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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The post-pandemic panopticon? Critical questions for facial recognition technology in higher education

by Stefanie Demetriades, Jillian Kwong, Ali Rachel Pearl, Noy Thrupkaew, Colin Maclay and Jef Pearlman

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 authors’ statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic is vastly accelerating technology adoption in higher education as universities scramble to adapt to the sudden upheaval of academic life. With the tidal shift to online learning and increased pressure to control physical movement on campus, the use of surveillance technology for campus security and classroom monitoring may be particularly appealing. Surveillance methods of varying technological sophistication have long been implemented and normalized in educational settings, from hallway monitors and students IDs to CCTV and automated attendance and exam proctoring. Facial recognition (FR) technology, however, represents a fundamentally new frontier with regard to its capacity for mass surveillance. These increasingly sophisticated tools offer a veneer of control and efficiency in their promise to pluck individuals out of a mass of data and assign categories of identity, behaviour, and risk. 

As these systems continue to expand rapidly into new realms and unanticipated applications, however, critical questions of impact, risk, security, and efficacy are often left under-examined by administrators and key decision-makers, even as there is growing pressure from activists, lawmakers, and corporations to evaluate and regulate FR. Not only are there well-documented concerns related to accuracy, efficacy, and privacy, most alarmingly, these FR “solutions” largely come at the expense of historically marginalized members of the campus community, particularly Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour who already disproportionately bear the greatest risks and burdens of surveillance. 

Drawing on a range of scholarship, journalism, technology and policy sources, this project identifies known issues and key categories of concern related to the use and impact of FR and its adjacencies. We offer an overview of their contours with the aim of supporting university administrators and other decision-makers to better understand the potential implications for their communities and conduct a robust exploration of the associated policy and technology considerations before them now and over time.

Extending beyond their educational mandate, universities bear significant power to influence our collective future through the students they prepare, the insights they generate, and the way they behave. In light of this unique dual role of both academic and civic leadership, we must begin by recognizing the reality of deeply rooted systemic racism and injustice that are exacerbated by surveillance technologies like FR. Even in seemingly straightforward interventions using stable technologies, adoption interacts with existing systems, policies, communities, cultures and more to generate complexities and unintended consequences. 

In the case of facial recognition, algorithmic bias is well documented, with significant consequences for racial injustice in particular. Facial recognition as a tool perpetuates long-existing systems of racial inequality and state-sanctioned violence against Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, who are historically over-surveilled, over-policed, and over-criminalized. Other marginalized and vulnerable communities, including migrants and refugees, are also put at risk in highly surveilled spaces. Notably, facial recognition algorithms are primarily trained on and programmed by white men, and consequently have five to ten times higher misidentification rates for the faces of Black women (and other racially minoritized groups) than white men. The dangers of such inaccuracies are epitomized in recent examples of black men in Detroit being wrongfully arrested as a result of misidentification through FR algorithms.

With such substantial concerns around racial and social justice weighing heavily, the question then arises: Do the assumed or promised benefits of FR for universities warrant its use? We recognize that universities have legitimate interests and responsibilities to protect the safety of their students and community, ensure secure access to resources, and facilitate equitable academic assessment. Certainly, FR tools are aggressively marketed to universities as offering automated solutions to these challenges. Empirical evidence for these claims, however, proves insufficient or murky – and indeed, often indicates that the use of FR may ultimately contradict or undermine the very goals and interests that universities may be pursuing in its implementation.

With regard to security, for instance, the efficacy of FR technology remains largely untested and unproven. Even as private companies push facial recognition as a means to prevent major crises such as school shootings, there is little evidence that such systems could have prevented past incidents. Studies of other video surveillance systems, such as closed-circuit television (CCTV), have also found little effect on campus safety, and extensive research on school security measures more broadly likewise challenges assumptions that increased surveillance materially improves safety.

As to FR’s advantages for monitoring learning and assessment, researchers have found that an overreliance on standardized visual cues of engagement—precisely the kinds of indicators FR depends on—can be ineffective or even detrimental, and there is further evidence that excessive surveillance can erode the environment of trust and cooperation that is crucial to healthy learning environments and positive student outcomes.

Significantly, the adoption of these technologies is unfolding in a context in which institutional capacity to manage digital security risks and privacy concerns is already strained. Indeed, the recent shift to online learning with COVID-19 exposed many of these vulnerabilities and shortfalls in both planning and capacity, as in, for instance, the unanticipated phenomenon of Zoombombing and widespread privacy and security concerns with the platform. In the case of FR, the high level of technical complexity and rapid pace of development make it all the more challenging for security measures and privacy policies to keep pace with the latest applications, risks, and potential liabilities. Furthermore, the systems and processes underlying FR technologies are extraordinarily opaque and complex, and administrations may not have the sufficient information to make informed decisions, particularly when relying on third party vendors whose data policies may be unclear, unstable, or insufficient.

The pandemic has ruptured the business-as-usual experience of campus life. In doing so, it impels a painful but necessary moment of reflection about the systems we are adopting into our educational landscape in the name of security and efficiency. In this moment of crisis, higher education has a collective opportunity – and, we argue, civic responsibility – to challenge the historical injustice and inherent inequalities that underlie the implementation of facial recognition in university spaces and build a more just post-pandemic university. 

Stefanie Demetriades (PhD, USC Annenberg) studies media, culture, and society, with a focus on cultural processes of meaning making around complex social problems.

Jillian Kwong is a PhD Candidate at the USC Annenberg School for Communication studying the evolving complexities tied to the ethical use, collection, and treatment of personal data in the workplace.

Ali Rachel Pearl teaches writing, literature, and cultural studies as a Postdoctoral Fellow in USC’s Dornsife Undergraduate Honors Program.

Noy Thrupkaew is an independent journalist who writes for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Reveal Radio.

Colin Maclay is a research professor of Communication and executive director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC.

Jef Pearlman is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Intellectual Property & Technology Law Clinic at USC.


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Work-based learning and assessment during Covid-19

by Nick Mapletoft and Andy Price

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 authors’ statement can be found here.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an insight into how an alternative provider of higher education, an English private university centre (University Centre Quayside (UCQ)) specialising in work-based learning (WBL), continued to deliver to degree apprentices throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. WBL is a particular branch of higher education that is based upon work and should benefit the employer, which in itself creates tensions. The post considers the impact on apprentices, who work for different employers throughout England including NHS frontline workers, through remote tutorials and remote assessment. It also considers varying employer responses from abandoning or postponing apprentice starts, to maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job training for staff on furlough and starting a programme in specific response to the pandemic.  

UCQ delivers its fully integrated Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship (CMDA) and BA Hons in Professional Management via a modular approach, with subject specific modules lasting seven weeks. Each module consists of two days of taught sessions delivered by a Module Lead with up to twelve students in attendance, supported by one to one tutorials and work based assessment via a Professional Development Assessor. Whilst for most students the university campus is an inspiring and invigorating place to learn, it is not uncommon for WBL students to do most of their learning at work, or at a business venue. Up until February 2020 all taught sessions were delivered face to face at venues throughout England, tutorials were often conducted remotely, work-based assessment was undertaken at the employer’s premises.  

When the Covid-19 situation started to unfold, UCQ began successfully transitioning to 100% online delivery through the principles of user centred design (ease of use), Human Factors and agile team working. The curriculum itself was largely unchanged, however different pedagogical techniques were necessary to better facilitate online delivery. Module Leads continuously improved online delivery through an iterative process of continuous feedback  from students and their employers. 

