Like most people I know, I’ve spent a lot more time on Zoom (and a couple of other similar web conferencing systems) this year than I expected. I’m writing this post between zoom calls. I’ve also spent a bit more time supporting people in their use of zoom – both professionally and personally than I expected. In fact at the beginning of 2020 I really didn’t have any expectations of zoom at all! But from what experience I did have I knew that the ‘viewing’ experience of being in a zoom meting was very different to the “viewing” experience of a face to face meeting. Non verbal communication cues change, you spend a lot more time looking at yourself and others. Your gaze changes, it’s tiring.
Like a lot of people I know, this week I read The Zoom Gaze by Autumm Caines. If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to. It’s a really powerful piece about how technology mediates control and power of virtual spaces which impacts on behaviour, and expectations. It asks us to question just what the “zoom gaze” is.
“As Zoom shifts the nature of the relationship between viewing and being viewed, it also shifts our awareness of it: It makes us more conscious of how visibility is mediated by technologies in general. That is, it calls our attention to what theorists describe as “the gaze,” which analyzes the power relations in looking and being seen and how these are consolidated in a particular way of seeing that may come to seem natural. Right now, our new conditions call attention to the different power dynamics that come into play as face-to-face interactions shift to online video spaces — what we might call the Zoom gaze (though, of course, it would apply to video telephony in general). It is critical to understand the Zoom gaze now, before it becomes so familiar that it seems immutable — just the way things are.”
Over the past 3 weeks as my local area has been in stricter lockdown measures, my life drawing class has moved to a zoom version. I was quite curious to see how/if this would actually work. I like life drawing with a real model, in a physical space. I’m one of those people who can’t really understand why some of the artists on shows like Portrait Artist of the Year, work from a photograph and at times don’t even seem to look at the sitter.
Conversely, I do work from photographs quite a lot in my landscape work. My only defence, if I need one, is that they are generally reminders of places I have been, and I often have sketches too. The weather here in Scotland can be challenging for “plein air” painting. My camera phone photo roll is a kind of digital sketch book for me now. I have incorporated that aspect of technology into my practice, I feel I am in control of that view and it’s static, one way if you like. But back to the life drawing and zoom
My tutor Ewen, worked really hard at making the classes work and was really open to trying new things and upfront about his lack of experience of how “this would all work”. Week 1, we had 4 different camera views to choose from ( we all of course had to have the same view), week 3 it’s down to one. Automatically I had my mic on mute (hello behaviourism), the others in my group don’t use zoom as much as me so didn’t. There’s not a lot of talking when you are life drawing so it’s been fine to have mics on, and there were only about 6 of use each week. We did of course have a bit of “external conversations” and “why can’t I see the model on my screen” in week one but that quickly got sorted.
The experience has really made me hyper aware of the mediation of technology on my “drawing gaze”. My gaze was restricted by having to viewing the model through my screen (a 14″ MacBookAir). The camera was fixed, the model was clothed, the lighting again mediated through technology. I was sitting at my desk not standing behind an easel, I was using smaller pieces of paper. I could almost feel a cognitive crisis seeping throughout my body.
I found the drawing hard, I had to work my way through all these changes. It was frustrating, there was an emerging foggy idea of what/how to draw in this new technology mediated way, but what my hands were actually doing wasn’t quite matching up to what I wanted – even though I didn’t really know what it was that I actually wanted to do. I was very aware of how the the screen was framing my view. Last night though I had a bit of a break through, I started using oil pastels and a bit more colour. I felt a bit more at ease, a bit more in control of my understanding of what was going on and the “zoom gaze” I was working within.
I also realised last night that what this particular zoom mediated gaze did most was to remove my emotional connection with the sitter and their surroundings. Sometimes you just get a feeling when you are drawing which guides what you do. Even though it might not be an “accurate” drawing, the overall feeling that the lines, tone and shade present make the whole thing just work. In our last pose last night our two models wore their masks (in our f2f classes we all wear masks but the models don’t) and I think that gave me a bit of an emotional hook.
