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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Marcia Devlin


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Reconsidering university education. Again

by Marcia Devlin

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to higher education being moved en masse to remote and online learning in a compressed timeline. Limited returns to on campus learning are evident in Australia depending on disease outbreak levels and health advice in local areas, but the bulk of current university learning continues via digital means for now. This shift has challenged universities and educators to think about how best to facilitate digitally-mediated learning. We also have an opportunity to reconsider university education a little more broadly.

The pandemic is occurring in the context of: increasing global political tensions; shifting economic powers; prevailing societal inequalities; significantly changing social norms; and climate change and environmental and ecological damage that puts our very existence as human beings at risk. Higher education is occurring in the same context.

Having a keen eye on the grand challenges and wicked problems of our times, and on our global context is – or should be – central to the purpose of a university and to its core activity of education. We’re probably all too busy and exhausted from the demands of coping with the pandemic to think this through carefully right now but I have begun to wonder whether we should at least try to make a start. Questions in my mind include: Why do universities exist? Do our purposes need to be tweaked or redefined What should we be doing while we wait for things to return to ‘normal’? Do we want things to return to ‘normal’? If not, what are we doing about changing the course of history?

In 2016, Schleicher suggested we needed to prepare graduates for jobs that have not been created, to use technologies not yet invented and to solve new social problems that have not yet arisen. The potency of ideas like these seems to have been heightened as we watch global movements of various kinds take place and we choose which ones to support and which to resist.

The rapid and ongoing development of new knowledge drives our knowledge-based world. Since it is no longer possible to offer students everything they need to know for the future, some innovative educators have conceptualised new pedagogies that leverage modern technologies to engage and interact with current and emerging knowledge. These new pedagogies help students to find, analyse, evaluate and apply what is relevant to them at the time and for the task or question at hand. These
new ways of educating have at their core an increased sharing of power between educator and student. Methods and approaches deployed include discussion groups, peer assessments, using social media and feedback opportunities including students supporting students. Not a lecture in sight. Or if so, it’s pre-recorded and offered as optional background digital material.

These future-focused pedagogies are a lot about educators about becoming innovative and entrepreneurial in the face of our collective large-scale, complex problems as a globally connected set of societies and economies. They are about developing in students the spirit of risk-taking, creative problem-solving and learning from failure so that learners can: be prepared for a complex world; purposefully make judgements and decisions; base these judgements and decisions on changing situations, evolving, incomplete evidence and unpredictable situations; manage their own learning throughout life; and contribute to creating their own futures.

And now all of the above needs to be done online, at least for the moment.

In 2018, the UK Joint Information Systems Committee outlined the required digital capability of educators as incorporating: ICT proficiency; information, data and media literacies; creation, problem solving and innovation ability; the ability to communicate, collaborate and participate, a commitment to learning and development; and an understanding of identity and wellbeing in the digital space.

Simple? Hardly.

And impossible for even the most outstanding educator to undertake and achieve on their own, even with the plethora of existing and new resources on offer to help improve online teaching and learning.

To do all that is required, for the future that is so much more uncertain than it was even a few short months ago, university educators will increasingly need to collaborate. Collaboration with peers in team-teaching, with external associates who bring up-to-date industry, workplace and professional understanding and with librarians, educational designers, digital systems experts, students and work integrated learning specialists will be increasingly necessary to effectively design, build, teach and assess useful university courses.

As the pandemic effects paradoxically appear to shrink and expand time concurrently and many of us begin to think deeply about why we are all here, I’d suggest the fundamental purpose of higher education needs an airing and some re-consideration. We have the necessary resources, incentives and best minds to do this work – it’s a matter of turning our attention to it now.

Marcia Devlin is a former University Senior Vice-President and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, current Adjunct Professor and was named as one of The Educator Higher Education Top 50 educators for 2020.


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Building a Sustainable Future: Higher Education Institutions and the United Nations Global Goals (2015-2030)

by Maryna Lakhno

The idea of sustainability in higher education has been around for a long time. It started with early international discussions in the 1990s, continued during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2004-2015) and is currently embodied in the global engagement of higher education institutions (HEIs) within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

The SDGs Puzzle

The SDGs are not primarily oriented towards higher education. There is nothing in this initiative that binds HEIs to act, let alone placing legal oblations on them. So it may seem puzzling that many universities worldwide, from New Zealand to Mexico, voluntarily decided to work with the Agenda 2030. Some have altered their institutional strategies and behaviors in fundamental ways in pursuit of the SDGs, even though this requires significant financial and organizational efforts. Those diverse and multifaceted changes include sustainability shifts in campus operations, curricula, ways of teaching/learning, outreach activities as well as research. Why are the SDGs so attractive for universities?

The SDGs as ‘agents of change’

First of all, education institutions in general are frequently seen as inevitable drivers for sustainable solutions:

Sustainable development cannot be achieved by technological solutions, political regulation or financial instruments alone. Achieving sustainable development requires a change in the way we think and act, and consequently a transition to sustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns. Only education and learning at all levels and in all social contexts can bring about this critical change.

UNESCO (2011)

Their ‘agent of change’ function incorporates numerous angles. In general, universities are created for public good and have crucial influence on humankind, as they spread knowledge and participate in governance nationally and locally (Sedlacek, 2013). HEIs have the potential to become platforms of innovation and have a direct influence on future decision makers. Being a centre of knowledge, these “institutions have the responsibility for preparing their graduates for entry into government, business and industry sectors” (Thomas and Nicita, 2002).

HEIs go beyond their walls

Furthermore, universities are frequently associated with the crucial stakeholders of regional development, which allows them to support their “faculty and administrators to regional boards” (Goldstein, 2009). This process can be of a great benefit to both sides, making educational institutions serve as “bridging organizations between societal and other institutional actors” (Sedlacek, 2013). A university does not end inside its walls and includes multiple stakeholder groups which are governments, international organizations, NGOs, businesses, faculty, administrative employees, students and their parents (Hussain et al, 2019).

The SDGs are universal

In fact, the SDGs touch numerous aspects of central concern to the university. Their multifaceted nature makes it possible to unite pre-existing policies under one umbrella. If we look at the main messages of SDGs, we see that their core values are all-inclusive, be it in terms of gender equality, poverty reduction, climate protection or education quality.

