srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

Digital agility: how a Humanities department’s pre-Covid strategy enabled lockdown operations

by Nathan Loewen

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

My department was ready for “2020”. Not because we anticipated a pandemic in 2019. Nor because our courses were all online. A more pertinent reason was the matter of brand identity. ‘Religious Studies’ is not a US high school subject. College applications rarely include religious studies as the planned major. To retain its place in the pre-COVID university, my department started making a shift in the study of religion over a decade ago (see Implicit Religion). Some of the tacit knowledge and skills base required for the post-pandemic university were cultivated in part by sharing the tasks of creating media that point to and from the department website.

Going Public Online

What does it mean for academia to be ‘online’ in the sense of being public? Some sort of stable, unified entity is probably essential for most academics to continue their employment. Solidarity can be found in all sorts of places. Most social theories explain, however, the fragility of allegiances without institutional structures. But if higher education institutions are in crises of enrolment (pre-2020), endowments, much less a pandemic, Quit-Lit might not be the best collective way forward. There’s an opportunity for departments to think about modalities of coalescence. This piece focuses on the practical advantages of a department going public online as a measure towards securing the futures of its academics. “REL,” the term used for the department, adopts claims from theorists like Francois Bayart to purposely fabricate its public identity.

The constituency of a university is not limited to students and their parents. The University of Nebraska English Department isn’t likely alone in the political scrutiny of their website. At REL, there is pointing back and forth between the website and the department’s Facebook, TwitterInstagramVimeo, and SoundCloud (as well as projects such as Culture on the Edge and American Examples). Service responsibilities for these platforms are distributed across the department. Elected representatives and the general public can easily find what’s going on in the classroom and faculty research. The University’s shift to ‘limited business operations’ on March 17 was handled in stride partly due to the department’s identity fabrication approach to online platforms and digital tools. While monthly meetings through the summer established a consistent approach to teaching remotely, the stable location to advertise this approach was already in-play.

Publicly pragmatic

The above suggests there are pragmatic advantages to going online in order to go public. While ‘public humanities’ has a 50-year history in the United States, principles discovered there haven’t made it to department websites. Content should be written strategically to develop an audience. Jessie Stommell’s remarks about public humanities may be applied to the departmental website: doing public work is different from making academic work public. Online presence may be more than quick blurbs about courses, images of plucky students and faculty bios with informal photos from faraway places. XKCD made this point a decade ago. Post-pandemic academic departments might reconsider its point

It’s not just that departments ‘need social media.’ Rather, establishing an online presence may help academics and their departments realize a public-centred pedagogy that pays off in strategic planning. There is likely a correlation between the potential to engage the public and cultivating positive relationships with university administrators. An active online presence and online teaching are rarely paired together. Administrators likely think that ‘going online’ likely means ‘online teaching,’ where conventional higher-ed wisdom sees online teaching as an alternate revenue stream critical to their long-term strategic plans (eg 2013 Babson Report).

Broadly speaking, that thinking structurally alienates academics. Online courses – and their revenues – are usually housed outside departments. Online FTEs are rarely counted in faculty course loads or promotion. In the 2020-2021 academic year, however, the term “massive” is no longer connected to “online” via wishful thinking for university revenues. Overcoming the 75% faculty resistance to teaching online isn’t a stroke of managerial genius or a book about disruption (I used to think I was innovative to urge making use of our classroom portals through collaborative, globally-networked pedagogy. That moment of novelty is over). The urgency of this semester is an opportunity for academics within departments to make use of their new skills to develop an active online presence that supports their teaching.

Hacking Education

How might the shift to remote teaching be gamed and hacked to drive the interests of a department? Audrey Watters’ Hack Education blog continually reminds us to take a critical approach to education and technology. One answer is to employ those new skills to shift emphasis towards a public-oriented, online pedagogical strategy. A useful location to do so is through the department website.