Anyway it’s been a bit of minor revelation for me being able to think about many of the issues Autumm raised in the article in this context, particularly about how technology can simultaneously enable and block emotional connections. It has made me think even more about the different aspects of the zoom gaze and the need to seriously consider they way technology mediates and controls human interactions. Thanks Autumm.
How are you? I mean really how are you? I’ve had so many conversations lately where people I have seen a palpable sense of relief when I have said, that actually I’m not that great. That’s allowed them to say the same.
I cried when Nicola Sturgeon announced stricter lockdown measures here just over a week ago. Although I knew the announcement was coming, when she actually made it, I felt the most overwhelming wave of despair. I just broke down and cried and I mean really cried. I felt I couldn’t “do this anymore“.
Those feelings have passed, I’ve come to terms with the situation, but I know lots of people are feeling the same. Tired, stressed, and in my part of the world anyway suffering from shorter daylight hours. The seasonal change to winter is even more acute this year. There might even be a hibernation analogy here. We are being forced to lock down, but we can’t sleep, we can’t properly rejuvenate ready for spring – we have to keep going. Putting Christmas light up early is just another distraction from reality. It’s going to be even darker when we have to take them down.
This image was doing the rounds last week on twitter. Where I am on the scale fluctuates wildly, but I’ve not been in that green zone for a sustained period for a while.
A lot of that is down to my choices. I choose to be self employed so I have to live with an element of risk around paid work. But that risk has seemed heightened lately. I’m lucky in that I have another outlet that keeps me sane. It has its stresses too, but it has been the lifeline I’ve needed to. I know I have retreated from much of my professional network over the past months. Some days I just don’t have the energy for twitter, and when I do my posts are more irreverent.
I also have a lot of guilt too. I feel guilty when I hear from colleagues who seem to still be working 15 hour days; who don’t manage to get outside some days as by the time they’ve finished work it’s dark, wet and cold. Quite often I don’t do 15 hours of paid work a week! Now that’s a whole other worry for me and not for here. Many of them are spending more time checking their teams are OK – perhaps even using that table above. That’s getting harder now too when everyone is still working from home. It’s really hard to get “out of the office” with people. Work piles up – universities are still ploughing on with “business as normal”. And you can’t afford to say no to anything.
Last week as I was contemplating on a few conversations I had been having, Kate Bowles share this post The Red Queen Trap, by Teodor Mitew. It’s a really insightful piece about organisational chance, and how organisations adapt (or don’t) to change. The piece proposes that the more hierarchal an organisations the harder it is for it to adapt to any changes in context. As the Red Queen explained to Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place” Remind you of anywhere you know?
It seems to me that over the past 9 months that’s exactly what HE (and in fact the whole education system ) has been doing – running to stand still. And doing that has used up a huge amount of energy. I wonder if anyone will do some kind of cost benefit analysis of the time staff have spend in online meetings with productivity (whatever that actually might mean in an educational context)? I suspect there might not be a direct correlation. Anyway as the post so elegantly explains this is where the Red Queen paradox comes into play again:
” In the absence of surplus energy and provided there is no energy transfer from the outside, it must somehow free up energy from within its internal state in order to adapt. The question is, which internal elements should be sacrificed to free up that energy? This is where the Red Queen Trap’s simple elegance is fully revealed. Essentially, there are two options – a seductively easy one and an unthinkable one. The seductively easy option is to sacrifice the periphery, or elements of it, and preserve the decision-making center. It is an easy choice for the center to make because it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice allows it to remain intact. It is a seductive choice because the center suddenly finds itself with a flush of spare energy which it can use to maintain the pseudo-equilibrium and often even to grow itself at the cost of the periphery. Alas, the elegance of the trap is in the fact that the seductively easy option removes the center even further from external conditions; less periphery equals less opportunities to observe and react quickly to external reality, thereby further magnifying the initial conditions that brought the system to this state in the first place. By making that choice the center sinks further into the trap. By contrast, the unthinkable option is to sacrifice the center and preserve the periphery, thereby flattening the internal structure of the system into a less hierarchical form. It is an unthinkable option for the center to make because, as pointed out above, it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice forces it to sacrifice itself. It is also unthinkable because it involves a thorough rethinking of the internal structure of the system, which until that moment was organized entirely around vertically integrated decision making, with little to no autonomy in the periphery. The centre must not only sacrifice some of itself, but also reorganize the periphery in such a way so that it can now perform those functions in place of the center. This would allow the system to free itself from the trap”
The “traditional” curriculum has been tweaked not changed, face to face is still the holy grail for delivery. The economic realities of maintaining almost empty physical spaces is taking its toll. So the apparent logical solution is to cut at the periphery – get rid of staff, keep the centre safe until everything is “normal” again. Don’t stop to really engage with the realities of our context, and leave the staff (who are left), those who are actually keeping things going even more stressed out with endless meetings, developing new strategies to delivery ambitions from a defunct reality, and no time to breathe and think. No meetings/ email Fridays sound great in principle but the reality is that they just give you time to catch up on the rest of the emails that have piled up during the week.