For the delivery of remote lectures, UCQ initially set up additional GoToMeeting accounts, avoiding Zoom due to published security breaches. Some client (employer) firewalls prevented students from joining GoToMeeting sessions, and student feedback requested more virtual small group working and more interactivity between the learners (as we would expect in a normal physical learning environment). Scholars continue to debate the importance of the social setting and interaction on an individual’s learning, with classrooms typically being focused on some social interaction. Replicating a synchronous learning model with strong social and personal interaction is however one of the hardest aspects to replicate on-line. Microsoft Teams was considered to be the best solution to facilitate the desired interaction. All UCQ staff and students now have Microsoft Office 365 accounts including Teams. Teams benefits from additional privacy settings to obscure the background, where there was a potential safeguarding implication with children being home schooled through the lockdown and the Summer. The same technology was used to capture work-based assessments, for example observing a CMDA student chairing a virtual meeting.

Apprentices’ employers were impacted by Covid-19 in different ways depending on their market sector and the attitudes of their leaders. Those in the hospitality and some service industries were unable to work from home, with staff put on furlough. UCQ sought to continue to engage furloughed staff in the CMDA programme, maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job activities. One large employer in facilities management embarked upon a national apprenticeship promotional campaign to extoll the advantages of apprenticeships to their furloughed workforce. Other employers aborted their enrolments, some because the pandemic resulted in uncertainty or loss of staff, others, for example in logistics, because they became too busy as a result of an increase in workload. Some potential students postponed their enrolments whereas some accelerated their applications as they saw their employer investing in them for the next 40 months as a reassurance.

UCQ’s students have managerial responsibilities which they needed to maintain during Covid-19. This meant that they faced challenges studying as a degree student, whilst simultaneously facing new tensions in their professional existence. As working from home was adopted by those that could, our managerial students needed to adopt new virtual team leadership roles. Anecdotally students started to show a heightened interest in academic areas of leadership and remote working, quickly developing new managerial skills in response to the Covid-19 situation. A core principle of the CMDA being the relating of theory to practice, meant that students now needed to grasp the issues created by Covid-19 as they emerged. Some students fed back to UCQ staff that the CMDA programme had provided a welcome  intervention and stimulating area of focus throughout the pandemic. Others described how the skills and knowledge they had acquired were helping them to cope as managers through rapid application, contextualisation and critical reflection of new skills and knowledge. 

Some students asked for further consideration but there was no formal grading safety net and all modules still needed to be completed in full and on-time to ensure progression, as the CMDA standard needed to be met in full. However, a core principle of the UCQ CMDA delivery is to work with students in terms of the pressure of their extant management roles on their academic responsibilities and to have a responsive and flexible approach to successful assignment completion. This would also include a fair and equitable response to any issues of grade erosion. Close monitoring of attainment showed an overall increase in assignment marks and a continuous improvement in progression.

In an attempt to understand the effect on students, UCQ sought student feedback at the start of the pandemic and then after six months, whilst closely monitoring results and progression. Feedback showed a high level of satisfaction in the UCQ experience, with many students preferring the remote delivery model as it saved them travel time and expense, it also resulted in UCQ staff being easier to contact as they were no longer travelling long distances.

Summary of key findings

There are substantial differences in the way that employers have responded to the pandemic and the resulting effect on their investment in staff learning and assessment. Apprentices have responded differently too, with some having withdrawn from the programme, some postponed their start date, some have taken a break-in-learning, whilst the majority report to have been better able to focus whilst working from home and to have found studying on the CMDA a positive distraction (from Covid-19) and professional support in their new ‘crisis’ management roles.

Nick Mapletoft holds a professional doctorate from the University of Sunderland, and graduate and post graduate qualifications in computing, leadership and management, business and enterprise, and education. His post-doctoral work centres on work-based learning (WBL) approaches and pedagogies, and the WBL university. He is the Principal and CEO of the University Centre Quayside, an approved boutique provider of higher education via degree apprenticeships.

Andy Price has over twenty years’ experience in higher education and is presently Programme Leader for the CMDA at UCQ. He has held various academic and leadership roles elsewhere in the sector including Head of Enterprise Development and Education at Teesside University and Assistant Director of the Institute of Digital Innovation. Andy is a long-standing champion of work-based learning and has led significant curriculum development in this area


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Pandemic and post-pandemic HE performance in Poland, UK and Ukraine

by Justyna Maciąg,  Mateusz Lewandowski, Tammi Sinha, and Tetiana Prykhodko

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 original  statement can be found here.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have had to change their delivery and ways of working at incredible speed. The disruptive innovation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is having profound impacts on all stakeholders of HEIs. This study reports on the results of the project which has brought together 3 perspectives from Poland, the United Kingdom and the Ukraine. The purpose was to evaluate and compare the performance of Universities during this period. Performance is understood as assessment of support given by a University to its stakeholders in the following spheres: organisational, technical, technological, competency and social. This study will contribute to better understanding the context of value creation by Universities during the pandemic and post-pandemic period.

We took the perspective of HEI stakeholders into consideration (students, academics and administrative staff). Their opinions and comments were collected by interviews in the form of an online questionnaire with some open questions. We intended to give them a space to share their perspectives, emotions and feelings caused by the lockdown. The questions carried out thematic analysis around the following issues: 1) organisational (planning and communication); 2) technical, (platforms available, teaching methods); 3) technological, (bandwidth, equipment); 4) competency (your own learning and comfort with online learning); 5) social conditions (your environment for study) of higher education experience within the current COVID-19 pandemic and follow up research post-pandemic. The surveys started in the middle of June 2020 and continued till October 2020. Sampling followed the snowball method. Participants were self-selecting with links shared for the online Microsoft forms and Google questionnaires. 

We collected 396 questionnaires, 296 students, 100 university staff and academics (240 in Poland, 133 in Ukraine, 24 in UK). We would like to thank all of our participants for their contribution and candour.

First we would like to start with some qualitative analysis of students and staff responses in the questionnaire. The open questions were used to diagnose their experiences related to measures taken by Universities during lockdown. They were also asked to highlight the most and the least effective  solutions offered. We decided to use an Ishikawa Diagram to analyse the possible causes for their most and least solutions identified. We analysed the factors around the COVI19  problem in order to provide insights and possible solutions for an effective and thriving  ‘post-pandemic University’.

We grouped responses under headings showing below in the Ishikawa Diagram.

Chart 1 Ishikawa Diagram

There are some obvious similarities between these countries and some differences. We draw a conclusion that in each country the situation was similar, the teaching-learning process was transferred into our Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), and staff started remote or hybrid work (both academics and admin staff). The difference was notably the mechanism of this change: in the UK it was deemed more incremental change, in Ukraine and Poland the change was more radical. The proof of this is that in the responses in Poland and Ukraine respondents indicated several solutions which aren’t coordinated and supported by the Universities (i.e. using a social media for teaching-learning process, lack of integration of different e-learning platforms). Whereas in the UK many Universities used VLEs as ‘business as usual’. 

The common themes identified for research in investigated countries were the expectation of support in different areas, not only in a teaching-learning process, but also in equipment (provision, repairs), financial aid, mental sphere, and competence development etc. The findings implied that the expectations of the students and staff support needs were not fully met at this time. Universities were in survival mode and the change management process was lacking in many areas.

Next, we analysed the background given by quantitative analysis of University performance in the technical, competence and organisational sphere (evaluation was carried out using a 5-point Likert scale). The results of research in each country are shown on Chart 2.

Chart 2 Evaluation of the support given by university during lockdown (Poland, Ukraine, UK)

We also investigated the need of support and help provided during the pandemic period studied. The results are presented in Chart 3.

Chart 3 Percentage of respondents who declare that they need support or help

The results of research showed that ‘University’ is mentioned the most, as the expected supporter for students and staff, both academics and administrators. The importance of social support also has appeared in our results. People are looking for assistance among colleagues, thus creating a proper, strong internal social relationship is valuable for them. 

