We all know that covid has been a huge disruptor in HE.
Many colleagues in the teaching and learning sphere are talking enthusiastically about how the sector is finally progressing because of the rapid shift to online learning and the positives this will create for blended learning once we get to the “new normal”. But what about the rest of HE?
These days that’s endlessly on Teams, Zoom, Skype or Facetime. Plus LinkedIn and emails – hard on the eyes but great for packing in so much more than you could if you had to travel or were in an office. And this is just one of many factors rearing its head as a consequence of lockdown and the shift to working at home. So many people are talking about the increased productivity of working at home, how much extra value the Chat function is adding in Teams or Zoom when you’re in a big meeting, how the flexibility of screen sharing helps and how easy it is to work out where your colleagues are and get hold of them. Also how great it is that they are saving money through not having to commute and that they are getting more time with their kids/partner/pets.
There are also whole groups of students engaging with support and development services more fully online than they did in person, as well as students who are finding online learning much more productive than lectures. SU’s have also been doing a tough but brilliant job in finding ways to support and engage students online (big shout out to those sabbatical officers this year who have had an incredibly difficult time but risen to the challenges admirably).
The next act
So what will this mean going forward? What will the ‘new normal’ look like. Short answer is who knows? There have been so many twists and turns during the pandemic it’s like being on a rollercoaster and we can’t yet see the end of the ride. But what signals are we getting?
Clearly there are going to be some great developments that benefit student learning and student support. We’ve also seen that there are significant groups of students very happy with their online experience, or parts of it, whilst there are others desperate to get back onto campus and be with other students. We’ll get better learner analytics as learning platforms are more widely used and hopefully that will help students get better outcomes, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds. Maybe this will also finally advance “flipped learning” – an idea that seems to have stalled somewhat – and move away from chalk and talk to online lectures that students can watch as many times as they need, and then have classroom sessions where they have to apply and develop their learning.
But what about staff? This, I think, is where things get tricky. Lots of people have found working from home to be a generally positive thing. But lots of people haven’t, and they miss the personal interaction being at work gives them. Plus there’s issues of overwork and screen fatigue. Over years we’ve moved towards staff having the right to ask for flexible working hours, or to work from home some of the time – the pandemic will definitely have moved this on, with more people asking to work from home more (all?) of the time.
Space is the place
How will this work from an employer perspective? Aside from those staff who must be on site, what if half my team want to work from home and the other half don’t? Do I have a compromise and make it 50:50? Do I get them in together on the same days? What about their desks and office space? Will the Director of Estates be looking to take back space that doesn’t seem well utilised? Will the FD be looking at the overheads for space and be thinking that some money could be saved?
Might we see office space becoming more shared? Many HEIs have been reducing their square meterage per employee for years, might this be the push to really cut that? Hotdesking only? Might it be possible then to free up significant amounts of space and either sell off a staff block on the edge of campus or elsewhere in town? Or move staff out of the nicer spots on campus and give the space over to students? We know that during the pandemic many students have struggled enormously with working at home – no study space, family members/housemates making it difficult to focus, digital poverty impacting internet access, lack of being able to share ideas with fellow students – so having more on campus informal study spaces has to be on the agenda for many HEIs.
Meanwhile, on campus
But if we have more staff working from home some of the time – and presumably this will be across professional service, academic and some support staff – what will this mean for students? Will they be able to access staff in person or will they be going to a booth or sitting with their noise cancelling headphones on in a quiet nook trying to get hold of their tutor? Will reception, security, cleaning and other support staff who will have to be on campus find themselves needing to answer even more questions than before and offer more help to students?
If more academic staff are working from home, will we see more teaching sessions where students are in a classroom but the lecturer is on a screen? Or will the Registry have extra challenges in timetabling as they’ll need to tie up academics on campus as well as all the usual timetabling factors?
What about professional service staff? Already many counsellors have been pressed to work long hours at weekends and over Christmas as political pressure decided they were the correct provision to have on standby to support mental health issues (but that’s for another blog…), will we see staff expected to work outside the (generally) usual 9-5 and provide a whole range of student services across a much wider timeframe? And what will the impact be on staff numbers, terms and conditions? There’s already been a drive in the sector for some years to reduce pension and other costs, might this see new contracts for revised roles?
And if lots of this happens, or something like it, how will campuses feel? How will this impact on the student and staff experience? We’ve already seen huge unhappiness from students about fees this year, what impact might all this have there? Add in all those changes being proposed by government and sadly the crystal ball is all fogged up, but what it reveals when it clears is going to be a game changer.