Why are we trying to do another “normal” semsester when actually we all know it’s not going to be “normal”? Why can’t we take time to spend a couple of months really engaging with digital capabilities and our wider context? To learn and share from the changes that have been made? To help us think about how we are going to be able to cope with the mental health pandemic that is going to hit us next year. That might actually let everyone escape the looking glass. But hey, what do I know.
And that’s another worry of mine. Because I’m not in “the belly of the beast” so to speak, am I becoming irrelevant as I haven’t worked in a university through that covid/lockdown experience? I don’t really understand what it has been and continues to be like.
In a number of keynotes this year I have argued for the need to give time to rethink what and how universities are doing in terms of curriculum delivery, and completely rethink at the very least the way first year is delivered. Of course, no-one is really going to listen to me, but being on the outside I can perhaps see more clearly the whole system and everyone everyone caught up in it running to standstill. . .
Warning, this post might be stretching a metaphor a bit too far, but there is something that has been bubbling in my head for the last week so this post is an attempt to make some sense of it.
Last week I joined the Jisc Joint building digital capability and digital experience insights community of practice online event. Co-hosted with the University of Derby, it was a really useful day with lots of presentations from colleagues across the sector around what they have been doing to support staff and students over the past 8 months. There was also a preview of this year’s Jisc Digital Insights surveys, but lips have to be sealed on that one. It was a really useful event, so thanks to all at Jisc and Derby for organising and running it.
Anyway, as I was listening to the keynote presentations from Derby – a really comprehensive overview from strategic vision to hands on implementation, it suddenly struck me that in education, we might be suffering from a bit of an Ikea situation when it comes “the digital”. Bare with me as I try to explain. Apologies in advance for this very western metaphor.
So we have our shiny, glossy strategies that layout the vision, mission purpose and the high level overview of the where, what, why and when of “stuff”. They’re a bit like the Ikea catalogue, where every room has that look of if not perfect, but attainable, useful, organisation, practicality and comfort. If you’re anything like me, there’s always something in the layout of the rooms in the catalogue that appeals, alongside that nagging worry if anyone does actually live in that wonderment of perfectly organised storage . . .
So we have our catalogue and we can see the vision for the “perfect” and practical home. We all want a bit of that don’t we? That’s like our strategies – they all make perfect sense, who wouldn’t want to do all the things they set out. The implementation of the strategies – not always so straightforward. Perhaps a bit like when we actually go into an Ikea store.
Despite the homogenous layout, the friendly arrows, you can get very easily get lost, (I spent what felt like 2 hours trying to work out how to get back downstairs once) or distracted, or (in precovid days) get caught behind a family of 20 having a day out with no way to overtake them. It strikes me that this is a bit what has happened as we have tried to develop digital capabilities across universities.
