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.