With the media storm that’s surrounded the return to campus, it looks from the outside like most UK universities are grappling to come up with the proper response. And with cases of Covid-19 on the rise, debate rages over whether it was the right thing to bring students back to campus at all.
Though some students are undoubtedly going through an exceptionally difficult time, especially those in self-isolation, we think the prevailing narrative doesn’t take sufficient account of the work many universities have done over the last six months to rethink learning and teaching for the changed environment.
At our event last week, Two weeks into the new semester – tactics for a new reality in HE, we brought together 200+ leaders and staff working at the front line in universities to get an understanding of how teaching and learning continues to evolve in light of the extraordinary challenges thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic – and how universities could respond.
In the panel session, “Delivering exceptional learning experiences in the new semester”, Mairi Watson, pro vice chancellor for education at the University of Hertfordshire since May of this year, set out some of the ideas that are shaping the university’s thinking on learning and teaching.
We think that Mairi’s remarks and the subsequent discussion among panelists distill into five key principles for working through the current crisis while keeping in mind the exciting opportunities for a better learning and teaching future. In particular, we were struck by Mairi’s words: “We need to think about the last six months as a sprint to the starting line, not as a sprint to the finish line.”
Principle 1: make sure the university’s strategy and tactics are an enabler of its vision
Many universities make reference to “flexibility”, “opportunity”, and “community” in their strategy documents. These are abstract concepts that could mean little unless they are translated into meaningful action at the level of departments and courses.
Translation work can involve establishing a university-wide consistency of pedagogic approach and student journey, appointing and supporting local champions to embed those values in practice, and committing to the challenging conversations where there are issues to overcome.
But that work is underpinned by shared values that are agreed at a university-wide, strategic level – and if the strategy doesn’t provide the context that enables that work to happen, then it needs to change.
Principle 2: We’ve only seen the first of many shocks to come
Many, if not all, universities were already in the process of thinking through what an excellent blended learning environment looks like before the pandemic hit, with the last six months accelerating that journey considerably. The panel suggested that, to the extent that it is possible, educators need to stop thinking about Covid-19, and instead start thinking about the next big shock while learning from the experience of hybrid delivery during Covid-19.
Part of that could be rethinking how the university collectively imagines ideas of value, excellence, or identity. Semi-occasional encounters with experts will not necessarily light up students in the future, or be deliverable with the degree of consistency universities have been able to provide in the past. Teaching that depends on personal charisma rather than a deep competence in learning design will not translate well into the hybrid learning environment at scale.
Highly structured contact hours supplemented by highly unstructured independent learning time will not help students form the connections that support active, engaged learning. It could be time to rip up the independent study playbook.
Principle 3: provide practical resources to overcome barriers
We’ve seen from media stories in recent weeks that where universities don’t fully anticipate the constraints their students might be living under the situation can quickly spiral, with isolating students lacking access to food, washing facilities and toiletries.
Though these circumstances are highly specific, the learning is that it’s vital to invest in understanding students’ circumstances and constraints. Students have had to contend with issues of uneven digital access; the same may be true of staff.
Building digital capabilities for the whole learning community has been a priority from the start of the pandemic, and continues to be essential, as is adopting technologies that meet people where they are rather than requiring extensive additional training. This is not an excuse for system status quo – and instead is an impetus for change for the sake of ease of use.
We also need to remember that practical needs are not the same as material needs, and that people’s mental health and emotional state are equally worthy of acknowledgement. Personal contact, reassurance and validation can help remove psychological barriers to access as effectively as a dongle helps tackle patchy wifi connection.
Principle 4: co-create
Panelists spoke warmly of the flexibility, resilience and imagination of the students and staff at their universities since the start of the pandemic, and the importance of working collaboratively to find solutions.
It’s impossible to anticipate or imagine the lived experiences of students without talking to them – and without this understanding it is impossible to design high-quality learning environments.
With opportunities for social and extra-curricular interaction reduced, it’s more important than ever to see students as co-creators in designing a learning environment that enables them to engage and connect with each other even outside formal teaching hours.
On the staff side, Mairi prescribed “listening like our lives depend on it” to understand and address concerns, upsetting the normal conventions of hierarchy for the sake of getting the job done. At times of crisis and upheaval, it matters more that the people with the best information are part of the conversation – in a lot of cases that’s the staff at the front line, not those with the fanciest job titles.
Principle 5: Keep the good stuff going
Dealing with the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic and managing all the challenges it’s created is exhausting, and the temptation to abandon or suspend other projects must be immense.
But the panelists took a different view – it’s keeping up things like recognising teaching excellence, creating space for creative conversations, and mapping out action plans to address inequalities that can help keep up flagging motivation.
Mairi Watson referenced Hertfordshire’s institutional action plan to tackle the BAME awarding gap, saying “there’s no room at all for inequality or injustice in what we offer or award.”
That’s a rallying cry that’s well worth getting out of bed for when despair looms at the prospect of yet another day of online meetings.
We know from our work in the sector that the “good stuff” is still going on, even if it’s not always publicly visible. In light of this, we must remind ourselves that all the hard work to understand how to create the best possible learning experience for students in these most uncertain times is meaningful, and it’s worthwhile.