Building bridges between continents and research traditions

Goal 17, namely Partnerships for the Goals, is one of the stimuli that asks HEIs to act beyond national borders. University networks play a key role, acting as facilitators of information exchange, SDGs good practice models and source of empowerment for further action. This can be done at any level of the university, starting from inclusion in the curriculum of an HEI and ending in its sustainable investment strategies.

The Global Goals are ‘affordable’ for all HEIs

To conclude, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved by HEIs with smaller endowments. Their universal and non-binding nature does not require an HEI to follow all the goals at once. Additionally, they give space for institutional creativity, which is so valued in times of limited resources yet offers unlimited prospects for a better future.

Maryna Lakhno is a doctoral research fellow in the Yehuda Elkana Center for Higher Education at the Central European University in Vienna. The preliminary title for her dissertation is Universities: Local Agents of Global Changes. The SDGs as a Policy Framework for Higher Education.’ By scrutinising the UN SDGs from both actional and ideational perspectives, she aims to contribute to higher education policy by pointing to the existence of a new and consequential, although unexpected, global policy framework.

References

Goldstein, HA (2009) ‘What we know and what we don’t know about the regional economic impacts of universities’ in Varga, A (2009)  Universities, knowledge transfer and regional development: geography, entrepreneurship and policy. Cheltenham: Elgar, pp 11–35

Hussain, T, Eskildsen, J, Edgeman, R, Ismail, M,  Shoukry, AM, Gani, S (2019) ‘Imperatives of sustainable university excellence: A Conceptual Framework’ Sustainability 11 (19): 5242. DOI: 10.3390/su11195242.

Sedlacek, Sabine (2013) ‘The role of universities in fostering sustainable development at the regional level’ Journal of Cleaner Production 48:  74–84  DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.01.029

Thomas, I, and  Nicita, J (2002) ‘Sustainability Education and Australian Universities’ Environmental Education Research 8 (4): 475–492  DOI: 10.1080/1350462022000026845

UNESCO (2011) From Green Economies to Green Societies: UNESCO’s Commitment to Sustainable Development Retrieved from UNESCO: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000213311

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Policymaking in a pandemic

By Rob Cuthbert

Policymaking in a pandemic must be decisive, transparent and inclusive (1)

After Secretary of State Gavin Williamson announced in March that there would be no GCSE or A-level examinations in Summer 2020, higher education focused at first on whether it would be desirable or even possible for students to begin the new year in Autumn 2020, with particular doubts over international students’ ability and willingness to travel. With the number of UK 18-year-olds in a demographic trough we expected extreme pressure on universities at the exposed end of the market, and there was much talk about the ten or 12 or 14 institutions said to be already especially financially vulnerable. The response of a number of institutions was to make tens of thousands of conditional offers unconditional, reducing uncertainty for themselves and also for their potential students. But ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, even in the market decreed by the government, never seemed to respect the integrity of student choice; it seemed reasonable that they should be outlawed, but government and the OfS went much further.

OfS published its regulation on unconditional offers on 4 May (updated on 17 August 2020, after A-level results by algorithm were announced), enabling OfS to take “… action against higher education providers that use offer-making practices which would not be in the interests of students and the wider higher education sector in these exceptional circumstances.” These included: “Other unconditional offers to UK students that could materially affect the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector …”, which in theory might have threatened selective institutions aiming to hoover up home students to compensate for a possible shortfall of international students, regardless of the effects on universities less well-placed in the market. But after the government imposed temporary student number controls no-one was in much doubt that the target was precisely those less well-placed, in case students dared to choose them rather than those higher up the league tables. Government policy is that student choice is paramount, but only if students choose the institutions which the government think they should choose.

On 16 July the DfE announced a ‘restructuring regime’ in response to Covid19, a mixture of University Strategic Planning 101 and oddly selective messages about the specific requirements to be satisfied by the minority of universities expected to need ‘support’. The Secretary of State’s foreword said: “Public funding for courses that do not deliver for students will be reassessed. … all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy. … The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns. Vice-chancellor pay has for years faced widespread public criticism … equally concerning is the rapid growth over recent decades of spending on administration more broadly, which should be reversed.”

The announcement was much criticised but it receded from view as the threat of ‘restructuring’ diminished. Demand for HE with a 2020 start remained strong, with UCAS numbers higher than expected. The intentions of international students were still in doubt, but attention shifted to the slow-motion shambles of A-levels, and the hardly less shambolic, though less remarked, handling of International Baccalaureate and technical and vocational qualifications. Ofqual and DfE remained committed to their A-levels algorithm, doubling down on the assertion that it was the fairest way to determine grades in this unprecedented situation. This was despite the growing clamour of expert opinion pointing out the many faults and unfairnesses in the approach determined by Ofqual. The DfE/Ofqual response might have seemed resolutely decisive, but was neither transparent nor inclusive. A series of blogs from HEPI and many others provided more transparency than the government and Ofqual statements which had led most people to believe wrongly that ‘teachers are determining grades’ and ‘there is a robust appeal system’.

Scottish Higher assessments followed a similar approach to the English but were announced on 6 August, a week ahead of A-levels. Facing mass public protest, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted on 10 August they had got it wrong; education minister John Swinney the next day announced they would abandon their algorithm and use only Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs), a reaction which ticked the decisive/transparent/inclusive boxes, albeit after the last minute. The Scots decision sent the English DfE into panic mode. Gavin Williamson had repeatedly nailed his colours to the this-algorithm-is-robust-and-fair mast; he would not follow Scotland’s lead, and there was no sensible alternative. So he went for something that wasn’t sensible – the announcement late on Tuesday night (11 August, just 36 hours before students would get their grades) that students could use mock grades under certain circumstances instead of the algorithm’s grades. It was a decision made without consultation with anyone, so not at all inclusive, and certainly less than decisive, but at least it seemed transparent.