Individual scholarly websites are not likely to serve the long-term interests of post-pandemic academia. They do have the advantage of developing a personalised approach to research and teaching. When maintained with a regular workflow, there is much potential for dynamic content development that serves an individual’s teaching. Their liabilities include issues of narrow topical focus and significant costs of individual time and money. Department websites, on the other hand, have the same potential to situate all the above in a wider context of that can more easily reference each other. Additionally, departmental websites can be useful to protect its people who invest in public scholarship, too.

We will survive

When the shift to remote learning took place, REL’s faculty already had shared, basic skills applying their knowledge of critical cultural theory to web design, image manipulation, layout, audio and video production, network and cloud file sharing and collaborative project work. They were already teaching themselves and their students how to engage a variety of publics. The department had long been asking the questions posed in James M Van Wyck’s 2018 review of English department websites:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What does this page need to say and do?
  • What kind of writing is called for in the moment? That is, how do we engage a skeptical public, members of which walk our halls, perhaps as they consider majoring in [X area of study]?

The original objective of REL’s going online remains. The website is a resource to shape the department’s academic persona. Linking that site to other online platforms increases the ability to reach a variety of audiences with specific narratives. We now teach this approach as a core course in our recently-launched graduate program. By March 2020, that history of faculty participation in online, public pedagogy developed a collective knowledge and skills base that simplified the shift to remote teaching. The take-away here for other departments may be the importance of leveraging their websites as an internal strategy for academic continuity.

Nathan RB Loewen is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, USA. Loewen teaches on philosophy of religion, Asian studies, and digital/public humanities. Loewen co-organizes the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project. His current research applies machine learning to support qualitative scholarship on cross-cultural religious studies.


Leave a comment

Digital accessibility: meeting our ethical and legal obligations in the inter- and post-pandemic university

by Richard de Blacquiere-Clarkson

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

The question of how to apply the relatively recent web accessibility legislation to teaching materials is complex, as it was seemingly written without higher or further education in mind, and several key terms in the legislation are undefined. At University of Leeds we have rapidly developed an approach and guidance for colleagues regarding accessible teaching materials which we believe meets – and exceeds – the legislative requirements as well as modelling pedagogic good practice, and which has been received well within the institution. Our approach is by no means the only valid one, or even suitable for all contexts, but may prove helpful to those in the early stages of developing their own guidance or who wish to compare approaches across the sector. This blog post will give an overview of key decisions behind this work, which I was fortunate to be involved in.

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations (2018) are best understood as a continuation not only of the Equality Act (2010) but also the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), whilst adding some new elements. Reasonable adjustments remain, but are intended to be minimised by proactively developing more accessible materials in the first instance. Specific standards (WCAG 2.1 AA) for content were set, as well as deadlines for compliance and the need for an accessibility statement. Whilst one of the core values for University of Leeds is inclusiveness, and we have a policy commitment to ensure all learning and teaching practices, activities and supporting materials can be used by all, we face the same challenge all universities do in complying with the details of the new legislation.

Who benefits? Who loses?

Everyone, but in different ways. Students with diagnosed learning disabilities will hopefully already have been receiving reasonable adjustments, in practice there should be less of a burden on them to request changes. Students with undiagnosed learning difficulties are the biggest beneficiaries from this work, as more accessible materials should meet their needs better, whilst all other students will benefit from the greater flexibility and choice frequently offered by accessible resources.

Teaching staff have the opportunity to reflect on and develop their pedagogy, admittedly whilst needing dedicated support and development opportunities to do so. Not to mention the time commitment for learning new skills and updating existing content, hard enough when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic or (one day!) the aftermath.

What are we aiming for?

Compliance may be necessary but it is not sufficient for inclusive practice, and focusing heavily on achieving an arbitrary standard by a fixed deadline risks encouraging a tokenistic approach. Instead we hope to engage all teaching staff in a process of ongoing enhancement, albeit one which also meets our legal obligations in a timely way. Hearts and minds, not ticking boxes. 