Table 1 The frequently mentioned sources of support

Our key conclusion from this work, at this time, is the importance of support and setting expectations of what support is available in HEIs. We  draw a key finding that the understanding of value delivered by ‘the University’ has to change, and leave behind the neoliberal concept of value for money. We need to expand the understanding of value, taking into account the necessity of tolerance perceived inefficiencies within the university. University staff and students have had to adapt very quickly, and use all of their skills and tenacity to deal with this situation. Creating and co-creating value within universities has always been challenging, however the creativity of staff and students has pulled this sector through it. We have all had to become disruptive innovators.

Justyna Maciąg, PhD,  and Mateusz Lewandowski, PhD, are lecturers and researches in the Institute of Public Affairs at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland. 

Tammi Sinha, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Operations and Project Management, Director of the Centre for Climate Action, University of Winchester UK. Tetiana Prykhodko is Head of the Program of Analysis and Research,  City Institute at Lviv, and a PhD student at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine.


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The varieties of online learning experiences

by JJ Sylvia IV

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. JJ Sylvia’s statement can be found here.

In the spring of 2020, K-12 and higher education classes around the world shifted online in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Both students and instructors were forced to quickly adapt to these circumstances even though many had never previously taken an online course or taught an online course. Throughout spring and summer, data collection and reporting suggested that students were not happy with this transition online and may not return for the fall semester if courses were not in person. University administrators faced a difficult balancing act between protecting the health of students, faculty, and staff, and making sure that dropping enrolment did not financially devastate universities. 

For this presentation I will share the results of this process at my institution, Fitchburg State University. As of 2019, there were approximately 3,400 undergraduate students and 1,200 graduate students. Approximately half of the undergraduates normally live on campus. The graduate programs are largely online masters programs. This analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of the following data: a survey sent to all students just before the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=2760); an end-of-semester feedback survey for my classes at the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=12); feedback collected from faculty members about their technology needs by the faculty union and members of the Technology Advisory Committee; feedback collected by peer mentors from all first-year students in October 2020; and individual conversations with students and advisees.

In the campus-wide survey, 69.7% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the university had done a good transitioning to the remote delivery of learning and services in response to COVID-19. Students reported that their class content was delivered via online synchronous classes (60%), online asynchronous (75%), conference call (8%), email (46%), and other (5%). Totals are greater than 100% because students could select multiple options. I served as a member of our university’s Technology Advisory Committee, and one concern that was raised repeatedly by faculty members was that some classes faced larger hurdles in being adapted for online teaching, which included art courses (including film/video and game design) and science labs. For this reason, we included a survey question for students about how easy it had been for them to perform a variety of assignment types online. The results are presented in Figure 1. 

Student responses generally reflected faculty concerns, in that writing and quiz-based assignments were easier for students than more project-based assignments. In my own student evaluations, I solicit feedback about specific tools and strategies that worked well for students across all of their classes. In responding about specific tools, the vast majority of students thought that the social annotation tool used for course readings (which in my class was already in use before the pandemic) was what worked best. This was followed closely by Zoom and Google Meet with some disagreement in preference over these two platforms. In terms of strategies, most students reported that having optional synchronous check-ins was the pedagogical strategy that worked best for them, while several reported preferring synchronous and asynchronous approaches. This response was perhaps the most surprising to me, as I held optional synchronous sessions for my classes, and only about 2-4 students per week (out of about 75) attended these sessions.

Several questions were geared toward planning ahead for the fall semester. The campus survey asked students which factors were having an influence on their thoughts about whether or not to return in the fall semester. The highest-ranked results were financial concerns (40%), uncertainty with what the university is doing (38%), quality of academic experience in the spring semester (35%), change employment (31%), and fear of taking online classes (31%). Students were able to select more than one option, allowing it to total to greater than 100%. Qualitative comments also indicated that most students supported face-to-face instruction over remote instruction. This feedback, along with national reporting, guided the administration’s planning to include in-person classes for the fall. In my student evaluations, I asked students what advice they would give their professors for the fall semester if some or all of the classes needed to be taught online. The following were representative comments:

  • “Other classmates have poor or no internet at their homes and have to find places to do their work, or live in toxic environments which may affect how much work that they can do at home and don’t feel comfortable disclosing that information to their professors.”
  • “Be patient with us, we’re trying to balance our personal lives with school, and it’s much harder when it’s all online and our situation at home isn’t the greatest. If we’re used to being in a real classroom and suddenly throw into 100% online classes, bear with us. We know you’re learning too.”
  • “Be flexible. Online learning is very difficult for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.”

I should note that, while the university was not able to provide tools to every student, it did secure enough Chromebooks and hotspots to meet the needs of every student who made such a need known. These were loaned to students at no-cost. 

Guided by this feedback, faculty were given wide discretion in choosing how to offer courses for the fall semester. Several new distinctions were created to allow for greater flexibility in course offerings and encourage even partial in-person offerings. Previously classes were designated as being in-person, online, or hybrid. For the fall, “online” was designated to mean fully asynchronous, while the category of “onsync” was added for fully online courses that would require synchronous attendance via video. Finally, “hybrid” was expanded to encompass several different approaches, which included options such as:

  • Everyone attending in-person one day per week and online the other day
  • Half of the students attending in person on one day and onsync the other day, alternating days
  • Allowing students to choose on a class-to-class basis whether to attend in-person or onsync. 

Faculty were also able to develop additional approaches to hybrid options if those worked better for them. In partnership with our IT department and the Center for Teaching and Learning, faculty-led professional development on digital tools and pedagogy was held throughout the summer. While helpful, these sessions did sometimes highlight competing tools. For example, Blackboard has been the standard learning management system for the university for many years. However, in the fall of 2019, we transitioned to the Google Education platform for email and the rest of the G Suite tools. This opened the option to use Google Classroom in addition to or instead of Blackboard, and many faculty members had plans to try this new tool for the first time in the fall of 2020.

There is evidence that suggests additional scrutiny may need to be given to results that showed a student preference for in-person learning. While students certainly have that preference, it is not clear that this preference was expressed with a full understanding of what socially distanced and hybrid classrooms would look like in practice or of what the public health would look like in the fall. As we approached the beginning of the fall semester, many faculty reported receiving emails from students asking if they could complete in-person or hybrid classes completely remotely. Although only anecdotal evidence has been collected on this issue, it does suggest that perhaps while many students do ultimately prefer in-person learning, they do not prefer it in the limited manner that is possible during an ongoing pandemic. Further research that delves deeper into the question would be helpful. 

This semester, student feedback from freshman via peer mentors as well as informal feedback I’ve collected from upperclassmen indicates that somewhat overwhelmed students are struggling with managing the wide variety of different tools and platforms being used across their classes. For example, there remains confusion about when classes are meeting online versus in-person and where to access links for these meetings. Some have reported that these plans have changed with short notice as well. Other students reported difficulty accessing e-books, online videos, and other tools because of software conflicts. For asynchronous courses, some students felt they lacked support.

In conclusion, because students expressed a strong preference for in-person learning, we opted for maximum flexibility that would allow those professors who were willing to do so to offer some in-person instruction. However, this led to an array of options that continue to be confusing to students. This expansion of services that needs monitoring by students is layered on top of an already scarce attention economy. Even before the pandemic, students reported that the amount of email that they received from various individuals, organizations, and clubs across campus was too much to properly manage. Now, students are facing uncertain and challenging circumstances during a pandemic that continues unabated in the United States. 