For thousands of students who had taken mocks, it sounded like blessed relief. Not only could they apparently now make an individual appeal (something previously ruled out), they knew it would succeed. But that was late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning Ofqual, Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan were doing their best to dilute and obscure the message, saying only that mocks might form part of the grounds for an appeal and even suggesting that not many appeals were expected. Schools and colleges, who had only that day received their students’ grades with shock and horror, pointed out the huge variability and complete lack of standardisation of mocks even within one school, let alone across the whole sector. Williamson stood firm on his ‘triple lock’ – mocks or algorithm grades or Autumn exams. It was presented as a solution for all, when it was nothing of the sort. He had announced that Ofqual (who had not been consulted in advance) would issue guidance on how the new appeals system would work; Ofqual understandably said they would need a few days to work out how to operationalise the process. They issued advice on the amended appeals process by early afternoon on Saturday, suggesting (correctly) that CAGs were a more reliable basis for judgment than mock exams. Then very late on Saturday evening Ofqual withdrew its advice, saying that the Ofqual board would review it and another statement would follow ‘in due course’. Speculation centred on the suspicion that it was the mention of CAGs that might have caused the Department for Education to tell Ofqual to change tack, mostly because of a report in The Sunday Telegraph by the well-briefed Camilla Turner. This was the position at midday on Sunday.

The next day (Monday 17 August) came the final climbdown, as Williamson confirmed that England would follow Scotland in using CAGs rather than the grades determined by the algorithm. Universities were left scrambling to cope with the U-turn, and many students were left wondering whether they still had the place they originally wanted, as many in-demand courses had naturally been filled as usual very soon on the day of the announcement of results, 13 August. Former NUS President and chair of BPP University Aaron Porter wrote for Schoolsweek on 18 August 2020 about the consequences of government ‘passing the buck’ to universities to sort out the A-levels fiasco, and Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon called for the abolition of Ofqual.

Universities minister Michele Donelan wrote to universities on 20 August 2020 confirming the lifting of all student number controls and the establishment of a task force to oversee clearing and admissions for 2020. She said: “The interests of students were at the heart of the change in awarding results … we all agree that providers should: (1) Honour all offers accepted to date. (2) Honour all offers made and met through the new arrangements for both firm and insurance offers where students would like to take them, wherever this is possible.” That ‘wherever this is possible’ gave everyone a get-out clause, while doing its best to shift the blame away from government and onto the universities, but the blame game picked up speed. A VC’s diary in The Guardian on 21 August 2020 accused government ministers of incompetence and lack of compassion, and it was clear that universities could hardly be blamed for the A-levels mess. Ofqual’s attempts to shift the blame onto schools and colleges were equally unconvincing. It had emerged that the Royal Statistical Society had much earlier offered Ofqual the services of the redoubtable Guy Nason (Imperial) and the statistically legendary Sharon Witherspoon, but the RSS had declined to sign the non-disclosure agreement which Ofqual had proposed. Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, wrote to the RSS on 21 August 2020 saying “nothing to see here, you were being much too picky” (we paraphrase), but the next morning Stian Westlake of the RSS was on Radio 4 Today saying the NDA was far too broad and vague to be acceptable.

The first head rolled: Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier stepped down on 25 August with immediate effect; Collier’s predecessor Glenys Stacey was drafted as an interim replacement. Ofqual were summoned to an Education Select Committee hearing on 3 September, and Roger Taylor released a statement just hours before the hearing, memorably summed up by Committee chair Robert Halfon as saying “Not me, guv”. Taylor, it emerges, is also chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which advises the government on artificial intelligence – presumably not including what the Prime Minister called Ofqual’s ‘mutant algorithm’. Taylor made various promises to the Committee of transparency, of which some remain unfulfilled. It was reported that Taylor had kept his chair’s role because he threatened to publish all the correspondence between DfE and Ofqual, showing how much DfE had known all along about the algorithm and its effects.

Samantha Booth reported for SchoolsWeek on 21 August 2020 that Susan Acland-Smith, “has been appointed as second permanent secretary at the DfE for six weeks, temporarily leaving her role as chief executive of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The government said she will work “closely” with permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and “support” the department’s response to this year’s exam results.” Slater’s position was said to be under threat, and sure enough, Slater’s departure was confirmed on 26 August, with Acland-Smith becoming his permanent successor.

Taylor, against the odds, remains as Ofqual chair. In an unusual step, the respected Institute for Government Director Bronwen Maddox called for Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to resign, in her 27 August 2020 blog. “The misjudgements in education have been some of the worst the government has made since the start of the pandemic. They were avoidable, given the time available to plan … they are serious in their impact on children’s education, the gap in achievement between social groups and the ability of the nation to get back to work. At the heart of these misjudgements are decisions that could only be made by politicians, not civil servants.” Senior Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin said Williamson had “lost the trust of his officials to such an extent that he can no longer serve effectively in the cabinet”, according to a report by Toby Helm and Michael Savage in The Observer on 23 August 2020. My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not transparent, not inclusive, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

  1. That was the view of Ramathi Bandaranayake and Merl Chandana (both at LIRNEasia, a regional digital policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka) on the LSE Impact Blog on 1 October 2020.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics


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The path towards a socially just learning design

by Keith Heggart , Camille Dickson-Deane, and Kae Novak

Introduction

Ensuring that our education practice is socially just is a challenging prospect at any time; when confronted with the current challenges of unprecedented bushfires and a global pandemic, it can seem an almost impossible consideration – yet perhaps it has never been more important to design learning to be socially just in the midst of these challenges. Before discussing how to design in a ‘socially just’ way, it would be pertinent to provide a definition: social justice is a concept which describes the relationships between an individual and society.  It proposes that these relationships be fair and just behaviours as measured by choice, distribution, opportunities, privileges, indeed, any form of activity (Boyles, Carusi and Attick, 2009).  When addressing these behaviours from a learning design perspective, this suggests we need to consider how we design our learning and teaching strategies. By designing these interventions carefully we can narrow educational inequalities and thus ensure a socially just education for all.

What is socially just learning design?

The first, and most important point, is that any approach to learning design that claims to be socially just needs to be inclusionary more than exclusionary. Too often, conversations about ensuring learning and teaching is socially just become too narrow, focusing on the needs of one particular group over another. While meeting the needs of marginalised learners is important, specifically focusing on one group in such a narrow way ignores the compounding challenges presented by the intersectional nature of disadvantages (Crenshaw, 2017), as well as risking marginalizing other groups. This approach is in keeping with definitions like that proposed by Clare Hocking, who argues that a truly socially just education is one that ‘embraces a wide range of differences and explores their effects on individual learning’ (Hocking, 2010: p2) – basically a positive acknowledgement of individual differences (Cronbach and Snow, 1969; Jonassen and Grabowski, 1993).

