With the onset of a third national lockdown in the UK moving almost all studies online once again, the higher education sector finds itself still facing many of the same challenges as in March 2020. Only this time, there are mounting levels of exhaustion – and a lot more sticky tape holding everything together.
We know that the sudden shift to distance or online learning and the continued uncertainty it’s brought has been hard felt by the sector, especially by students – according to UNESCO, globally almost 80 per cent have had their learning and development impacted by school and university closures. In the UK, many have clearly struggled to adapt, with almost 30 per cent stating their dissatisfaction with their academic experience in the tumultuous autumn term just gone.
However – probably for the first time in modern history – the Covid-19 pandemic has placed educators in the same boat as their students, as each face the same adaptational and accessibility hurdles. While educators have proven incredibly resilient throughout the pandemic, they are still learning how to sustain this significant digital upheaval from both a practical and pedagogical perspective. Especially as their digital education support teams remain under strain to provide specialist support needed by everyone. They’re also doing this while monitoring their students’ wellbeing, and trying to ensure they remain engaged and have the resources needed to continue their studies.
How to teach online
The initial urgency to convert entire curricula for digital delivery, despite the limited time, resources and knowledge, naturally meant that short term and more universal solutions had to be prioritised over more sustainable approaches. Figuring out how to not just deliver the campus remotely, but also blend together different methods (recorded lectures, live online sessions, group study, collaborative assignments) that brings the much needed element of social interaction within a now largely digital setting, has proven difficult.
As a lead educator on FutureLearn’s “How To Teach Online” course – which was rapidly launched at the start of the pandemic to help educators worldwide adapt quickly to the digital shifts – I’ve seen the many common obstacles cited by educators around the world. They are resilient and motivated – but also challenged, overwhelmed and undersupported on a professional and personal level. We must avoid allowing this to lead to the bad place: burnout and departure. There needs to be a renewed investment, strategically and financially, in what has become obvious during the pandemic – digital education as core to the student experience.
Generally, the higher education sector tends to focus on the learner when it comes to digital education. But the pandemic shone a brutal light on the distinct lack of universal investment into educator’s digital capabilities. In fact, a recent survey by Jisc, UUK, Emerge Education and AdvanceHE (AHE) found that more than a third of lecturers feel they have received little or no access to CDP or training to deliver the quality of online teaching they would expect. This lack of prioritisation of their support needs has resulted in additional pressures that may have been otherwise avoided.
The case for more support
Policy makers and national leaders have now had no choice but to turn their gaze towards the negative impact the lockdowns have had on educators’ ability to teach (either in person or online). Yet, so far in the UK, there has been very little direct provision made for training up and preparing educators to face the challenges they’re still meeting. This becomes an even more important priority if blended learning is to become (as many argue) the norm long-term, with the same Jisc, UUK, Emerge and AHE survey revealing that learners and lecturers alike prefer the blended teaching and learning model.
Considering how little institutional investment has gone into digital learning within higher education when compared with traditional bricks and mortar, it’s clear that far more needs to be done in terms of providing realistic and effective solutions for the more blended future of the sector. Highlighted recently in HolonIQ’s Global Higher Education Digital Capability Report, where a panel of more than 300 leaders shared their insights about digital capability in higher education, the gaps are around processes and people – not the underlying technology. It’s no surprise to me that provider capabilities in learning design have risen to the top priority due to the demands of switching wholesale to digital education over the past year.
Rather than advocating for glossy technology driven “solutions” such as AR and VR, artificial intelligence, or automation, the focus should really be on the fundamentals. Every educator is on their own digital adoption path, and this must be recognised and supported institutionally. Basic steps like building digital capabilities beyond the VLE, establishing digital-first pedagogies, and encouraging a specific focus on best approaches to the fundamentals of learning design, can go a very long way to empower educators.
Another place to start is with investment to help staff feel more equipped to continue facing the “new normal” – so that they can keep up the fantastic work of delivering high quality education. Offering greater (and simpler) access to resources, organisational pedagogies, and professional development opportunities that are both flexible and accessible will not only help educators tackle their present circumstances in the short term, but support future-proofing for the long term.
Once the higher education sector, fully backed by the government, is able to start building up these basics on a large scale, we will finally begin to realise the fullest potential of online and blended learning. This will make for a better student and educator experience, ensuring access to everyone and creating a far more sustainable model for the UK’s position in the future of global education.