Everyone has seen the shiny catalogue and has seen what they want or how they could possibly improve what they have. So they build their digital strategy. And then they let staff and students go into the store. Many get caught in an endless loop in the market place deciding on just what and how many digital bits and bobs they need. Others are a bit more strategic and know not to get distracted in the market place and just move to where they really need to be. Others are even more experienced (perhaps battle-scared) and know at least one short cut to get to where they need to be. They might even be able to do self check out without having to get assistance!
So I’m not saying that our institutional systems are built like Ikea wardrobes, tho’ at times it might feel like that! I think it’s more in terms of how we use technology, it’s like we all have a “billy book case”. We’ve past the test of finding and buying it we’ve built it but since March this year we really had to use it. I think pre covid, there were many people who treated the VLE (and lots of other learning technology) a bit like the Billy bookcase Ikea flat pack. Only use if you really have to, never read the instructions when you are building it, and you know as long as it sort of looks ok, and it doesn’t fall over, you can live with a degree of wonkiness and let’s just not worry about the left over screws and nails . . . they weren’t that important anyway . . . the shelf will stay up if you carefully balance things on/under it . . .
Thing is we’ve had the instructions for quite a while, it’s just that not everyone saw how important and quite often, how easy they actually were to follow. Now people are having to engage with “the instructions”, and can’t really get away with wonky shelves. Not just at the event last week, but over the past 8 months I see /read/hear so many similar stories of how TEL/academic development units have become front and centre of the ‘pivot’ and the response to the pandemic. People are engaging in ways they never did before, accessing material, resources/support/courses they never thought to before. I have said it before but I’ll say it again, it’s quite sad that it took a global pandemic to get some staff to engage with their institutional VLE.
To me this highlights a couple of things. One is the gap between strategy and actual practice. Having a shiny catalogue doesn’t mean that all your ‘rooms’ will actually look (and work!) like that. Developing digital capabilities for all staff and students needs to to be centred in all university practice and strategic development, and units that support this can’t be seen as optional extras or something to forget about when we “get back to normal”. We can’t just provide instructions that no-one reads, we need to be helping people out of the market place, finding the shortcuts and routes they need and ultimately giving people the confidence to build all the furniture or make an informed decision about why they might just want to go to another shop.
Anyway, this might all be a metaphor too far, but would love to hear what you think in the comments.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of giving the closing keynote to this year’s CILIPS conference. Like all conferences this year, it changed from a face to face meeting to an online conference. The conference team at CILIPS did a great job moving everything online. I was lucky enough to be able to dip in and out of the conference over the 2 days it ran. It was both inspiring and humbling to see some of the work that delegates shared.
In my keynote I wanted to focus on the role of information and public pedagogy and the direct relationship they have on each other. In our increasingly confused world ensuring that everyone has the capacity and opportunities (both in digital and physical spaces) to find, share and critique information is increasingly important, if not urgent.
During her keynote, Dry Jenny Peachy (Senior Policy and Development Office, Carnegie Trust UK) mentioned a phrase that really struck me. She talked about the need for libraries to play a central role in ‘resetting the relationship between citizens and the state”. Now if there was ever a time to hit reset it is now! However that is quite a challenge particularly at a time when the state is imposing restrictions on everyday life, without a really well thought out communication strategy. What is happening with the UK government’s lockdown announcement for England. this weekend is a classic example of miscommunication, leading to the further erosion of trust between citizens and the state.
I can maybe draw some solace from living in Scotland where we have actually been in varying states of lockdown for quite some time. There maybe a little bit more trust here in the Scottish Government (even more so I suspect as people realise the benefit of allowing non essential shops and business to stay open). But the longer “all this COVID stuff” goes on, the more feed up, confused, angry, exasperated and exhausted we all get. And then we have the US election . . . which will impact us all eventually.
I know that I have in so many levels switched off, as I don’t actually feel that I have an agency in this situation. I don’t want to shout at politicians on the radio or tv so I limit the amount of news I watch/listen too. I do wonder how, when, and if we can actually hit reset.