Instead of focusing on a particular group within a class as the site for improving learning outcomes, it is possible instead to focus on the learning experience as a whole, and in doing so make it an accessible and fulfilling experience for all learners. This is the kind of approach advocated in Universal Design for Learning or UDL (Meyer, Rose and Gordon, 2014). UDL is drawn from the broader ideas in architecture which calls for a shift from focusing on the deficits of individuals, and instead arguing that the deficit lies within society, and that is where we should focus our efforts. In the education context, this means that, regardless of a learner’s characteristics, once they are registered to pursue a course or program, the learning content should have relevance to the learner’s disposition within society.  Not considering how the learner will integrate any learnings into their own experience world is counterproductive.

There are additional benefits to such an approach to learning: by designing learning experience with this level of inclusivity, we meet the needs of all learners, but also allow a greater degree of flexibility and choice within learning – and that leads to greater learner engagement with the material. For example, one of the principles of UDL calls for providing multiple means of representation. In terms of video content, this might include providing captions, and an audio only version, and also a transcript as well as the  video content. While the audio only content might be of value to visually impaired learners, it might also be of value to learners who want to listen to the material while driving, or exercising. Equally, the captions might be of value to hearing impaired learners, but also to those where English language is not their first language.

Interactivity … what it means to me (the learner)

Another key principle behind UDL relates to providing multiple means of engagement for all learners. One way of doing this is by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their interpretation through interactions. While this can be seen as a relatively straightforward pedagogical activity (although one that must still be carefully planned), instructors can be myopic in fully comprehending how this can be actioned. Most instructors adhere to their own somewhat accidentally developed pedagogical practice and are apprehensive about change. Adjusting a pedagogical approach to one where all learners are acknowledged and given the opportunity to respond can be difficult especially when looking at different modes of delivery.

We are still developing an understanding of interactivity in the online space – especially in terms of new secondary school learners and their engagement with different learning materials. This group, in particular, has grown up with digital and mobile technologies, and hence has different expectations about interactivity from previous cohorts. In trying to engender interactivity which demonstrates active learning,  institutions often allow users to do relatively simple things: liking a post, for example, or commenting on an article. These are both examples of so-called ‘interactive’ elements that are often utilised by instructors within learning management systems. While they have a place, these are often not what learners today consider to be ‘interactive’ and perhaps do little to boost engagement with learning materials.

Instead, learners are more likely to consider interactivity as something that affords them an element of control over the resources at hand. A good framework to understand this level of control is David Wiley’s 5Rs of Open Education Infrastructure. Wiley (2014) suggests that there are five key elements in how technology can be used in this way. Students can

  1. Retain material: make, own, and control a copy of the resource (eg, download and keep your own copy)
  2. Revise material: edit, adapt, and modify your copy of the resource (e.g., translate into another language)
  3. Remix material: combine an original or revised copy of the resource with other existing material to create something new (eg, make a mashup)
  4. Reuse material: use your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource publicly (eg, on a website, in a presentation, in a class)
  5. Redistribute material: share copies of your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource with others (eg, post a copy online or give one to a friend)

While these might not all be possible within the proprietary constraints of an institutions learning management systems, some of them should be – for example, students are more than capable of sharing work they’ve created more widely than within the class, and they are also capable of contributing to co-created resources, or being actively included as prosumers rather than only consuming pre-created materials (de Alvarez and  Dickson-Deane, 2018).

Bringing it all together

What does this mean for socially just learning design? Perhaps not surprisingly, Wiley’s ideas about open educational resources bear some similarity to Nancy Fraser’s (2007) three dimensional theory of social justice education. In even more ‘R’s, Fraser suggests that socially just education can be enacted through redistribution (increasing access to education for all), recognition (by reconsidering what is taught) and representation (developing authentic partnerships between students and teachers in decision-making processes). Combining these ideas with the principles of UDL, it is possible to develop a framework for socially just learning design (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Framework for socially just learning design activities

The examples below explain how such a framework might be operationalised.

1. Creating relevance by adding context to an existing OER

It’s common practice for students to be assigned a particular textbook as part of any course. Related to or based upon their reading of this textbook (and other activities as part of the course) students complete some form of summative assessment, often in the form of a written essay or report. However, using the framework above, it’s possible to make this activity both more engaging and more socially just. For example, by allowing the students to contribute or create an open source textbook on the topic, the task is automatically more authentic (as it’s a real world problem) and the future course materials are more representative towards the specific needs of the learner, their cohort and their immediate interaction within their societal base.

2. Adjusting rubrics to accommodate for any media-delivery

Another way of ensuring more socially-just approaches of learning design is by assessing student responses based on the communication of the assessment content and not on the foundational base of medium in which assessed content is delivered.  Whilst this can be difficult for some course content, if we restrict students to only provide responses to learning objectives within one medium this actively creates hurdles for students. If understanding of the content is what matters, then allow them to communicate it in the best way they know how. We can develop the above example about contributing to a textbook further: by allowing students to submit a different form of assessment (a short video, a webpage, an interactive learning object), it is also possible to allow students to make use of multiple means of expression. In this way, we have allowed greater representation, more means of expression, and made use of the revise and redistribute principles from Wiley (2014).

3. Giving learners choices in assessments

Learners have to manage their times differently.  Either redesigning assessments that can provide the opportunity to students to be selective in submission (phased submission in parts or delivery all at once) or a choice of three out of five assessments to complete allows learners to regain control of their own learning and customise it to themselves whilst still adhering to course intended outcomes.  Focusing the assessment to all students to fully access the disciplinary knowledge within their own context allows for redistribution of relevant and vital knowledge (Fraser, 2007).

Conclusion

In short, socially just learning design has significant potential to improve outcomes – not just for students in marginalised groups, but for all students. By combining Fraser’s 3D social justice model with aspects of UDL and the 5 R’s for Open Education into a cohesive framework, it is possible to design learning in such a way that all students have the opportunity and resources required to succeed.

Dr Camille Dickson-Deane is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education Learning Design, Faculty of Science, University of Technology, Sydney (E: Camille.dickson-deane@uts.edu.au). Dr Keith Heggart is a Lecturer in the School of International Studies and Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney (E: keith.heggart@uts.edu.au). Kae Novak ABD is a doctoral student in the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado-Denver (E: novak.kae@gmail.com).

