Why the teaching legacy from the pandemic must be more than digital

Nicola Whitton and Lawrie Phipps believe the time is ripe to continue testing out new ways of teaching.

Nicola Whitton is Director of the Durham Centre for Academic Development and Professor of Education at Durham University


Lawrie Phipps is Senior Research Lead at Jisc and Professor of Digital Education at the Keele Institute for Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Keele University

Around the globe, higher education teachers – from eager enthusiasts to recalcitrant Luddites – have found themselves necessarily embracing technology in order to work, play, and stay connected.

Debates on the relative benefits and pitfalls of distance, blended, hybrid, hy-flex, space-agnostic, synchromodal, dual-mode, asynchronous, pre-recorded, in-person, and traditional forms of teaching (to name but a few) are, we’re sure, still going strong in virtual meeting rooms worldwide.

Whether “on-campus” teaching staff agree with the various potentials of technology, we doubt there are many who would say that it has had no impact on how they teach. For many of us during the pandemic, digital teaching has been based on a combination of make-it-up-as-you-go-along with a healthy dose of get-it-right-next-time and, we would argue, this is a good thing.

A time to reflect

As we start to emerge from this prolonged period of change, many university leaders are thinking about how to keep the best elements of digital and embed them in future practice; “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” is a mantra we’ve heard on many occasions.

This reflection is necessary and welcome: something we must do as we develop a “new normal” after the heady pace of change over the past year-and-a-half. However as we reflect, it is important to remember that more has changed about how we teach than the digital tools we use. To torture the metaphor somewhat, we might need to take a whole new approach to baby hygiene.

For many, the relentless pace of change and spiralling workload has fundamentally changed their approach to teaching. There isn’t time for perfection and over-thinking; good enough just has to be good enough (and it is). It’s less effort to give someone the benefit of the doubt than to assume the worst. Being kind to each other, and ourselves, has become an essential tool to get through the day-to-day.

While we firmly believe that sustaining good emerging practice in the acquisition and deployment of digital pedagogy is important, it is maintaining and embedding the courage and compassion that has emerged during the pandemic that is crucial, especially for those in leadership roles.

Constructive learning

The pressures on teachers to learn new tools and approaches at the same time as providing additional support for students left very little space for anything else. In this brave new world, we have inevitably had to step outside our comfort zones, take risks and try different things, learning as we go and getting by when things don’t quite work as planned.

On the plus side, we’ve sometimes seen effective leadership demonstrating that we’re all in this together, getting things wrong and adjusting course pragmatically. In the process, we have become increasingly prepared to take on new challenges, make new mistakes, and overall become better teachers because of our new confidence to explore possibilities and alternatives. This willingness and ability to learn constructively and safely from failure will be key to both digital and pedagogic innovation as we go forward.

Workloads and levels of stress, widely recognised as unsustainable, have caused problems both for staff and students. But there have been great acts of compassion and kindness, for our students, colleagues, and ourselves. Online communities have developed to share advice and ideas, hundreds of free online events have taken place, and huge amounts of open teaching resources have been created and shared; just three examples of the generosity of our sector.

The pandemic has, perhaps, led to a greater acceptance of human fallibility, tolerance, and the view that “we can only do what we can do”. Sometimes, in academia, we forget that we (and our colleagues) are not superhuman; we all make mistakes, and that’s OK.

Space to experiment

As we recover from this global emergency, the ability for institutions to create space and time to focus on consolidating and developing teaching practice will be key to both the health of our institutions and the wellbeing of those who work within them. Spaces in which staff have time to experiment, play, and imagine will be key to developing innovation and embedding excellence in teaching in higher education.

We need to learn from our errors as much as from when we succeed, and share those failures as we share our triumphs. We need time and space to talk, share, and reflect on what we have achieved and what we will achieve in the future. We need to work alongside our students to create different models of community, learning together how to generate and share knowledge with optimism and compassion.

This isn’t about technology. It isn’t about products or solutions. We need to ensure that the focus on digital does not sidetrack us from our values, and look for ways to create academic environments that give us the creativity and courage to try new things, and the confidence and compassion to learn from our mistakes.

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