In my talk I spent a bit of time talking about how we are negotiating our various states of “normal” just now. Any reset seems obsessed with resetting back to pre covide times. I don’t think that’s realistic. I think we are going to be in various states on restricted living throughout the rest of this year and next. So what we need to be doing is making more time, space and places to develop more shared understandings of the different contexts we are all living and working in now, the science, the data, and interpretations of COVID 19 and again how these are impacting our contexts. Approaches based in public and critical pedagogy are crucial to doing this. It also seems to me that libraries are natural spaces to support these approaches.
However, as funding forces difficult choices around what spaces and services (physical and digital) can and will survive, it is a challenge to carve out time for “service users” needs as active, engaged citizens, instead of desperate, unsure, challenged citizens trying to negotiate the complexities of digitally enabled state benefits.
Although I admit to switching off, I am so fortunate that I can switch myself on again and have the capabilities, platforms and opportunities to have conversations with others about what’s going on. Not everyone has that opportunity.
As I’m don’t work for an institution anymore, I can only have limited impact. That’s why speaking events such as the CILIPS conferences is so important to me. You can access my slides here and the recent paper on public pedagogy co-authored with Keith Smyth and Bill Johnston from which much of the presentation was based here.
Earlier this summer I was delighted to be asked to contribute to a special feature by Times Higher Education on digital learning. The guide was published last week and includes contributions from a number of international contributors and covers some relevant topics including course design, technology, safeguarding, participation and inclusion. My contribution focuses on where staff can turn to for help in preparing digital learning and teaching.
“Being” at university in the new academic term is going to be very different for both students and staff, and we are all going to have to learn together about what works, where, when and why. Lots of our old assumptions have and continue to be challenged, we all need to adapt.
The good news is that there is lots of support available, from inhouse teams to the wider sharing of practice from communities such as ALT and individuals like Sally Brown and Kay Sambell who have curated a fantastic set of alternative assessment resources.
Another recommendation I make is to become an online student and see things from “the other side”. Again there are lots of options out there, including Creating Courses for Adult Learners, a new course from the Open University which provides a really solid overview of online course design and delivery.
You can access the full guide here ( behind usual THE paywall I’m afraid . . .)
On Friday 3 July I was delighted to be a part of the panel in the second of an occasional series of webinars hosted by SEDA. Theme of the webinar was educational technology and educational development:challenges and opportunities. More information and a recording of the session is available here. Many thanks to SEDA for hosting the session, to all my fellow presenters and everyone who attended and engaged so readily and thoughfully with all of my fellow speakers.
Speakers were given 5 minutes to share their views, which is not very long. I perhaps rather foolishly said that I would look at some of the broader issues I feel that everyone, not just educational developers and learning learning technologists, need to be giving really serious consideration to right now – time, space and place. It’s hard to to do justice to those themes in 5 hours let alone 5 minutes, so below is what I hoped to say – some of it I had to cut due to time. It should take less than 5 minutes to read.
I have the pleasure of being first to speak this afternoon, so please bear with me, and indulge me as I go backwards to think about how we go forward in relation to what I feel are our most pressing challenges – time, space and place.
Now the past few months have indeed been strange times – in all aspects of our life, not just in educational development. With lockdown everyone has forced to work at home – with the rest of our families. Our traditional spaces, places and times of work were taken away from us as quite short notice, and it’s still unclear when and how we will get back to them. In the short to medium term if, and when we do, it will be in quite different contexts and times.
Time is always an issue in educational development – there’s just never enough time to try something new, to find out how to do that thing in the VLE, to integrate more active learning, peer assessment, whatever . . . But over the past 3 months people have had to find the time to do all sorts of things, particularly with technology that they previously never had the time for before. That has meant moving into new and not so new spaces and places that many had previously never been too.
One of the ways I have been spending my time during lockdown is listening to more radio, podcasts and radio theatre, and one of the best things I have experienced is a play called Adventures with the Painted People (by David Greig) part of a series of works called Culture in Quarantine, from the BBC.