That said, colleagues involved in the process of creating and revising teaching materials need something specific to work with, so we set a minimum baseline standard for all teaching materials which is a synthesis of the WCAG 2.1 AA standards plus good practice from across the sector and relevant professional bodies including JISC. This is expressed in FAQ style as a series of questions and answers based on issues raised by teaching staff in workshops, both for clarity and ease of comprehension and to incorporate more explanation than a list of rules. All teaching materials are in scope, including emails.

Our own legal advice is that this baseline exceeds legal requirements but it is essential that all institutions seek their own legal advice, not least because this legislation is so far untested in the courts.

Interpreting undefined terms in the legislation

Assuming that VLE spaces are treated as intranets, resources created before 23rd September 2019 do not need to be made accessible until they undergo “substantial revision”, whatever that is. Arguably this will vary by pedagogic approach and subject discipline, so we are interpreting this phrase at school level whilst providing a set of exemplars as prompts. Where the ideal balance between contextualised nuance and cross-institutional consistency lies remains to be seen.  It’s also worth asking if and when cumulative small changes to many documents trigger a substantial revision for a website or module. Do module or programme redesign processes trigger a wholesale substantial revision? I’d say yes, but there’s room to argue.

The legislation only applies to materials which are used for “active administrative purposes”, but what does that mean in the context of teaching and learning? Our view is that it applies to absolutely everything which a student is expected to engage with, or to be able to engage with. After all, if you are presenting material to a student as important but they cannot perceive or understand it, what message are you giving them? The exception would be module content from previous years which is available for students to look back on but is not being used in current teaching, this is classified as an archive and so legally exempt.

Difficult cases

By far the most common objection we have encountered is regarding alt text for complex diagrams – flow charts, scientific processes, mathematical expressions, graphs etc. This alternative text is required for students who cannot visually access the diagram, but it seems impossible to include all relevant details succinctly, and proactively creating detailed explanations for every diagram seems onerous and inefficient when they may not actually be accessed by any student. Our baseline requirement is to give a short description plus a standard statement to contact the module leader if they need further explanation. Compared to nothing this is an enormous improvement, and we think it is legally compliant, but is it good practice? There seems to be nothing like consensus across the sector here, with a fair few intellectual ostriches ignoring the issue entirely.

Pdfs are also problematic, challenging to edit even with suitable software and copyright issues abound where they are provided by publishers or other external bodies. Where the university or its employees own the copyright we are asking them to edit or re-create documents, ideally moving away from pdf due to its limitations for accessibility. Where copyright is held externally we are using links as far as possible, though this likely does not absolve institutional responsibility. As to how the conflicting demands of copyright and accessibility legislation will be resolved, it seems impossible to say and might just play out in court at some point.

Captions for audio-visual content including lecture capture are now automatically generated by software, and teaching staff are only expected to correct these in response to student requests. There’s potential for significant and inconsistent demands on staff, not least because some accents are better recognised than others. Some colleagues also feel the need to at least correct egregious errors up front, which has its own workload implications. No easy solution here either.

Looking forward

Facilitated workshops where colleagues bring examples of problematic teaching resources and work through them together have been exceptionally well reviewed. We are recruiting student accessibility interns to work in a number of faculties, with eight in place and already having a noticeable impact within weeks. Getting everything accessible is a slow process, realistically measured in years, but it’s good to have got the ball rolling. 

Richard has taught in inclusive educational settings for 13 years, with a particular focus on use of technology and supporting students with specific needs including dyslexia and autism. In his current role at the Lifelong Learning Centre, University of Leeds, he is responsible for the strategic development of digital pedagogies and hybrid/online learning, as well as accessible teaching materials.


Leave a comment

The creepy university: professorial zombies and Zoom zombies

by Jeremy Hunsinger

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

It is no longer our classrooms as creepy treehouses, but our universities have become creepy.  This paper argues that in the post-pandemic, we are faced with the creepy university.  The new normal of medical surveillance, social surveillance, involuntary publicity, and worse, combined with imposed technological choices and related issues, transforms and expands the creepy treehouse phenomena to encompass the whole university.  The post-pandemic university is creepy. Beyond that level of creepy, it is surrounded by various zombies perpetuating its creepiness. 