References

Boyles, D, Carusi, T, and Attick, D (2009) ‘Historical and critical interpretations of social justice’ Handbook of social justice in education  New York, NY: Routledge pp30-42

Crenshaw, KW (2017) On intersectionality: Essential writings New York: The New Press

Cronbach, LJ, and Snow, RE (1969) Individual Differences in Learning Ability as a Function of Instructional Variables Final Report Stanford, CA: School of Education, Stanford

Fraser, N (2003) ‘Social justice in the age of identity politics: redistribution, recognition and participation’ in Fraser, N and Honneth A (eds) (2003) Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange London: Verso pp7-109

Fraser, N. (2007). Reframing justice in a globalizing world. Global inequality: Patterns and explanations, 252-272

Hocking, C. (2010). Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: a Synthesis of Research. York: Higher Education Academy.

Jonassen, DH and Grabowski, B (1993) Individual differences and instruction New York: Allen and Bacon

Meyer, A, Rose, DH, and Gordon, DT (2014) Universal design for learning: Theory and practice Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing

de Alvarez, MS and Dickson-Deane, C (2018) ‘Avoiding educational technology pitfalls for inclusion and equity’ TechTrends 62(4): 345-353

Wiley, D (2014) ‘The Access Compromise and the 5th R.’ in An Open Education Reader https://openedreader.org/chapter/the-access-compromise-and-the-5th-r/


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Connections, Collage and Collaboration during Covid19 and beyond…

by Suzanne Culshaw

Earlier this year I became aware of an SRHE sponsorship opportunity, which, if successful, would allow me to attend an Early Career Researcher’s conference in Hamburg, organised by the GfHf (SRHE’s German ‘sister’ association). I submitted my proposal and crossed my fingers. It turned out that my application – to lead a methodological workshop using collage, a method I used in my PhD research – had sparked some interest and I was being offered an all-expenses trip to Germany! But then Covid19 crept onto the scene and I received the sad news that the trip couldn’t go ahead and the ECR conference was on hold. A few months later and my contact in Germany, Lisa Walther, got in touch asking whether I’d still like to present my work, this time within an Ideas Forum, online. I jumped at the chance, and, as a fluent German speaker, even found myself offering to do the presentation in German!

Early August soon came around and I joined the Zoom room, to find about 15 other people all looking forward to a stimulating afternoon of presentations, discussion and networking. Having only ever presented my research in German once, I was perhaps more nervous than usual, but was glad to have the chance to ‘warm up’ by listening to and engaging with the earlier presenters before launching into mine.

The focus of my presentation was a provocation that struggling is a particularly English phenomenon. It isn’t, of course, but I wanted to demonstrate that struggling isn’t easily translatable into German, which is interesting in its own right. I outlined the main findings of my PhD research – the various dimensions of the experience of struggling as a teacher – and spent some time sharing my methodological approach. My research participants had the opportunity to express their experience of struggling by creating a collage, using arts and crafts materials which could be placed and moved as their thinking developed (Culshaw, 2019a and 2019b).

I shared the challenges I faced when intermingling the verbal (interview) and visual (collage) data, highlighting the ambiguities and inconsistencies in the complex stories which were shared with me.

With the presentation over, I fielded a number of questions, with some focussing on the method and whether I had considered videoing the process of collage-creation. Others asked about whether struggling is a phenomenon experienced by educators in higher education (my research is situated in the secondary school context). This is something I am hoping to explore in the coming months, as part of a new research proposal. I was also recommended people to follow on twitter, whose work resonates with mine.

On the following day, I received an email from Lisa Walther, inviting me to lead an online workshop in the autumn. I’ve also been approached by a colleague in Luxembourg who is interested in a collaborative project, focussing on the experience of struggling in the light of the current pandemic. I am thrilled to have made these connections and embrace the opportunities that are emerging! Whilst I’d still like to have visited Hamburg in person, connecting online with a group of German academics has been a real highlight of my nascent ECR career.

So, if you’re wondering whether to apply for a sponsorship or a grant, or similar, then what’s stopping you? Look at what my application has led to … and who knows what else might come of these connections I’ve made. I’m very grateful to SRHE for supporting my proposal and to the German team for making me feel so welcome in their ECR – #HoFoNa – community. My next step is to try to write a similar blog in German – wünscht mir viel Glück!

Dr Suzanne Culshaw is a part-time Research Fellow in the School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, where she held a PhD scholarship. Her doctoral research explored what it means to be struggling as a teacher; Suzanne’s conceptualisation of struggling takes it out of the capability and performativity arenas and places it well and truly in the wellbeing domain. She is a qualified languages teacher and until recently was teaching part-time in Suffolk. She has a keen interest in wellbeing, educational leadership and professional learning. Suzanne is particularly drawn to creative and arts-based research methods, especially collage. She is currently working on an Erasmus+ project exploring the use of arts-based and embodied learning approaches to leadership development. She tweets at @SuzanneCulshaw.

References

Culshaw, S (2019a) An exploration of what it means to be struggling as a secondary teacher in England. University of Hertfordshire. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/handle/2299/22082

Culshaw, S (2019b) ‘The unspoken power of collage? Using an innovative arts-based research method to explore the experience of struggling as a teacher’ London Review of Education, 17(3): 268–283 https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.17.3.03


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More important than ever: the school perspective on outreach in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

By Neil Raven

In recent months the attention of those working to widen university access has been directed towards understanding and responding to the impact of the pandemic-enforced closure of schools and colleges. However, there is now a need to look further ahead. It seems increasingly unlikely that the new school year will witness the resumption of traditional outreach activities. Indeed, it is possible that those engaged in widening access may be crowded out, as schools and colleges focus on catching up on months of missed work, and as restrictions placed on external visitors and visits by groups of pupils limit opportunities to interact with students. Drawing on the findings from a recent virtual workshop held with teaching and careers professionals at one school, a proportion of whose pupils come from educationally deprived areas, this blog explores the role that widening access could play when the new school term starts and how outreach could be effectively delivered.

The focus on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people from under-represented backgrounds has been reflected in recent reports and studies. Responding to the lockdown and the closure of schools and colleges has been a necessary first step. However, we also need to look further ahead. It seems unlikely that the new school year will mark a return to more ‘normal’, pre-pandemic conditions, including the resumption of outreach activity as ‘traditionally’ practised.