At the same time, they are by necessity learning to manage an array of new platforms and tools, while also adapting to time-management strategies that require even higher self-regulation. While most instructors are able to choose one set of tools and deploy those across all of their courses, students are navigating a vast array of platforms and tools that create a variety of online learning experiences that adds to the amount of information that must be learned and managed. This suggests that in the future, some attention should be given to the tension between faculty’s academic freedom to select tools and the difficulty students face in learning and using multiple tools and learning management systems while simultaneously juggling stress related to learning from home. It is also worthwhile to revisit student preferences for online vs. in-person learning in light of their experiences in the fall and the ongoing pandemic.


JJ Sylvia IV is an Assistant Professor in Communications Media at Fitchburg State University. His research focuses on critical data studies, the philosophy of communication, and digital pedagogy. Using the framework of posthumanism, he explores how the media we use contribute to our construction as subjects. He brings an affirmative and activist approach to contemporary data studies that highlights the potential for big data to offer new experimental approaches to our own processes of subjectivation. He lives in Worcester, MA with his wife and two daughters


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Balancing courage and compassion in research-based learning

by Helen Walkington

This blog was first published by Teaching-Focused in HE: the GEES Network, a teaching-focused network for Geography, Earth and Environmental Science academics, and it is reproduced with their permission. Helen Walkington is co-convenor of the SRHE Academic Practice Network.

In Tuesday’s ‘Environmental Hazard Management’ class, live on Zoom, I did a little experiment with my students. In one hand I held a juggling ball (new lockdown skill) and in the other a very ripe tomato. I said that developing resilience is a key concept in disaster management. I asked “If I squeeze the juggling ball and the tomato, which do you feel would best demonstrate a resilient response?” Of course, in wanting them to engage, I asked if they would like me to enact the thought ‘experiment’ (cereal bowl and kitchen roll under the desk at the ready). Once the juggling ball bounced back and the tomato went almost everywhere except the bowl, I made my point about the longevity of tomato seeds and different, sometimes unexpected types of resilience.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having chosen an academic career, at least in part, because I value autonomy. The freedom to pursue research that I find interesting, to advance a discipline that I feel passionate about, and to help share this journey with my undergraduate students is energising, even if it ends up being quite messy at times. In Higher Education we have a relatively high degree of control over how we provide learning opportunities to our students. When tasked with teaching ‘research methods’ for instance, we can choose whether to do this by providing lectures, or directing students through research projects so they can ‘learn by doing,’ or offering even greater freedom to learn by allowing students to take control of generating research questions, designing and carrying out investigations themselves. We probably deliver all three approaches progressively, as a team, across the course of a Geography, Earth and Environmental Science programme. 

Working with students who are engaged in research, sometimes for the first time as undergraduates, is always going to be a careful balancing act. On the one hand, offering students the freedom to pose their own research questions, with the associated authenticity of potential failure, might be considered a courageous pedagogy. On the other hand, we have to consider how students might react to having made mistakes, and be compassionate as they grapple with the potential for creating new knowledge (either new to themselves or new to society) through discovery. Learning by doing research requires emotional investment and resilience, an experience which unites staff (faculty in the US) and students. We can perhaps empathise with students because we share this experience with them, even though we are in a different position, ultimately being judged on the way we communicate our research. For me the cognitive involvement, emotional buy-in and desire for students to succeed has shifted my practice of dissertation and independent study supervision into mentoring. I am acknowledging the ‘whole student’ (Hill et al, 2019).

This aligns very much with Thiry and Laursen (2011), who suggested that academic (faculty) mentors to undergraduate researchers perform three supportive roles: professional socialization, intellectual support and personal/emotional support. These complementary supports acknowledge the importance of working with students to explain why they are engaging in research, supporting their cognitive development, but also acknowledging their emotional needs. The need for a balance between courage and compassion in our practice is clear. However, add to this balancing act escalating concerns about declining levels of student wellbeing (IPPR, 2017) and we begin to appreciate the weight of responsibility for successfully maintaining the balance in our own practice between courageous pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy. Can we still judge securely how far we can draw students ‘to the edge of their ability’ (as one expert mentor put it) and challenge them, when they are self-isolating in student accommodation and can’t collect physical data, get onto campus or access the library? (Using a metaphor, maintaining this balance might feel like walking a tight rope, but if you’ve been working on your balance through yoga during lockdown, then let’s say it’s across Niagara gorge, just to make you feel more alive). By providing all three of Thiry and Laursen’s supports as a research mentor, we hope to open a productive, liminal space for contemplation to our student mentees. My hope is that my students will connect their learning and knowledge production to their values, personal sense of meaning, as well as their relationship to the world around them. 

Learning is an emotional journey, particularly in research mode. The research cycle throws up sticking points and challenges at different (usually inconvenient) times in the research process. (perhaps a large knot in the tightrope, or a sudden gust of wind). This doesn’t just impact our student mentees, but us as research mentors as well. While supervising research prioritises research products (eg the student’s dissertation, group report, journal article) and content (new geographical knowledge), mentoring personalises learning and makes it meaningful and important in shaping the learner’s own esteem and identity, which may impact career aspirations and life chances. 

The benefits of undergraduate research are well established for students, including the development of critical thinking, enhanced degree outcomes and student retention, making it a ‘high-impact practice’ (Kuh, 2008). It is not enough to just make students ‘do a dissertation,’ effective mentoring is central to accruing these benefits. Over the last five years, I’ve worked with a team of researchers to try to work out why, exploring specifically which types of mentoring practice are effective. Our large-scale literature review resulted in Ten Salient Practices (Shanahan et al, 2015; and summarised in Table 1) which are effective regardless of national context, type of higher education institution or discipline. We’ve since completed 32 detailed research interviews on what award-winning mentors from around the world actually do, including strategies to engage students in research, retain their interest through appropriate challenge, and celebrate success (Walkington et al, 2020). One example is supporting students in publishing their research findings through, for example, research journals like GEOverse. Importantly, mentored research opportunities at undergraduate level have been found to confer particular benefits on underserved student groups (Finley and McNair, 2013). As they help all students to succeed, I would argue that these undergraduate research opportunities have the potential to enhance student wellbeing. Indeed, since effective mentoring of students involves getting to know them on a deeper level, recognising their work and valuing them as individuals, this knowledge of the ‘whole student’ is a fundamental underpinning of an inclusive approach. 

1.     Do strategic pre-planning in order to be ready to respond to students’ varying needs and abilities throughout the research process.
2.     Set clear and well-scaffolded expectations for undergraduate researchers.
3.     Teach the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline.
4.     Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students.
5.     Build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and any other members of the research team.
6.     Dedicate time as well to one-on-one, hands-on mentoring.
7.     Increase student ownership of the research over time.
8.     Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline.
9.     Create intentional, laddered opportunities for peers and “near peers” to learn mentoring skills and to bring larger numbers of undergraduates into scholarly opportunities.
10.      Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing.

Table 1: Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentoring

(Shanahan et al, 2015; Walkington, 2020)

However, the Covid–19 pandemic threatens to challenge the benefits of research-based learning. An undergraduate Geography student, alongside a doctoral student and several faculty members have researched the impact of Covid-19 on access to (and thus the benefits from) undergraduate research opportunities. With data from 18 institutions in the USA, they found that COVID-19 reduced access to research experiences*, reduced student access to technology and specialist research spaces, as well as interrupted face to face mentoring (Trego et al 2020). Clearly significant changes are required in approaches to data collection for it to remain safe for student researchers to continue to engage actively in research under these challenging circumstances. Understandably, in some instances there are topics that universities have declared ‘off limits’ due to their sensitivity. However, it is still possible to mentor students. It is possible to connect to students and provide the three forms of support that Thiry and Laursen outlined. 

To be resilient to unexpected changes, such as Covid-19 has posed, we need to embed research experiences that are inclusive of all students within the curriculum, rather than having selective research opportunities at risk from (hopefully!) short term changes in circumstances. We can democratise engagement with research and make it an entitlement, but to ensure effective learning outcomes for each and every student, we have to demonstrate our pedagogic resilience through a commitment to the ongoing balancing act of courage and compassion.

