Over the past 9 months, we (as a sector) have adapted and translated our practice during these challenging times. Some things have been excellent, and many educators and students have suggested that some elements of practice may be better now than they were pre-pandemic. We have also seen some significant changes in how we use technology, for example, lecture recording is now (arguably) a sector norm.

With the vaccines now available for COVID19 it is likely that university campuses will become more open in the near future. This will inevitably mean that many of the classic teaching approaches we have moved away from (such as the large lecture) will be able to make a comeback. While this is clearly a good thing, we (as educators) will be faced with a number of challenges, the most pressing of which will likely define the sector for many years to come.

Specifically, as a sector, and as individual educators, we need to decide which parts of our current pedagogy need to be preserved, and what good practice we need to adapt for a post-COVID student experience.

Let’s start by agreeing that there will be no “going back to normal”… Whether we like it or not some things will never go back to their pre-COVID state. I believe we need to urgently shift the narrative towards deciding what traditional/pre-covid practices we want to bring back, what current practices we want to maintain, and areas we still need to improve.

Why won’t we just go back to ‘normal’?

We have learnt lessons, and changes in information will undoubtably lead to changes in process. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back in.

For example, consider how we use space. People who may have never had the capacity (or flexibility) to work from home before, may have discovered they prefer it. If that flexibility becomes something they value then roles will need to adapt to facilitate it… or departments may find themselves loosing talented colleagues. We have also seen many bluechip companies recognise this, and commit to enabling working from home in the future. Furthermore, many departments will have discovered that they can work well (or better) remotely.

Some of the adaptations have also been too big, and too sustained to enable easy transition back to an earlier state. Change (to use a metaphor) is often quite elastic; small changes will often snap back once people “let go” Either the novelty subsides, or if they environment stops supporting the change. Most people are able to think of a few initiatives that were quickly forgotten once they fell out of the sector/institutional spotlight.

The classic example for this is the interactive whiteboard. I remember training as a teacher when interactive whiteboards first came along. The initial novelty made them very attractive, and school leadership teams were very supportive of the new tech. Quickly classrooms across the country were adapted to the new technology. I remember teaching at one school where (over one summer) every classroom had been converted to interactive whiteboards…. however, within 4 months every teacher had stopped using them. The novelty wore off.

However, even elastic can be stretched so far that it will never go back to the way it was before. Some of the changes we have seen have just been too big, and we have now sustained them for almost nine months. People have invested significant time and effort into their adaptions (in some cases, rewriting entire programmes). For some, going back to the “old ways” will be as much, if not more effort than sticking with their current processes. People will often deviate to a path of least resistance, especially in higher education, a sector where people regularly not “time pressures” as one of their key concerns.

Finally, many of us simply won’t want to go back to the “old ways”, especially where we have found improvements in our innovation. Candle sales have never been the same since the release of the lightbulb. Some innovation is too good to ignore.

Why will this be the defining challenge of our time?

I’ve been arguing for some time that this challenge of (in essence) reinventing the sector will be the defining challenge of our time. I argue that it will be a strategically and logistically more complex than the challenge we faced when we first moved online at the beginning on the 2020 lockdown. I also believe that the behaviour change moving forward will define higher the future of higher education pedagogy – whatever we do, the sector will look very different post-COVID.

I don’t want to take anything away from the monumental effort that initial pivot (and the change that followed). This was one of the most disruptive event that has happened to the sector in the past 100 years. However, I would argue that we had the managerial tools in hand to respond to that crisis. Change is nothing new for Higher Education, we change and adapt all the time. We are often early adopters of educational technology, and have responded changing national priorities on an almost yearly basis. As a sector, we excel when we are innovating. Although the scale of the recent adaptations to practice have was unprecedented, we were able to rise to the challenge. In many ways, the first lockdown actually accelerated timelines of projects that were already underway, such as smaller group sizes, lecture recording, VLE updates etc.

So why will the next change be different? Surely the next part is just “Keep what we like, replace what we don’t”, and in essence this is the case. However, I think there are a number of key issues as to why it won’t be that simple.

How do we know what went well? Capturing reliable data to inform decision making is going to be exceptionally hard. For example, I have heard a few people report that students have said that they “preferred their lectures being online”. OK, but why? In my experience the response varies highly based on when you ask the student. For example, I REALLY preferred my meetings being online the day I woke up with a stomach bug – if you had asked me a different time my response may have been different. It is also worth noting that it is very difficult to abstract the question from the global crisis. Do they only prefer their lecture being online because they feel uncomfortable in public spaces at the moment? There are so many confounding variables that traditional surveys etc are going to throw a lot of useless data.

How will we find out about the best practice? There have probably been more teaching innovations in the past year than ever before. We will probably see a tsunami of papers in the new year. Sharing the best practice across the sector will be key to helping us shape the future. We will need to come together as a community in a larger way than we ever have before. Conferences, virtual events, and practice communities are going to be more essential than ever.