When the new school term starts, widening participation could be crowded out (displaced) for two reasons. First, with many young people having been away from school – and formal education – for the best part of six months, the need to concentrate on the curriculum and catch up on what has been missed is likely to be uppermost in teachers’ minds. Should they decide to ‘circle the wagons’, as one teaching contact put it, then outreach might be viewed as a luxury, perhaps even a distraction from the core mission.

The second reason is more practical, in terms of delivering outreach. As Savage suggests, schools are very unlikely to ‘fully re-open’ in September. There may be restrictions on external visitors and outside visits by parties of pupils. Even if external visitors are allowed, the way classes are organised – in peer group bubbles with limits on the numbers congregating in any one place – may well hamper outreach efforts. The threat of sudden local, regional or even national closures should new coronavirus outbreaks occur, would see a halt to any face-to-face and school-based encounters.

However, this is speculation: we need to gather the teaching professionals’ perspective. They are busy individuals facing an unprecedented set of challenges in preparing for the new term, but I was able to arrange a meeting with a small group from one secondary school, a proportion of whose pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That this could be done virtually was a significant advantage, with two of the three participants working from home. It was also conducted on an online platform that these teaching professionals have become very familiar with over recent months. Our discussion took the form of a small workshop with those who could bring a strategic as well as operational perspective. All three had remits that encompassed careers and progression in their roles as deputy head, head of careers, and careers co-ordinator respectively. In addition, the classroom viewpoint was covered since one of the participants was also a teaching member of staff. Consequently, we were able to consider the school’s perspective on outreach, the nature of the outreach challenge faced by its pupils, and what a realistic outreach response might be.

The first reaction of the group was to reject the idea that the objectives of widening access would have to be set aside. Indeed, it was argued that the need to raise awareness and interest in higher education remained highly relevant. In this 11-16 school, this was seen in the context of ensuring students were as ‘prepared as possible’ in terms of the ‘skills and knowledge’ needed for making a successful transition to post-16 study, as well as in being aware of their options at 18. Whilst this was an institutional obligation, it also chimed with a wider ‘social responsibility’, given the ‘make up of our students and the [lower socio-economic] backgrounds some come from’. There was an imperative to ‘get them to aim high’ and support them in fulfilling their ambitions. ‘Without the input from externals’ this was likely to be a harder task.

Similarly, in reply to the suggestion that there would be a considerable opportunity cost to pay for engaging in outreach activity, in terms of the time and energy diverted away from ‘getting on with the curriculum’, reference was made to Gatsby benchmark 4. There is a regulatory requirement that schools and colleges deliver independent careers guidance and the eight Gatsby benchmarks constitute a recommended framework for doing this. This particular benchmark is concerned with embedding careers into the curriculum. In this respect, it was noted that if ‘you are asking staff to spend [a few] minutes saying this will be useful because it can lead you into this job and that job’, then that would not represent a distraction but an important component of their education.

These teaching professionals felt that the need for outreach will become more acute:  the start of the new term would probably reveal additional challenges, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school staff referred to the impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, something also recognised in recent studies. Some students, it was argued, will ‘definitely need emotional support, including in cases where parents have been shielding, or where parents who have lost their jobs’.

Another potential issue concerned students’ ‘ability to study’. Some, it was argued, may have lost their ‘sense of routine’ and it is going to be a ‘challenge to get [them] back into [a] work ethic, [especially] if they have not done much’, or have not been able to do much ‘outside school’. Linked to this were concerns over levels of motivation. Some year 10s (14 year olds) may be questioning how they can ‘pass their exams when they have missed so much work’, whilst there was also a concern that some students could, potentially, have become ‘disengaged’. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation discussed a similar ‘risk’ associated with ‘high levels of absence after schools formally reopen’, especially amongst disadvantaged pupils.

It might be claimed that to address such issues represents a case of mission drift for widening access practitioners whose main concern is to support HE progression. The counter argument is that these additional challenges are likely to fall disproportionately on those groups of young people targeted by outreach initiatives. Moreover, the impact of those challenges may not only hinder their educational engagement but negatively affect their progression prospects.

There is also the question of whether delivering outreach might in practice be crowded out. The reality of this challenge was recognised by the group, with reference made to the improbability of being able to engage in the outreach interventions the school has received in the past, whilst ongoing ‘projects’ targeting various under-represented groups were judged unlikely ‘to happen any time soon’ due to social distancing restrictions. However, a revised and blended approach that included some face-to-face engagement but where greater emphasis was placed on online provision, could work.

Regarding the former, it was suggested that any visitors would need to engage with small groups (or bubbles) of learners, and to work within the classrooms pupils will be assigned to for all their lessons. Turning to virtual initiatives, the school was already exploring placing their post-16 options evening – which includes input from local colleges and universities – online, as well as providing ‘extra information’ on the school’s website for parents and carers, including those with older learners. This would include advice on how parents can support year 11s (15 year olds) in preparing for their next post-16 steps, and that could ‘mirror’ the guidance this year group receive in school about college and sixth choices and the accompanying application processes.

The group also discussed how the virtual outreach offer could be developed. Here reference was made to the value of both universities and colleges (including those with HE programmes) providing videos of what higher-level study would be like. These, it was suggested, could include ‘a day in the life of a student’ and outline the range and types of courses available. Such insights and information were likely to be especially appealing if the students profiled were interviewed and if the videos also showed them attending their classes, as well as illustrating the social activities available and what ‘living in halls is like’.

There was also a need for ‘positive role models’ who, if they were not able to visit the school in person, could do so virtually. Those ‘who have had to cope with [challenging] situations and come through them’ were, it was suggested, likely to have particular appeal. Developing this idea, reference was made to ‘someone who could talk about their difficult journey to university and how they had triumphed over adversity’. That, it was added, ‘would be really useful’ since it is ‘about making positive choices’, especially if these individuals were close to the age of the students they would be talking to.

Mentoring was singled out as a particularly valuable intervention that could, if required, be conducted online. If the sessions took place in school and were supervised by a member of staff, safeguarding measures could be more easily met. Indeed, it was suggested that the challenge could be in securing enough mentors to meet the demand, especially if what was offered included elements of subject enrichment and study support.