It’s set at the time of the Roman invasion/incursion in Scotland, and it’s set in the village of Kenmore. It is a basically a two hander between Eithne, the village witch, and a Roman official and wannabe poet, Lucius. who Eithne has got some local lads to capture. Eithne wants to find more about the Romans and much of the play is centred around the differences between their two cultures.
One of the things that strikes Eithne about the Romans is their apparent obsession with straight lines, she says quite early on in the play
“ the world’s not straight, it wiggles” When I heard that, I thought that is so true – how wiggly has our world been of late?
Lucius tries to explain history to Eithne, a concept that is quite alien to her. To explain he draws a line, a time line, marking events. In response she draws her version of time and says “time looks like this”, to which Lucius says, equally baffled “that’s an asterix” and then Eithne replies
“everything that has ever been leads inevitably to one place – here and now”
Now this little exchange really resonated with me and has stayed in my mind since I heard it. Over the lockdown my notions of time have really changed – and I know I’m not alone. March seems, not like a couple of months ago but at times like years ago. I feel like I flit from one thing to another – and the connections between space, place and time have become far more fluid.
So as we go forward we really need to give far more serious consideration to notions of time and move away from our “straight lines’’ – of the default 1 hour allocated time slots, the dominant line from 9-5.
Now if we were Pictish witches like Eithne, we would be able to free our minds and swim through rivers or fly over mountains to do that, but as we’re not we do need to look to technology help us do that. To help us find and understand the intersections between time, space and place, but most importantly to help us focus on people on connecting and sustaining our emerging hybrid communities of learning.
I think we don’t want to get obsessed with tech but I think moving forward, taking some time to reflect on how, where and when our staff and students are using and moving between spaces and places, both physical and digital, is going to be really important to help us rearticulate what the student experience (and ergo the teaching experience) is evolving into.
Maybe we should start to think about how to allow for digital desire trails or elephant paths to emerge. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, (and I always think of the wonderful Kate Bowles when I talk about them as she introduced their actual name to me) desire paths or elephant trails, are those not hand- made but foot or boot- made paths you see that cut across the formal pavements or paths around green spaces on campus or actually around any building complex with green space -even parks. Are their digital equivalents?
But the straight lines can’t be kept at bay for long. The edtech companies, the bigger powers that surround us, that fund us, they want the straight lines – they can’t cope with the wiggles. The want to give us neat, ordered straight lines – to create new narratives, to help us fix and bring about our new normal. But going back to Eithne, she says history is our stories, our songs, it is all around us, constantly evolving.
We need to be sharing our stories, singing our songs more than ever and I know that many people are researching experiences of staff and students during lockdown we need to be sharing the data from these projects as openly as possible so we can learn together, and evolve our practice.
So let’s look to the asterix not the straight line, and find ways to share our stories, explore new desire paths that allow us and our students to move in and around spaces and places at times that work for all of us. Let’s focus on our communities, and finding the ways that lead us all to our here and now, wherever and whenever that may be.
In this post I’m going to try and encapsulate some of my thoughts around what is happening just now in terms of tertiary education, the impact of #lockdown and the apparently all consuming online pivot. This post will hopefully augment and complement a webinar keynote I gave on 6th May for GMIT and their DigitalEd Discovery Series. Many thanks to Carina McGinty for inviting me and allowing me to share a virtual platform with the wonderful Sue Beckingham.
Some of these ideas come from conversations I’ve been having with colleagues across the sector and special thanks to Simon Horrocks, Kerr Gardiner and Louise Drumm for the conversations we’ve had recently.
When I hear or read the words online pivot, I can’t help but think of the Friends episode where “the gang’ are trying to move a sofa up a flight of stairs. Of course, all sorts of hilarity ensues as they try and turn a corner, leading to Ross yelling “pivot”, and no-one actually knowing where they have to pivot to. I think it ends with most of the gang walking away and leaving Ross and the sofa. I don’t think we ever really find out just how the sofa actually ends up in Ross’s apartment -but as this is just a TV show it doesn’t really matter. If it were real life, the sofa would either have got damaged/broken or Ross would have maybe hired some professional movers to get the job done.
