I’m taking part in a Students Jury on Online/Pandemic Learning tomorrow. I’ve been asked to prepare some ideas about what students should keep in mind when formulating recommendations for how their department approaches these issues for autumn term in 2021:
- Online learning during the pandemic shouldn’t be taken as a model for online learning more broadly. These were unique circumstances in which a pivot towards online delivery took place in an emergency, in the absence of a pre-existing contingency plan and at a time of immense personal and institutional difficulty. The government’s approach to COVID-19 contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty due to repeated promises of an imminent return to normality, an unwillingness to cushion the financial blow to a sector heavily geared towards an on site model of delivery and a general reluctance to act proactively until measurable outcomes meant they had no choice. It took place against a background of deep instability within the sector, with two major industrial actions in the months before the pandemic hit. These aren’t conditions amenable to strategic planning and produced an inevitable ad hoc and adaptive orientation to what would have been an incredibly difficult transition even in the best of conditions. For this reason, we urgently need to find a way to step back and identify the principles which ought to govern our approach and consider how they could be implemented in practice.
- This means recognising how many staff are struggling to work under these conditions. There was already an epidemic of poor mental health within higher education before this crisis. What myself and Filip Vostal have written about as the Accelerated Academy already left many staff perpetually rushing, exhausted and struggling to keep on top of their jobs. At least 54% of academic staff and 49% of all teaching staff are on insecure contracts. The burden of that insecurity has only increased during the pandemic, with even securely employed staff across the sector now uncertain about the futures. There are no easy solutions to these problems from where we are but it’s crucial that we don’t allow the demands of the present moment to be passed onto frontline staff and blame them if things go wrong. Improved working conditions within higher education are a precondition for improved delivery and outcomes in online learning.
- There are technical aspects to this given how much the role of the academic has changed during the pandemic. The job suddenly involves the production of short form video content, engaging asynchronously online and facilitating video conferences every single day. While universities have offered training to support these activities, staff are already working vastly increased hours to keep up with demands placed upon them. This means that technical upskilling is effectively pushed into private time rather than training and support being recognised as a crucial element of academic workloads, particularly under current conditions. Furthermore, universities need to think about how this training is provided. Bringing people in to run one-off sessions is often of limited usefulness. We need to experiment with ways of providing training and support which are adequate to the unique challenges we face.
- There’s a vast inequality between staff in terms of working conditions and technical equipment. It’s much easier to do online learning as well if you have a quiet home office, with advanced equipment you’re familiar with. It’s much more difficult if you’re using an old laptop on a kitchen table while trying to home school. Universities need to recognise this digital divide amongst academic staff and take action to address it.
- We’re all struggling to adapt to new ways of working, under conditions which would have seemed like dystopian fiction only a year ago. The more we can find ways to recognise these converging experiences, bringing them into learning and reflecting on what we are learning from them, the easier it will be to get through this. We shouldn’t expect each other to be perfect and polished when learning under these conditions. The return to normality will be gradual and take place against a background of endemic COVID and the possibility of resurgent threat. There’s an opportunity for a more informal, humane and communal way of working together in universities which is something we could carry forward into the post-pandemic university. But without dialogue, experimentation and understanding we’re unlikely to achieve it.