*In the US research opportunities for undergraduates are sometimes embedded in the curriculum, but are also provided as co-curricular opportunities such as summer projects.

Helen Walkington, PhD, NTF, PFHEAis Professor of Higher Education at Oxford Brookes University, UK where she teaches geography and carries out research into higher education pedagogy. She has written and presented widely on research-based learning strategies and mentoring excellence. Helen is a qualified career development coach and co-convenes the SRHE Academic Practice network.

References:

Finley, A and McNair, T (2013) Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Kuh, G,  2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Hill, J, Walkington, H and Dyer, S (2019) ‘Teaching, learning, and assessing in Geography: foundations for the future’, in Walkington, H, Hill, J, and Dyer, S (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484

Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2017) “Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities.” Available at https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees [Accessed on 12/05/20]

Shanahan, J, Ackley-Holbrook, E, Hall, E, Stewart, K, and Walkington, H (2015) ‘Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature’ Mentoring and Tutoring 23 (5): 359-376 

Thiry, H, and Laursen, SL (2011) “The role of student–advisor interactions in apprenticing undergraduate researchers into a scientific community of practice’ Journal of Science Education and Technology 20: 771–784

Trego, S, Nadybal, S, Grineski, S, Collins, T and Morales, D (2020) ‘Initial impacts of Covid-19 on Undergraduate researchers at US universities.’ [online] accessed from: https://d2vxd53ymoe6ju.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/20200726161915/trego_poster.jpg

Walkington, H, Griffin, AL, Keys-Mathews, L, Metoyer, SK, Miller, WE, Baker, R, and France, D (2011) ‘Embedding research-based learning early in the undergraduate Geography curriculum’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3): 315-330 Walkington, H, Stewart, K, Hall, E, Ackley, E and Shanahan, JO (2020) ‘Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors – balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence’ Studies in Higher Education 45: 1519-1532


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From corona crisis management to ‘new normal’ – a Danish university educational perspective

by Helle Mathiasen

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 statement by Helle Mathiasen can be found here.

This year, in many ways, we have all become richer with the transition of campus-based teaching to online teaching. However, it has also been a challenge for most educators and students, as explained in The evaluation of online teaching in Spring 2020 (published in Danish on 18 September 2020, to be translated to English this Autumn). Much of traditional teaching had to be quickly changed, which often resulted in digitalisation of the regular campus-based teaching without regard to the changing conditions of communication.

This type of teaching was called emergency teaching, which is important to keep in mind when planning and implementing teaching in coming semesters. Going forward, the path from emergency education to a ‘new normal’ needs to be critically and reflexively explored. There was rarely time among educators to reflect critically on the didactic choices they made in haste. The teaching had to be provided immediately but now we need to take time to reflect on our decisions, since Autumn teaching is already organized and currently being implemented. It may still be in a ‘state’ of ‘crisis’, but it is important that the solutions planned and implemented this Spring may not necessarily be able to draw the ‘new normal’. Surveys about students’ experiences of ‘emergency teaching’ tell about serious consequences, which result in low motivation, great frustration and explicit need for more interaction. 

Management is aware of the challenges posed by the digital transformation from technical, organizational, educational and strategic perspectives. 

Using a communication theoretical approach, we can open up an important discussion, focusing on the communicative possibilities when we are physically present (f2f) compared with net-mediated communication in its broadest sense. There are, so to speak, more communicative connectivity options compared to net-mediated communication, both with synchronous and asynchronous communication. Teaching is in this theoretical frame defined as a specific form of communication, whose underlying intention is to effect change by the students, who direct their attention toward the communication. It is the engineered context which brings about the possibility for the activation/ continuation of learning processes, hence knowledge construction. 

Together with the communicative perspective related to teaching, we can discuss the concept of ‘good teaching’. By good teaching we mean teaching in the presented theoretical framework, where students and educators have the opportunity to communicate. That is, both ways, and not just one-way communication. It is thus about focusing on the social dimension through communication (dialogue, plenary/group discussions). It is about providing the opportunity for social sparring and reflection – and the opportunity to ‘check’ one’s professionalism with fellow students and educators. It is about being able to immerse oneself professionally and actively participate in the social community. Being with others on campus is part of student identity building and their development towards professional people.

Increased online learning risks instrumentalising teaching to reduce it to a more or less rigid template, where time and activities are set and spontaneous discussions are tight. This may mean that the development of independence, autonomy, co-determination skills and academic bildung are given more difficult conditions in which to develop. We must pay close attention to when online teaching is more often suited to more factual knowledge and the lowest taxonomic levels, where to reach the higher levels of analysis, synthesis and creativity as well as deeper professional discussions, it is more difficult to get it to work online.

We need to think about what is teaching quality and use the knowledge/research that is in the field – so that we can offer students a variety of teaching and learning environments that provide students with the best conditions to learn what is required according to curricula. That may include online teaching, but in a critical reflective format and not with an approach where emergency teaching becomes the ‘new normal’. The digital tools and platforms are important to have access to, but indeed not enough. The attention for a didactical part is crucial, when redesigning courses into online environments and mixed f2f and online teaching environments. It requires renewed concrete attention to support the educators’ didactic development. It also requires support for students and educators when it comes to developing the opportunities for unfolding communication and knowledge sharing.

This is an invitation to discuss the communicative and educational perspective on the currently developmental digital transformation.

Helle Mathiasen is professor at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Science Education, Denmark. Her primary research interest lies currently within the field of communication forums: internet and computer-mediated, various forms of face-to-face communication forums as well as hybrid forms. This field is joined with the concepts of learning, teaching, pedagogy and didactics. The current focus of her research is on the themes of the organisation of teaching, communication environments, and learning perspectives


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When can we get back to “normal”? Long term predictions of the impact of Covid-19 on teaching in UK universities

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

January – July 2021 – Expect to need to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions – including social distancing, face masks, cleaning, and rapid tests. Exact interventions may vary with government guidance.

January 2021 – Rising levels of Covid-19 in the community after Christmas mixing may lead to further lockdown conditions.

February-April 2021 – End of Phase One vaccination program. Levels of Covid-19 in the community expected to be initially high, likely requiring some social restrictions to continue in the first few months.

April-July 2021 – End of vaccination of remainder of population. Covid-19 levels dropping across these months. Social restrictions likely to be reduced as the months progress.

Summer 2021 – End of pandemic in UK. Able to stop all non-pharmacological interventions.  Staff recover and take holiday.

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

Most universities are providing limited face-to-face teaching using non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent transmission such as social distancing and additional cleaning protocols. Some universities have implemented higher quality interventions such as the use of face masks indoors, and the availability of asymptomatic swab testing on campus. A few universities have gone to completely online provision. All of these interventions have helped reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in UK universities.

The initial exponential growth of Covid-19 cases at the start of term in many universities has slowed down. Some of this reduction has been due to non-pharmacological interventions and university specific restrictions on student activities. However the level of Covid-19 in the community has had significant impact on the levels in universities. So, claims for the efficacy of the Covid-19 safe workplace interventions are yet to be proven, particularly in the context of higher levels of community Covid-19 (Manchester University, 2020).

It is expected that the levels of Covid-19 in the community will continue to be high during winter months as the virus spreads more easily in indoor unventilated environments, and survives for longer in cooler temperatures (Huang, 2020).