Contemporary ‘neoliberal’ universities in the post-pandemic are a shambling, groaning mess of dead bureaucratic impetus driven by the pandemic institution’s expired demands. The trajectories of the pandemic shamble onward through the action and inaction of non-faculty governance. Combined with that is the zombified information of dead lectures with their im/precise and de/contextualised knowledge published to various media sites by universities, professors, and students alike. They are the life of the occasionally found document, speaking their situated pandemic knowledges only when stumbled-upon. The post-pandemic university is full of mobilized knowledge that is perpetually escaping through a spectrum of fantastically good to fantastically horrible possibilities. As such, creepiness exudes, choices forced, choices unforced, have remade elements of the university outside of itself, dragging along as part of its new zombified self. 

A creepy treehouse is when a faculty member chooses a technology they prefer because of their history with it and forces the students, against their comfort, to use that technology in the classroom. The technology almost always has elements that creep the students out, such as invasions of privacy, surveillance, cultural difference, or otherwise. The creepy university is the future of the university. 

It is evidenced by the pervasiveness of the pedagogical form of life we find in our digital university environments, especially in Zoom environments. The Zoom Zombie, a person who is there, but not there; there is only the appearance of presence.  Zoom has become the killer app of the university’s remote administration, and shortly after it; it was introduced as the killer app of online lecturing.  Anyone who has participated in enough classrooms has seen classroom zombies, students who are completely turned off.  Similarly, Zoom zombies are prevalent both in online Zoom classrooms and in other meetings. The manifestation of this human response as not being ‘there’ in the face-to-face classroom has been extended to not be there in zoom meetings.

Nevertheless, Zoom Zombies are not the only elements of zombification of the university.  Neoliberal zombies are present along with their professional representatives.  But that is another argument. I want to present a few other forms of zombies. One is the professorial zombie, the professor or instructor who is physically and mentally exhausted, overburdened with their increasingly excessive responsibilities such that their capacity to act beyond the minimum necessary is limited. Their passion has waned, as has their reasoning combined with their capacity to perform their job due to increased workload and stress. The professorial zombies’ numbers are increasing, and they are not increasing equitably or fairly.  As one would expect, this zombification affects some minorities much more than others, and with that zombification, an increasing number of faculty are lost. Zombified faculty exist; you probably meet them every day. They learned to blend in, to hide their zombified state long ago, likely in graduate school.

Another type of zombification mentioned above briefly is the lesson or teaching period as zombified knowledge.  The knowledge produced and shared by the faculty is usually distributed online, out there and dead, but alive.  It might be outdated, it might have errors, it might be well done or not well done, it might be produced by the university, by the faculty member, or recorded by the students, but in any case, this knowledge is on the internet available for people to use and see.  Zombified knowledge almost certainly exists out of the context of the whole course.  It certainly exists outside of the maintenance and correction by the professor in the course. It is knowledge mobilized, not autonomously but by the public who find it, learn it and use it. It represents the university, much as the faculty member is some representation of the university. 

Teaching, as almost everyone knows, is a performance that relies on its audience for feedback. When we consider the zombies defined above, we can quickly see that the form of online education became creepy long ago. The university is full of zombies, and the zombies are creeping along stuck in their modes of existence, unable to do anything but what the zombie has done. This situation creates the creepy university, the post-pandemic university because it will take years to recover from the pandemic. It will follow many faculty until they retire, stories will linger even after all of the retirements, and the university’s relations to its members will never be the same. The post-pandemic university is one of overwork, surveillance, bureaucratization, automation, and in each of those a lack of consent by those participating in the form.

As more people are forced to participate in more uncomfortable and creepy experiences, more people become zombies. The professor becomes a face on a screen, perhaps a recording, the students are becoming a recording, or otherwise performing as a recording, a zombie. The online university needs to reconsider technological choice and inclusion more deeply to avoid becoming a creepy university full of zombies.

Jeremy Hunsinger is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.  His research is in critical internet studies and the politics of knowledge. He has been teaching university students online and off for over twenty years.