Similarly, an online option for embedding careers into the curriculum was identified. Short 3-4 minute videos could be shown in class featuring those in graduate-level occupations talking about what their roles involve and how they trained to do their jobs. These would be especially welcomed if they related to the subjects the students were studying. Such videos could provide a ‘360 degree view of where’ their subjects work. In addition, longer versions of these videos could be shown during registration period, when ‘we do job of the week’. Being aired in class or during registration could also overcome issues around digital access at home and, the ‘digital divide’ that means some learners, often those from poorer backgrounds, have comparatively limited access to the internet, due to a lack of laptops and other devices, as well as the necessary and often expensive data.

Finally, whilst pre-recorded video content had a number of advantages, notably in being accessible whenever required, there could be a role for live links, as long as the technology was in place. Motivational speakers telling their story in real time was likely to have a greater impact than if their message was recorded. Live coverage also offered the chance for interaction with presenters.

In closing, the group emphasised the imperative for outreach practitioners to listen to schools and colleges. Whilst this has always been the case, the need to pay careful attention is perhaps more critical than ever, given that individual institutions are likely to vary in the arrangements they make for the new school year. A small, virtual workshop of the type adopted here may offer a suitable mechanism for gathering these insights and in facilitating the co-production of an effective outreach response to the challenges (both old and new) facing those from under-represented backgrounds.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

My thanks to Suzanne Whiston, Deputy Head, Jan Woolley, head of careers, education and guidance, and Tim Taylor, careers lead, at Murray Park School, Derby, for their time, insights and expertise.

References

Armour, S (2020) ‘Young men most likely to break lockdown rules, mental health study shows’ (7 May) University of Sheffield https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/young-men-most-likely-break-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-psychology-mental-health-study-1.888316

Booth, S (2020) ‘Heads reissue calls for a plan B as PM says September reopening a ‘national priority’’ (31 July)  Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/heads-reissue-calls-for-a-plan-b-as-pm-says-september-reopening-a-national-priority/.

The Careers and Enterprise Company (2020) Gatsby Benchmark,https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/schools-colleges/gatsby-benchmarks/gatsby-benchmark-8.

Cornforth, C (2014) ‘Understanding and combating mission drift in social enterprises’, Social Enterprise Journal, 10 (1): 3-20, https://oro.open.ac.uk/39882/1/SEJ%20paper%202013%20revised-final.pdf.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Rapid evidence assessment Impact of school closures on the attainment gap,https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/REA_-_Impact_of_school_closures_on_the_attainment_gap_summary.pdf.

DfE (2018) Careers guidance and access for education and training providers. Statutory guidance for governing bodies, school leaders and school staff  Department for Education,https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/748474/181008_schools_statutory_guidance_final.pdf.

Helm, T and McKie, R (2020) ‘Teachers and scientists sound alarm over plans to reopen schools in England’ (2 August The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/01/now-teachers-sound-alarm-over-plans-to-reopen-schools.

Helm, T, McKie, R and Sodha, S (2020) ‘School closures ‘will trigger UK child mental health crisis’’ (20 June) The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/20/school-closures-will-trigger-uk-child-mental-health-crisis

Horrocks, S (2020) ‘Bridging the digital divide: evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality’, Education Development Trust

https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/commentary/bridging-the-digital-divide-evidence-and-advice-on.

O. Khan. 2020. ‘Covid-19 must not derail efforts to eliminate equality gaps’, WonkHE, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/covid-19-must-not-derail-efforts-to-eliminate-equality-gaps/

Machin, S, and Murphy, R  (2014) ‘Paying Out and Crowding Out? The Globalisation of Higher Education’, Centre for Economic Performance, Discussion Paper No 1299http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60451/1/dp1299.pdf.

Moss, G (2020) ‘5 reasons to be cautious about estimates of lockdown learning loss’ (1 August) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/5-reasons-to-be-cautious-about-estimates-of-lockdown-learning-loss/.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2020. Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/4073/schools_responses_to_covid_19_pupil_engagement_in_remote_learning.pdf (accessed: 22 June 2020).

Office for Students (2020) Uni Connect https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/uni-connect/.

Ørngreen, R, and Levinsen, K (2017) Workshops as a Research Methodology

Rainford, J (2020) ‘Moving widening participation outreach online: challenge or opportunity?’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (online 30 June 2020)

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13603108.2020.1785968?needAccess=true.

Raven, N (2018) ‘The development of an evaluation framework’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 22 (4), 134-140

Raven, N (2020) ‘Covid-19 and outreach: the challenge and the response’, Widening participation and lifelong learning, 22(2) 255-263.

Roach, P (2020) ‘The digital divide affects teachers as well as their pupils’ (4 May) Schools Week

Robinson, G (2020) ‘The digital divide continues to disadvantage our students’ (29 May) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/the-digital-divide-continues-to-disadvantage-our-students/

Savage, M (2020) ‘Full September return unlikely, with schools warning: ‘it’s not business as usual’ (31 May) The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/31/full-september-return-unlikely-with-schools-warning-its-not-business-as-usual.

Speck, D (2020) ‘Exclusive: Covid-19 ‘widens achievement gap to a gulf’’ ((29 May) Times Educational Supplement https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-widens-achievement-gap-gulf


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Time to take the issue of China into our hands

by Paul Temple

Before it was transferred to The British Museum in 2009, the Percival David collection of Chinese porcelain was displayed in one of the Bloomsbury houses of the University of London, on the corner of Gordon Square. I once asked the SOAS curator for an idea of how important the collection was: he considered for a moment and then said that the only comparable one was in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

I thought about this when reading the recent HEPI report, UK Universities and China, which, perhaps naturally enough, is located in the here-and-now in terms of Sino-British university relations. But we should recall that China has been on the agenda for British universities from at least the late nineteenth-century, with SOAS’s predecessor, the School of Oriental Studies, being founded in 1916.