Medical risks from Covid-19 are not equitably distributed. People at increased risk from Covid-19 are older, male, have other illnesses, or are from Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic populations (Williamson, 2020; ONS, 2020). It is recognised that young students are at low risk of having a poor acute reaction to being infected from Covid-19. But their risk of infection may be higher as students often live in overcrowded accommodation which substantially increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission (Williamson, 2020). Whilst a severe reaction to Covid-19 is rare, it’s not impossible, with a number of infected Manchester University students ending up in Intensive Care (Parker, 2020). Finally students are in contact with lecturers and support staff who represent a much wider range of ages and medical risks. They are also in contact with the local community and some students (e.g. those in health faculties) are in contact with patients, all of whom could be at higher risk from Covid-19 infection (SAGE, 2020).

A survey of staff at the University of East Anglia identified that about half of respondents were at greater risk from Covid-19 themselves, and/or were in households with people at greater risk or had caring responsibilities for people at greater risk (Figure 1: UCU UEA, 2020). This highlights how complex and interconnected modern society is. It is impossible to segregate those at greater risk from Covid-19 (SAGE, 2020; Griffin 2020).

Figure 1: Would you class yourself or those in your household as moderate or high risk from Covid-19? (UCU UEA 2020)

We now have a better understanding of Long Covid (ie symptoms for more than eight weeks) (Sudre et al, 2020). Long-COVID is characterised by symptoms of fatigue, headache, breathlessness and loss of sense of smell; but also evidence of organ damage (Dennis et al, 2020) and increased risk of neuropsychiatric complications as well (Butler et al, 2020). Long Covid occurs in one in 20 people infected with COVID-19 (Sudre et al, 2020). However it appears to be more common in younger age groups, and affects around 10% of 18-49 year olds who become unwell with COVID-19. It can be severe enough to prevent patients from returning to work or study, and can last for many months.

What happens next?

There is excellent news about a number of vaccines which have been shown to create good levels of immunity (Gallagher, 2020a; Gallagher, 2020b; Bosely 2020; Roth 2020). All the vaccines need two injections to be effective. The government plans a massive roll-out of vaccinations with GP practices (Kanani, 2020) supplemented with vaccination centres set up in conference centres, sports halls, community centres. The immunisation plans start in care home residents and staff at the start of December, with all high risk people and health and care staff immunised by the end of February 2021 (JCVI, 2020; Rapson, 2020). The vaccines would then be rolled out to everyone else with the aim to have the whole adult population of the UK vaccinated by April 2021. This would have massive impact as it would deliver herd immunity (estimated at 60-70% immunity) and stop the pandemic in its tracks. However a number of issues could lead to delays: vaccines need to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); some stocks of vaccines are already manufactured but more need to be created; vaccines need to be transported to the UK (which may be affected by Brexit); the -80oC cold storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the transport process is challenging and failures will lead to the vaccine being unusable; finding sufficient staff to deliver the vaccines will be hard when the NHS has 100,000 job vacancies; and concerns about vaccine safety may lead to hesitancy and lower than needed uptake. Overall, the estimate of a successful vaccination program being completed by April is the very best case scenario.

Other factors such as greater availability of rapid Covid-19 tests will reduce the frequency of people having to isolate for extended periods of time, so social restrictions are likely to be reduced as the year goes on. However the risk of being infected with Covid-19 will remain relatively high during the first quarter of 2021. Until the population have been fully vaccinated, the proposal of allowing Covid-19 to circulate unchecked in order for the population to develop herd immunity from infections has been refuted as impractical and unethical (Griffin, 2020) and could actually increase the infectivity and lethality of the virus (Spinney, 2020; Bonneaud, 2019). Therefore universities need to be cautious and pragmatic and understand that both the spring and summer terms will almost certainly still need non-pharmacological interventions in place in order to ensure the safety of students, staff and the surrounding communities.

Impact on teaching practice

The University and College Union’s national position is that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work (UCU, 2020), for both the spring and summer terms in all universities. However, few universities have adopted this position. If face-to-face teaching is to continue it should remain at current levels with social distancing, with inevitable consequences in terms of room capacity and the need for repetition of teaching sessions in order to reach entire student cohorts.

As vaccinations start to be rolled out, individual risk levels may reduce, but overall the university community remains at high risk from infection, and of transmitting that to the community they live in (SAGE, 2020; McIntyre, 2020). So whilst it is expected that Covid-19 levels will reduce substantially as we head towards the summer, care should still be taken to reduce transmission on campus.

In addition university management should recognise how tired and burnt out their staff are, with the substantial effort of keeping universities running mostly virtually, and trying to maintain the quality of teaching alongside their own concerns about their health and the health of their friends and families. Many will have suffered losses; many will have supported students dealing with losses. Staff will need time to recover, to take holidays that were not taken during the pandemic, and to decompress from this stressful period of over-work. Then they will be able to return to campus in the autumn of 2021 able to teach effectively.

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

Not all of the pandemic lessons have been negative. I am a disabled lecturer who uses a wheelchair and has an energy limiting disability. I have found virtual working a huge advantage. Other staff with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or just long journeys to work may find the greater flexibility to work more from home also helpful. This flexibility will allow easier management of responsibilities in work and the rest of life. Students with similar issues may find accessing a university level education easier if some or all of their course was delivered virtually. It will be a challenge for university finances, but the opportunity for greater equity of access to university level education is undeniable.

SRHE member Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Reference UCU UEA. 2020. A survey of UCU members’ opinions on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and workload at UEA. University and College Union, University of East Anglia Branch. November 2020. Available from k.deane@uea.ac.uk on request


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Transitioning a large first year Human Physiology group to fully online due to Covid-19 and supporting their learning

by Amy Larsen, Deanna Horvath, Stuart James

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 authors’ statement can be found here.

There is no going back: in a post-COVID University the new norm will inevitably be greater reliance on online and remote learning. The student experience will no longer be structured around a bricks and mortar campus that only those in proximity can access, but allow students more choice and flexibility in when and where they learn. The National Guidelines for Online Learning tell us that effective online learning requires a whole-of-institution approach, curriculum that is designed specifically for online, meaningful learning analytics and teacher presence. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic universities were not afforded the time to implement this best practice approach.

As coordinators of one of the largest subjects (Human Biosciences A (HBA)) at La Trobe University (LTU) delivered to  about 1600 students from 14 different degrees in their first semester of University study, our team faced a significant challenge to pivot from a blended to fully online delivery due to COVID-19 in five working days. We were particularly concerned about the support for students and staff in the transition to the new learning environment, in addition to the curriculum changes required. Students had completed three weeks of the subject activities prior to this shift, which included 2-hour face-to-face workshops per week structured for peer learning, and interactive seminars with clicker audience response. While we were unable to implement all of the recommended National Guidelines, we examined the subject structure and determined we needed to establish and maintain online teacher presence, implement solutions for asynchronous delivery of learning content, and provide high quality online synchronous options to replace previously face-to-face weekly workshops and fortnightly seminars.

Asynchronous: what happens when you are absent is just as important as when you are present

Remote and online learning can leave students feeling isolated; thus, we established an online teacher presence through extensive communications throughout the transition, including a video from the coordinators detailing what to expect at the recommencement of their studies. This outlined the key changes to the workshop structure and assessments, as well as setting clear expectations for students for the rest of the semester. The learning resources in HBA were created using H5P which enables the addition of interactive activities with immediate feedback on learning materials, providing students the opportunity to undergo active learning asynchronously. Forums remained another useful asynchronous learning tool where students had an open space to ask questions which generated discussion between students and academic staff regarding subject content.