But back to our current online pivot. I think that this episode or meme does help us think through some of the big questions around the so call online pivot in education. Crucially in terms of these questions: what is it that is being pivoted? Is it the curriculum, the institution? Our learning environments, our approaches to teaching and assessment? Our learning spaces? And, who is being pivoted? Our teaching staff? Our support staff? Our senior management? our students? Our communities? And does everyone know what their role is in this pivot? Or are they just hearing (seeing) someone constantly yelling “PIVOT” and not being actually sure of where they (or how) they are supposed to be pivoting they just end up walking away or in our cases not applying to uni/college this year or ever.
If all of the above are being pivoted then there needs to be some really consistent, clearly understood, accessible, inclusive, instructions for the start of the new “old” academic year for all students and staff. Although “the pivot” got the sector through the initial chaos of #lockdown, that just in time approach isn’t sustainable.
There a number of models out there. This article in Inside Higher Ed presents 15. These are very much based on the American model so a couple of them aren’t really that viable in Ireland and the UK. This article from Laura Czerniewicz also provides an very thoughtful, accessible overview of some of the wider pressures on the sector right now.
I’ve also been discussing various options with colleagues that I’m working with, as well as keeping half an eye on other things that people are sharing but it does seem to me that there is something missing, or perhaps just a bit too hidden, in the current discourse, particularly around our students. The pivot does seem to have been done to them and not with them. This is where why I think we need to start thinking more the about “the pivot” in terms of students.
Already we have 10s of thousands of our current students whose “student experience” has been totally disrupted. Exams in some cases have been cancelled, changed to perhaps open book exams which could be a very different experience, particularly when all submission is online. Access to stable wifi, labs, laptops, quiet and collaborative spaces on-campus has been abruptly ended, with no clear indication of when or if that will resume.
Whilst the vast majority of students do have some kind of mobile phone, they don’t all have access to their own laptops at home and with the wider context of lockdown they may very well be negotiating use of a family computer with multiple others – all of whom will have their own priorities. The what and how of student engagement is fundamentally changing and any model we adopt for future delivery has to be cognisant of that.
This week in the UK there has been raft of commentary in the media around the injustice of students in England being charged full fees, but not getting an “real” aka face to face teaching. Of course this highlights a general lack of understanding of what online learning is and the very real role of the teacher and wider development teams in successful online learning. That urban myth of online being second best is something that needs to busted – that conception that “good” tertiary education is exemplified by the lecture at the front of a large lecture theatre really does need to change, and we all have a role to play in doing that.
So I am proposing that one way to do that would be to develop some extended discourse around participation. Let’s talk stop talking about the as much about the online pivot and start talking about the participation pivot.
Let’s look at participation and what that means for our students and staff and see if we can use what is happening just now to gain back some time and breathing space for everyone. To do this, I think we really need to be starting by revisiting the notion of the student experience. It’s not going to be what it was for quite some time. The social aspect of college/university is gone for at least the rest of this year if not longer.
This is my starter for 10 on developing a model that allows us to work with students and allows our current context to be a key driver for our curriculum development.
For a starting point I’m suggesting we need to really look at the 1st year experience. We have a large group of young adults whose lives have been turned upside down. I’m sure many of you are living with that right now. Their exams have been cancelled, they’re dealing with “unusual” marking of class work to get their grades, the whole end of school rites of passage things have been cancelled – not trips away, no house parties, no opportunities to really become yourself, which is key aspect of growing up.
The research from about a decade ago now around the first year experience was about keeping students in first year. Just now it is more about getting students into first year. Why would you go to uni this year when things are so unsettled, you haven’t been able to complete the exams you thought you would ,when you might have to do that “online learning” and all the additional challenges that brings.