Arguments about Digital vs Face to Face are problematic. I am probably best known as a digital innovator, I love innovating with technology, it’s what I have done commercially and academically for the past 17 years. However, what I have never tried to do is say that tech is a replacement. In most cases you can’t really compare two interactions (one digital and one face to face) even if they appear to be analogues of each other. For example, an online lecture is an interesting engagement in its own right, it has some key advantages, but it is very different to a face to face engagement. It would be like trying to compare flossing with cleaning your teeth! Both should be evaluated and applied based on their own merits.

This is going to be a huge behaviour change challenge. There are some things that people have been willing to do in the sort term that they may not want to commit to long term. Consider lecture recording for example. Almost everyone is doing this now as a matter of course, but… go back a year, and this wasn’t the cast in many institutions. You only have to go back to January of this year to find this article on exactly that subject https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-i-wont-let-my-classes-be-recorded/ It is a reality that when restrictions are lifted, many of these arguments will resurface. Lecture recording is online one small example. Managing that, and ensuring that good practice is held onto will be a challenge for education leaders internationally.

People are exhausted. When the lockdown change first happened, people still had juice in their tanks. We then had a summer to prepare for the next year. But almost a year of lockdowns, and the increased workload pressures of new teaching modalities have taken their toll. Googling “tired teachers” brings up a whole range of articles and stories. Students across the sector have reported similar worries… social distancing, and social isolation has played havoc with peoples mental health. Asking people to plan for the future now seems impossible.

Student expectations will have been changed by their experience. Their experiences over the past year (and for however long restrictions continue) will have impacted their expectations of what they want from university, and how they want teaching delivered. For example, if a course has moved fully online (and has done well) one student may be keen to hold onto the online elements, while another may be eager to get back int the classroom.

How can we do it?

Hopefully, this article has gone some way towards arguing my point (I could go on and on, but I have tried to keep things short…ish). So what can we do?I’m going to try and break this down over a few blog posts over the next couple of weeks, starting with how we can identify the practices (or processes) we want to keep. I am going to argue that an innovation management approach can simply this.

I will also be putting forward a framework I have designed to help simplify this process – helping us to keep hold of the best while continuing to innovate. [update: I have written up that framework here]

Keen to hear your opinions on any part of this post. Leave me a comment if you have any thoughts.

3 Responses

  1. I feel that it is vital that teaching staff are given the ‘time’ to come together as course teams on a ‘regular basis’ to evaluate and plan. Trying to do this in isolation can result in panic and fatigue. Innovation can be stimulated when ideas are shared and discussed. Continued and in some cases increased investment in educational developers and digital learning technologists will help staff to step back and review their practice, and they can offer advice and guidance. Clearly this is nothing new but is not implemented consistently. This has to be built into work plans so that everyone is involved and can attend. To get the most from this investment of time, staff need to see the value that working together can bring. This will happen when course development is a shared and focused ongoing activity.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post; you express the situation very accurately Chris, and I think we do need to try to identify the elements we want to keep from this challenging period, and clarify what we need to bring back from ‘before’. I suspect that the inclination will be to revert to the old familiar without taking the thinking time to make sense of what we have learned. I think ironically HE is pretty poor at reflecting and consolidating – there seems to be a tendency to cling to what has worked in the past alongside getting excited about new ideas, but without creating space to really consider how it all works together. Sue’s comments about programme teams is a really important one for moving forward. In my view there are a number of big challenges (I am mentioning two, because I don’t want to write the longest comment ever!). The first you have noted is how tired everyone is, and that is not the environment for positive development. Second, and perhaps really really key, is that the sector is diverse – priorities are different in institutions, and processes vary quite widely. My hope of the best outcome here is for a small number of HE institutions (ideally from different sectors) to take a strategic positive management approach, with real vision – working with staff and students across their institution to build from here. The institutions that do this properly will be all the better for it. It will take targeted investment and that is going to be tricky given this has been a very hard year financially for some institutions. Given how disenchanted, as well as tired, a lot of staff are it will take sensitivity and some fancy footwork! If some institutions (with both research and teaching foci) do this, I think it will potentially create a bigger shift that could move the whole sector forward. But my worry is that this will be particularly tricky in a political context where there is little sympathy for, or support for diversity in HE. On the front-line there will be change, but I don’t think it will be enough without strategic leadership vision.

  3. And of course Chris expect me to bang on about how assessment has changed and how we mustn’t ever go back to considering unseen time constrained exams as default position. We have a new argument against those who see them is tried and tested: Their reliance on students being at a particular place for a particular length of time actually makes them too risky and to subject to contingencies for them to be regarded as the norm. Let’s use this opportunity to improve assessment in universities forever

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