Synchronous: generate peer interaction and connectedness with an online learning community

The biggest challenge we faced with synchronous learning was replacing the approximate 50 weekly face-to-face workshops with virtual classrooms via Zoom. Students were provided with numerous support resources to assist their familiarisation with Zoom, gain access to their sessions, and to set clear expectations of how online workshops would be delivered. In terms of delivery, online workshops involved combining two classes into one session, allowing us to pair academic staff with varying degrees of experience. This also prevented a class from halting completely in the event of a staff member disconnecting due to varied reliability of home internet connections. The main room was used for general discussion, breakout rooms provided students the opportunity to undertake collaborative problem-solving tasks in small groups, and Zoom polling allowed students to test their knowledge in real time with instant feedback and discussion from teachers during a class.

Delivering seminars fully online came with fewer challenges than workshops. Effective communication around online seminar scheduling and access, the use of live chat, polls, and recording sessions for students who could not attend live were all key factors in ensuring students had an enriching learning experience. Interestingly, we found that the nature of online seminars allowed for a much higher degree of interactivity between teachers and students compared to their face-to-face counterpart.

The student perception

Students were surveyed after undertaking three weeks of online workshops for feedback on both their experience of the online workshops (see Table 1), as well as how well they perceived their transition to online (see Table 2).  Overall, students perceived the experience of online workshops as positive.

Positive72.2%
Neither Positive nor Negative12.7%
Negative15.1%
Table 1: Student Experience in the ‘new’ online workshops

Even though the students found the experience of online workshops positive, just over half of the students found the transition easy while the rest were undecided or found it difficult.

Easy55.6%
Neither Easy nor Difficult 11.9%
Difficult32.5%
Table 2: Student Transition to online workshops

Student feedback

Some qualitative student feedback on the transition to online highlighted the importance of the LMS for the organisation of learning resources and communication of important information – “Lectures link clearly with enquiries set out on LMS, they are well prepared before delivery flow well and easy to follow along. Having two facilitators is excellent – one to talk and one to answer questions, and they back each other up. Thanks, it been a smooth crossover” and “In all honesty I would like to commend HBA on its smooth and efficient transition to online learning … HBA by far had the best process and communication when we became online. They were very clear and concise with information and made the steps as simple as possible. I think the support system that they have set up is exemplary as everything is well laid out via the LMS”

Student feedback also identified that workshops, including Zoom breakout rooms and polling, created an engaging and supportive learning environment with their facilitators and they were able to receive immediate feedback on subject content and identify gaps in their knowledge – “That despite being moved onto online study, it is still just as easy to communicate and get involved with your facilitators and fellow group members. I really love the way the quizzes have been set up to show the most common option answered by students and immediate feedback is given to address where any gaps in knowledge are evident” and “We get feedback and clarification from our quizzes immediately. We are encouraged and easily able to ask questions using the chat format”.

Student satisfaction

Overall student satisfaction for the subject improved (2020; 4.13/5) when compared to pre-COVID delivery (2019; 4.04/5). Thus, it can be inferred that delivering the subject in a fully online mode did not affect the quality of student experience.

So, what have we learnt from this experience?

  • The importance of clear, frequent communication and setting student expectations early.
  • LMS organisation and support for navigating the online learning environment is key.
  • Teacher presence in both asynchronous and synchronous activities is vital.
  • Students were overall satisfied with the online learning experience.

Amy Larsen is a Lecturer in the Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology department at La Trobe University, and for the past eight years has acted as the Subject Coordinator of the Core First Year Physiology Unit HBS1HBA. She has expertise in teaching large, diverse first year cohorts in both face-to-face and fully online modalities.

Deanna Horvath is an experienced online educator with a focus on technology enhanced learning and equity in higher education. Deanna is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University and coordinates the universities largest online course.

Stuart James has over eight years of teaching experience with three of those years in fully online teaching. He is passionate about innovative learning and teaching solutions to enhance student engagement & success. Stuart is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology at La Trobe University.


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E-learning in the face of a pandemic through the eyes of students

by Thomas J Hiscox

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 statement by Tom Hiscox can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present unique challenges for the higher education sector around the world.  The reduction in fundingrapid redevelopment of learning resources to suit online delivery and rapid upskilling of academics to teach using new platforms have all contributed to the stress on Australian academics, but what effect has this change had on our students?

When COVID-19 reached Australia, strict measures were rapidly implemented at a Federal level to suppress the spread of the virus. Strict bans on gatherings of greater than 50 people were imposed, essentially putting an end to any face-to-face class delivery in 2020. The transition from a face-to-face delivery to a completely online delivery was rapid, but like all academics we were presented with two choices: asynchronous delivery (where the learning content is pre-recorded, allowing students to progress at their own pace) or synchronous delivery (where the content is delivered in line with the student progression through the unit).

The scramble to convert face-to-face classes to online

We had been using a flipped classroom format for a few years prior to COVID-19, so we were in a slightly better position than other units, however face-to-face workshops and practical laboratory classes, which relied on students working on problems in small groups, had to be transitioned to online equivalents.  The burden of pre-recording these face-to-face sessions was too great, so we opted for the synchronous delivery, where classes would be delivered live. This decision gave us the benefit of having extra time to redesign content to suit an online delivery, but consequently meant we only had one chance to get it right.

We quickly transitioned weekly workshops to live-streamed sessions delivered via Zoom. Laboratory classes were conducted live, with a facilitator in the lab completing the various procedures while students watched at home on their devices.  This entirely online mode of teaching was vastly different to what the students were expecting when they enrolled in their degree. We became interested in how the transition to online teaching affected the student experience.  Based on attendance numbers in our online sessions during the first few weeks of delivery, we were aware a significant proportion of the cohort were not engaged. This posed a few key questions. Why did so many students choose not to participate? Did the transition to online learning influence their decision and cause a reduction in motivation?

The student perceptions of online learning

We employed a mixed methods approach involving voluntary student surveys to explore student perceptions of how COVID-19 has influenced their study1.  The study, which is still in progress, consists of two anonymous online surveys.  The first survey (delivered midway through the March semester) identified a number of problems in our delivery, which directed some interventions that were implemented for the start of the July semester, the effects of which will be measured in our follow up survey (the data from which is yet to be analysed).  The surveys consist of a series of both closed and open-ended questions on their perceptions of the first year biology course.

In the first survey we found that 63.3% of respondents chose not to attend the live-streamed workshop, despite the majority (72.1%) of the respondents identifying the value of these sessions. When questioned why they choose not to attend, 31.6% of respondents cited “Lack of motivation” as their primary reason, other reasons included , “Connection issues” (26.5%), “Prefer to watch recordings” (18.4%) and “Clashes with other units” (17.5%). 

We conducted a thematic analysis of the qualitative data collected from the survey. This analysis mirrored similar themes in the quantitative survey. Amongst the qualitative data, 35% of responses aligned with the “Lack of motivation” theme, many of these responses (15.7%) further highlighted themes of anxiety and stress amongst the cohort. In some cases, this stress was associated with a lack of guidance in the degree of depth various topics will be examined at. A student reported:

“I honestly just really hope that I’m teaching myself everything that I need to know, I get really anxious and stressed that I’m not performing to the best standard that I can … From, a very stressed and anxious first year.”

In other cases, the level of anxiety and stress was attributed to a feeling of isolation, which can be summarised by the student comment below:

“I felt disconnected from other students and teachers. More support and social inclusion would be helpful”

Our conclusion from the initial survey was that isolation could potentially be having a significant impact on the performance of our students. The lack of social interactivity appeared to have broken an important component of the educational process – communication. Some of the problems were at the institutional end; we had underestimated how much we rely on simple face-to-face communication to answer student questions. In the fully online environment, simple questions that could easily be resolved at the conclusion of a classroom session, now had to be postponed and asked via email or by forum post. This does not only include communication between staff and students, but also between the students themselves. However when we surveyed students that did attend the online sessions live, it appeared these sessions may have another valuable benefit. They promote a sense of community.

