls in the real-world with business and community partners?
Learning in collaboration with external partners
Pre-Covid-19, learning with external partners abounded. From legal clinics to service learning, science shops to event management, and participatory arts to trading entities, staff and students have for years partnered with communities and external organisations to drive real-world change.
In doing so, students have connected more fully with their discipline or subject, feeling greater senses of purpose and agency and realising their abilities to act in and on the world. Where societal needs meet disciplinary knowledge, creative solutions arise, and knowledge of self evolves.
We’ve adopted the term “authentic learning” to describe this work. Authentic learning experiences are those where complex, “higher” knowledge comes to life through application, where the learning enables both students and staff to deploy their understanding and capabilities for the benefit of others.
The hallmarks of authentic learning include collaboration, interdisciplinarity, supportive coaching and scaffolding and space for structured critical reflections.
An opportunity for pedagogical innovation
In preparing for an upcoming handbook about authentic learning, we had the privilege of speaking to 22 practitioners who generously shared the highs and lows of their authentic learning approaches.
For this article, we revisited several to ask how, if at all, they were adapting their approach for a socially distanced world. It would be easy to assume that for the coming year all such work must be on hold. However, we were buoyed that the vast majority contacted framed Covid-19 as an opportunity for pedagogical innovation.
We heard from those whose students had been conducting engaged research projects rooted in their countries, within a five-mile radius of their homes. This had opened opportunities for contrasting experiences across the globe. In approaching the same brief from multiple geographical locales, universal themes such as sustainability, community, and social justice could be explored through divergent lenses.
Many we approached were actively engaging with the numerous issues that Covid-19 has caused. For example, a module where students establish and run their design agencies under the mentorship of design professionals, saw the students ‘furloughing’ their agencies in line with what was happening in the professional world. Countless future authentic learning opportunities will lie in students helping communities and external organisations through the crisis. It could be that approaches take the form of compassionate pedagogies where students co-produce content and opportunities that meaningfully add to institutional responses to Covid-19.
Challenges of providing authentic learning in lockdown
While we’re advocates for authentic learning, we’re not blinded to the challenges of transferring such practice online. The practitioners we approached confirmed there were challenges to address.
Students could no longer work face-to-face in teams, nor visit clients and service users to understand their needs and the issues they were facing. Gone were student-arranged engagement activities such as public exhibitions, town hall meetings and community consultations.
And authentic learning practice involves collaboration. Trying to build relationships from a standing start online requires different skills and behaviours, alien to some staff and students. Indeed, several of those we approached noted that collaborations that had started in face-to-face settings before moving online felt easier to sustain and build. Embodied communication upfront seemed to make a marked difference in building the trust essential for collaboration.
Then there were challenges of inclusion. These manifested in differential access to technologies and varied digital literacies amongst students and external partners. Online engagement may restrict the ability to read body language and reduce spatial non-verbal cues, problematic for certain neurodiverse learners.
One of our contributors expressed concern for reduced diversity in teaching staff; with many universities currently operating recruitment freezes and actively reducing staff costs by cutting visiting lecturer positions, the involvement of diverse teachers from external partners has been curtailed.
Finally, reliant as many are on external partnerships, authentic learning approaches live or die on the situations in which collaborators find themselves. One of our contributors runs an applied theatre module in collaboration with two theatre companies. The companies have been severely financially impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and unsure as to how their futures will unfold. They’re not in the place to contribute and given that the module is nothing without them, it’s been cancelled.
Despite such inevitable casualties – and hopefully, these will be authentic learning opportunities paused rather than abandoned – we know that this summer, up and down the country, authentic learning partners will be adapting their innovative work for a post-Covid-19 world. In so doing, they’ll be enabling students – irrespective of difficult and different circumstances – to enhance their disciplinary and professional experiences and to have a meaningful impact on society. And for that, we should be grateful.