This week I was delighted to join colleagues at the University of Worcester and give the opening keynote for the learning and teaching conference. My talk built on the themes I have been thinking about and talking about this year – mainly reflecting on what being and belonging at university (for students and staff) actually is and will be, the role of critical and public pedagogy within our curriculum. COVID 19 has impacted everyone and every discipline, we should harness that as well as our students lived experiences. We need to embrace uncertainty as we move forward. Whilst it is very tempting to wish for everything to go back to ye olde golde pre pandemic on campus day, our immediate future is still quite uncertain so flexibility is going to be key. After the year we have had, If now isn’t the time to radical change then I really don’t know when is. Remembering too that radical change can be comprised of relatively small pieces too.
Before I gave my talk yesterday, I spotted an article from the Irish Times reporting on a recent speech by the Irish President (Michael Higgins). He said:
“We have an opportunity in the wake of the Covid pandemic, with all its personal, social and economic consequences, to reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge; unbiased study that can yield insights that may be applied for the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition, and enabled to address our great challenges. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be squandered.”
I wish politicians the UK were as eloquent about the role and purpose of academia in its broadest sense!
You can access my slides with feedback here, and the basic deck here ; and for the all important image to this post, I did want to reflect on how quickly language has evolved over the past 15 months. So, here is word cloud of words and phrases that are now part of the delegates everyday vocabulary. I’m sure more than a few will be familiar to you too!
Earlier today,I was delighted to give the opening keynote for day 2 of GMIT‘s Digital Education Week. Despite not being able to all meet in person in Galway, it was fantastic to be able join so many people from across Ireland and the UK and be part of the event.
For my talk I wanted to reflect on what we have all experienced in the past year of living and learning through a global pandemic. To use the luxurious position of a keynote to ask some questions about our lived experiences, and what we need to think about going forward. I wanted to reflect on words like isolation, self isolation,solitary, quarantine. These words that are so commonplace now, but pre-pandemic were not really part of our everyday discourse and vocabulary.
What really struck me about the quotes I used at the start of my talk about solitude and being alone (and many others I didn’t use) is how out of time and context they seem right now. In all of them, there is a sense of almost noble sacrifice to solitude. Solitude is necessary for great (artistic) work. It’s as if they all had to justify the right to be alone, to be solitary to achieve greatness, and an enhance sense of self worth. In our present day context, that seems to me like a very distant, privileged concept from a bygone era. Enforced solitude is quite a different experience, as we all now know. It’s been hard enough to get out of bed sometimes, never mind reach the great heights of getting dressed!
The realities of living, working and learning from home are bound as much by our physical spaces as our digital ones. I used some of the recent work of Professor Lesley Gourlay to explore this a bit more and talk about the entanglements of our phsyical and digital worlds, and the assemblages we have had to create to “be” at university. Today I thought I might stand to give the talk ( I don’t do much standing these days, do you?) so I created my own assemblage of a lectern using an ironing board, and some boxes. All a bit meta, but actually it work so I might do that again!
The session was recorded so I will add a link to that when it is available, but in the mean time you can view my slides including feedback from participants here.
And here is a screen shot the wonderful sketch note of the talk by Maia Thomas.
Thanks to the Timehop app I was reminded today that a year ago I gave not 1, but 2 keynotes at Heriot Watt University. One was online, quite early in the morning for their Malaysia and Dubai campuses, the other a bit later in the day on the Edinburgh campus. Yes, dear reader, I was in a room with actual people in it who weren’t physically distanced!
The theme of new year resolutions was chosen to help promote and raise awareness of a digital learning initiative that the Learning and Teaching Academy were launching. How little we knew then about how much, and how fast things would change.
In my talk I talked about how to balance the at times seemingly “big” challenges strategy documents bring with the reality of doing seemingly small things, which can often make quite “big” differences in how you teach and how your students engage.
Obviously, a year ago I had no idea that we were actually on the cusp of a global pandemic. COVID 19 still seemed quite distant, mainly affecting China and some cruise ships. I had no idea how rapidly attitudes to digital learning would have to evolve. The LTA Team did an outstanding job last year of providing support with and for their teaching colleagues and students, particularly with their awarding winning project Supporting Student Learning Online . A fantastic set of openly available resources.
As Martha highlighted in her tweet, a huge amount was done in a very short time. There wasn’t really the luxury to focus on just one or two things, everyone had to get up to speed and online. Phil made a good point about big changes and small ideas.
Looking back at the slides and my notes, I think the overall sense of it is still ok, particularly the focus on humanity first. The importance of human contact and care has really been brought to the fore during 2020. Though, I still think we haven’t quite got there. I know of far too many friends and colleagues in HE whose default working day seems to have extended too long – both in terms of daily hours, and in terms of the length of time “all this” has lasted. A 15 hour day isn’t normal, isn’t sustainable and shouldn’t be expected. Neither should days filled with back to back online meetings. I also don’t think I explicitly mentioned equity in the talk, and I would definitely do that now.
I hope there is some time this year for reflection on what happened last year. I hope that there is an acceptance that “normal” is a very long way away, that there are some serious discussions about how to adapt now old curriculum to the current realities of our working/learning/teaching/living spaces and places.
So maybe instead of resolutions this year we all should be making sure we have time for some reflections about what we really should be taking forward this year.
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.