So we really need to have a major rethink about induction. It can’t be just one packed week of online webinars just showing how systems work, there’s not going to be a huge queue of students trying to get their library card, but we need to make sure that there getting user names and passwords is really easy and support is in place for that.
I think the whole induction notion needs to be extended into a wider change of focus take a more integrated long thin approach rather than the short fat model we are used to. I see this a part of a wider flipping of the curriculum and rethinking of digital and physical spaces and how, when and who interacts in them.
We need to start redefining and articulating what engagement looks like/is for between staff and students, between students and students and between staff and staff – research, teaching, support, management – everyone. For this to really happen I think there needs to be a refocus away initially for subject/discipline content to the development of digital capabilities. Of course there could a discipline focus here but really I think going back to induction the first term/semester should really be about getting students (and staff) comfortable and familiar with institutionally provided learning and teaching technology and their own “new” learning spaces.
There is a huge co-production opportunity here to work with students and getting their active input into how and when activities are best delivered. This could be done through a range of activities that focused on the reality of life for us all just now.
COVID 19 relates to every discipline, and every aspect of our life. We could use this time to develop critical thinking and research skills. Looking to critical pedagogy we could encourage our students (and staff) to critically engage with the current context of our society and education right now. What about some kind of communal, inter-disciplinary digital research methods module for 1st years? Encourage the development of data literacy skills in the context of the daily government briefings, to ensure students know how to interpret data and question and critique how data is presented to the public. In this scenario,
Library staff could be far better integrated into course/module development and delivery along with other support service staff. Get students to develop their digital scholarship capabilities much earlier, and encourage them to develop digital stories using a range of media, and really develop more reflective approaches to learning and assessment.
Also going back to physical spaces, there are going to be challenges in any return to campus, and use of our spaces in relation to social distancing. There may be opportunities for sharing of space between universities, but I think that there might be an opportunity for universities/colleges to work with the community a bit more here too and students should have a role in this too.
Our campuses are technology rich spaces with wifi (and a superfast network that isn’t being used to capacity right now). Given the inequalities that are being so clearly highlighted just now and the ever increasing reliance on digital interactions for every type of service, would it be possible to open some of our spaces to the community (with safe social distancing measures of course). I ca see some great student project opportunities here . . .working across disciplines, across years . . .
What about some of the huge ethical challenges we are facing around contact tracing and the using mobile apps or fast tracking vaccination research and human testing? I know I feel a sense of powerlessness around these issues and to be honest at times I feel just too overwhelmed, tired and scared to explore and critique more. But that’s what education is for. We need to be providing opportunities for our students to gain a sense of agency around these issues and the world we are all living in right now. To investigate, research, perhaps be part of research teams, to question to critique to develop alternative approaches, that kind of “real world” learning that in anytime is crucial. Let’s explore and develop our design approaches with our students and really learn together about what does and doesn’t work in terms of meaningful participation and engagement.
In terms of evaluation, our current module evaluation questions could now be next to useless. So why don’t we use students to actively evaluate the tech we are using? Work out together the affordances of each and combine with data/analytics, think about time online – how long do students want to be in live lecture? The balance of sync/async activities. We’re all experiencing zoom fatigue now so lets ensure the education sector is leading in developing and sharing best practice for new ways of working. Let our students go to employers with really effective, innovative was of working and communication effectively online and offline.
Taking this approach of course wouldn’t be comfortable or easy. But we can’t go back to business as usual – everything has fundamental changed. Why are we trying to replicate a system that is no long fit for purpose?
However what it might do would be to give us the time to develop a more nuanced understanding of what the student experience is now. Critique, evaluate that with our students, come to common, shared understandings of what participation means now, and how to ensure that we are supporting delivery relevant educational experiences to what could very well be a lost generation. Allowing them to be as fully equipped in terms of digital capabilities, reflective and critical thinking skills as they can be so that they can take the lead in how their society/ies develop in the (hopefully) post covid-19 world.