When we surveyed the students who did attend online workshops live, 66.2% reported as being highly engaged during the session. When questioned “What did you enjoy most about the online workshops when attended live?”, 25% of respondents reported that they “Provided a sense of community”, while 24% stated that the workshops “Were more engaging when presented live”; the ability to ask questions in real-time was also highly reported at 28% (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Factors that students enjoyed while attending online live workshops (n=372).

The outlook for 2021

At the time of writing this post, Melbourne (the capital city of Victoria) is still under lockdown.  University campuses across metropolitan Melbourne remain closed for all students, except those that must satisfy key qualification requirements.  There are strong indications that strict social distancing policies will remain into 2021 across Australia. What does that mean for the university campus, where hundreds of students move in and out of a single lecture theatre or teaching laboratories at the conclusion of the session? The solution could be running more sessions, with classes running late into the night. Or is the writing on the wall for the end of face-to-face classes?  I believe online education will remain the primary offering of many Australian universities, potentially only allowing students to attend an on-campus class two or three times a semester. If this were to happen, serious consideration needs to be made into fostering a community spirit and engagement amongst students, for both their mental wellbeing, but also to maximise their performance and learning.

1 Our research was conducted as approved by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC) as per project 2020-25523-49505.

Dr Thomas Hiscox is an education-focussed lecturer within the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, where he teaches in units across first, second and third years. Tom is also the coordinator of the first year biology program, which has an enrollment of  approximately 1600 students annually. His research is focused on the development and recognition of key employability skills by students during their undergraduate degrees.


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Scenario planning for digitalised education

by Matt Finch

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. Matt Finch’s statement can be found here.

How do you prepare for the future which you didn’t see coming? From the global financial crisis to presidential elections, the Brexit referendum, and changes to both our technological and natural environment, our times are characterised by events which challenge previous expectations and norms.

COVID-19, in particular, has challenged institutions to radically and rapidly transform their ways of working. Ongoing social, economic, technological, and environmental trends add to the sense that the sector may well experience continued turbulence and uncertainty in months and years to come.

Predictive modelling falters under conditions of uncertainty, whether or not we are already aware of the factors which we can’t pin down – the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” made famous by Donald Rumsfeld. Turbulent times remind us that no-one can actually gather evidence from the future, and confident prediction is more about faith in a given model than true certainty as to what the future holds.

As Frankie Wilson of the Bodleian Libraries commented at the evidence-based practitioners’ conference EBLIP10 last year, sometimes strategy requires a judgment which is evidence-informed but not entirely beholden to what can be learned from the past. James McMicking of the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute articulated a similar notion when, presenting scenarios for the future of air travel, he reminded his audience that “We can manage by numbers but we can’t lead by them; the narrative matters.”

So how do we find new narratives when the future is unclear and uncertain? Harvard’s Peter Scoblic argues that when uncertainty precludes analogy to situations faced in the past, leaders can usefully develop their thinking by simulating possible future contexts to inform strategy. This is the basis of scenario planning: the foresight practice which involves imagining multiple plausible futures, and thinking them through in a disciplined way to give decision-makers a fresh perspective on their situation in the present.

Instructional fables for organizations: a short history of scenario planning

Scenario planning began in the early days of the Cold War with nuclear wargaming. Realising that the anticipated conflict was unprecedented, and strategies could not be developed with reference to previous military experience, think tanks like the Rand Corporation began devising imagined future contexts to sharpen strategic thinking and highlight the implications of commanders’ and policymakers’ choices. They adopted the term “scenario” from Hollywood, meaning the detailed outline of a proposed fictional movie.

Later, Pierre Wack and his colleagues at Shell led the way in developing scenarios for use in big business. One of their great successes came in the early 1970s, when Shell’s scenario work successfully prepared them for the consequences of the Yom Kippur War. 

Shell had explored the future possibility of oil producers behaving like a cartel because they recognised it would dramatically change the sector they operated in. When the West supported Israel, angering oil-rich Arab states, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) put an embargo into effect. 

Wack and his colleagues had neither predicted the war, nor the consortium’s actions, but they had been successfully rehearsing for a world in which the oil supply was throttled by producers. Shell was able to weather the subsequent volatility of the 1970s through judicious strategic decisions, informed by the scenario work, on matters affecting the reconfiguration, sale, or shutdown of their refineries and installations.

Wack’s work enriched the scenarios process by emphasising the contrast between foresight and predictive forecasting. Scenarios still focussed on empirical observation of signs indicating the potential for change – Wack memorably described scenarios work as being like observing rain on a mountain-top, and realising that this could mean floods in the valley below a few days from now – but a scenario’s value did not lie in whether it came to pass, rather whether it stretched decision-makers’ thinking.

Rather than attempt to identify the one future which will certainly happen, scenario planning empowers organisations to imagine a number of possible future contexts which can challenge and enrich strategic thinking. These contexts are chosen not for their predictive power, but their plausibility; a scenario’s value lies in whether thinking it through usefully informs a given strategic decision – as the OECD’s Joshua Polchar puts it, they are like “instructional fables”, which needn’t have taken place in reality for them to provide helpful learning.

How will we learn next? Scenario planning for the education sector

A project conducted with the University of Oslo on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak explored the future of digitalisation in Norwegian schools, but its findings also have value for other parts of the education sector and other national contexts.

Built around the choices facing Norwegian headteachers in early 2020, the team created three visions of Norway in 2050 – far enough out that our social and economic relationships to digital technology might have shifted significantly. In one scenario, the schoolchildren of a climate-ravaged world largely educated themselves using digital self-directed learning. In another, the collapse of oil demand led currently-prosperous Norway into a rustbelt future dominated by right-wing populism.

In the third scenario, a heavily privatised and surveilled society faced disruption from parents who fought “the algorithm” over questions of their children’s health and wellbeing. This scenario, which initially seemed the most outlandish, proved within months to speak most directly to the challenges of 2020, as Norwegian parents formed Facebook groups to dispute the government’s COVID regulations on schooling. The scenario group had not previously considered that health would be a significant battleground between carers and schools when it came to future digitalisation of the education sector, yet within months issues of online learning, and whether students should be at home or on campus, lay at the heart of Norwegian education choices.

Previous scenario engagements with the higher education sector have highlighted both the benefits and challenges of the approach. Lang’s study of two scenario planning rounds at the Open University in the early 2000s found an increase in social capital as the scenario process prompted new and deeper connections between participants in wider discussions about the university’s future. However, institutionalising the approach on an ongoing basis – as has happened for corporations like Shell or government agencies in Singapore – proved more challenging.

Not every organization may achieve the level of scenario planning capacity and competency found at Shell or in the Singaporean government. However, even institutions without the appetite or resource to sustain a major or ongoing scenario process can still improve their capacity for foresight through methodical engagement with uncertainty. This is the equivalent of watching the football highlights on your smartphone, even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit the stadium or watch the whole match at home on a high-definition TV – you can still get the results, and a sense of what is going on!

Conclusion

The pandemic has accelerated or triggered numerous transformations whose full consequences are yet to become clear, while other, previously existing trends may now bend or break as a result of 2020’s crises. The pandemic response may, in turn, cause new uncertainties – from the long-term health of the economy to the immediate question of university admissions. Ramírez and Ravetz refer to such unstable situations, caused by our own interventions, as “feral futures“.

Under such circumstances, new strategic capabilities must be developed by universities – rigorous and disciplined approaches to uncertainty which allow us to make leadership decisions on bases other than the evidence and experience of a past which may never repeat.

Scenario planning offers one method to convene a community of forward-thinking practitioners and engage them in the serious discussion of our strategic blindspots, informing and enriching future decision-making for the post-pandemic university.

Matt Finch is Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland and a facilitator on the Scenarios Programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He currently hosts episodes of the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast. His website is mechanicaldolphin.com.