What new insights on this long-standing relationship does this HEPI collection of essays offer? It almost seems as if the editor provided his authors with a template for their chapters on the lines of:

  1. Remind readers of China’s growing global importance economically and in scientific research.
  2. Mention China’s ancient cultural traditions; more recently, changes within China from the 1980s gave some cause for optimism.
  3. Unfortunately though, Xi Jinping has not turned out to be the enlightened social democratic leader we had hoped for.
  4. In particular, nasty things seem to be happening in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong’s future doesn’t look too bright either.
  5. Meanwhile, many western universities have allowed themselves to become dependent on Chinese money: who knew?
  6. Even so, we must defend our academic values of free speech and fearless investigation, even at the cost of upsetting President Xi.
  7. Problem is, how to reconcile (5) and (6): no easy answers – or actually answers of any sort.
  8. So UK universities maybe need to develop a common strategy towards China. No, seriously.

Does this list – which is of course completely unfair to the authors involved – depress you as much as it depresses me? The essential tension that underlies most of the chapters is that between (5) and (6) in my list – acknowledged more by some authors than others. How have we got ourselves into this situation?

In an SRHE blog of mine which appeared in December 2019, I charted the way public policies in Britain had shifted in the post-war decades from central planning models – whether in utilities, transport, health, education at all levels, and more – to market-based models. Our present “China syndrome” in universities is a direct result of this policy shift: British governments and universities have created the problem – it is not simply because of the global geopolitical changes described by several of the authors here.

It is noteworthy that all the authors in the HEPI study appear to take it for granted that UK universities (actually, the chapter on Australian universities by Salvatore Babones paints an even more concerning picture of the situation there) must receive income from Chinese student fees to survive. But it wasn’t like this once, and doesn’t have to be like it now. This is a recent development: if say twenty years ago you had predicted that British university teachers would soon routinely be lecturing to majority-Chinese classes of maybe a hundred students, people would have thought you were crazy. This situation has arisen entirely because universities were instructed by successive governments to behave as if they were commercial entities, seeking to maximise income from all possible sources, seemingly regardless of the risks involved.

When universities and the then polytechnics were funded through central planning models they did of course admit students from abroad, but in limited numbers. There was no financial incentive to expand numbers, and the planning models assumed certain total student numbers that were funded from various public sources. In some places, international students were in effect funded partially by the host university, after the Thatcher government stopped public funding of their fees in 1980. The assumption until then was that Britain had a responsibility to help poorer countries by providing subsidised education to their nationals and that there would be long-term benefits all round as a result. I’m not arguing that this was a perfect model – simply that there are alternatives to the present arrangements, that once upon a time did actually work.

Don’t get me wrong: China is a fascinating place and I’ve been privileged to meet many Chinese academics in their own universities and to teach Chinese students in London. I’m all in favour of engagement with Chinese peoples and their cultures. But if the nature of British universities is going to change as a result of this engagement, then there should be a frank and open discussion about it. It should not be allowed to happen as if by accident.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


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Curating Academic Knowledge

by Emil Toescu

We live in interesting times in higher education. In the immediate, the pandemic imposed the use of distance learning, leading to a different educational experience and a very different dynamic in the relationship between students and lecturers. And so academic teaching goes on, just displaced from the physical to the virtual space.

But there is another, more fundamental development in European academia: the initiation of a range of multi- or cross-discipline courses. These range from the now fashionable Liberal Arts and (Natural) Sciences 3-4 year degree course (developed mainly in The Netherlands and the UK), developed from the more established US educational model, to a variety of term- or year-long optional courses that aim to provide a multidisciplinary and sometimes interdisciplinary perspective on a particular theme. As an example, for two years I have run for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences students in Birmingham, UK, a course titled ‘Emerging Modernity’ that aims to provide a wider understanding of what ‘modernity’ is by looking at what it means from a variety of perspectives (historical, philosophical, sociological) and how it came about in a range of disciplines (biology, physics, sociology, economics). 

These initiatives acknowledge, de facto, that beyond the traditional disciplines, the real world is complex, full of interlinked problems, that do not easily yield to reductionist approaches, They require a capacity for engaging with multiple perspectives. Examples frequently used in such discussions are sustainability, climate change or gender studies. Nearer to the present moment, the global economic and other consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the policy responses required can be best understood via the lenses of: philosophy (utilitarian theory – what is good for the most of people); history (past plagues); geography (spatial human interaction patterns); politics (government and power structures). We can also user basic science approaches (understanding scientific research methodology and protocols) while taking into account the issues of the limitation of technology (assuming it will solve all our problems). 

Beyond the crucial importance of specialisms, and paying attention to the smallest details, we also  need to see the bigger picture. Like anything else, this capacity to move focus from the wood to the trees and back, this experience in zooming in and out with grace and fluidity, requires training.

Dealing with the intricate issues of today also requires an ability and willingness to view issues from different angles and to scan for multiple perspectives. This is akin to developing a conceptual tri-dimensional vision, rotating and inspecting an issue from various planes. Such an ability requires, again, training and exercise.

Interdisciplinarity is a key concept in approaching these topics. There are many definitions of the concept, that are applicable both to interdisciplinary research (IDR) activities and interdisciplinary education in academia (IDEA) [1], all starting from the view that interdisciplinarity describes an “interaction that may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organising concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and organisation of research and education in a fairly large field.” [2] One way to avoid the possible, and frequent, confusion between the terms multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, is to point to the integrative nature of the interdisciplinary efforts, rather than the simpler, but still important and relevant, juxtapositions that characterise the multidisciplinary approaches. 

Because of its potential for integration of different perspectives and approaches, interdisciplinarity has been a buzz word in academia for some time. In research, in the UK, the REF framework for assessment of the quality of academic output has many examples of such efforts in the impact cases submitted for assessment (also illustrated by striking infographics [3]). The REF in 2021 will have a whole section, Area Studies, dedicated to IDR [4]. In academic education, interdisciplinarity is by now a keyword on most UK Universities’ prospectuses, reviewed in a lengthy report by the Higher Education Academy [5].

There is one important teleologic characteristic that features in many discussions: interdisciplinarity is not an end in itself, but instead an approach, a tool to be used to answer specific, identifiable questions of needs [6]. While this perspective is immediately relevant for the research activity, it also has consequences for delivering interdisciplinarity in academic education. An interdisciplinary course should be organized, ideally, based on a theme: an issue, an idea, a topic, an era. [7] The point is that different disciplinary perspectives on the theme are integrated and provided as readings and assignments. In such courses, the lectures will reflect a balanced mixture between the specialist and visionary perspectives and show a mutual respect between these two approaches, a respect frequently missing as one view is considered too narrow-minded and the other one too superficial. This purpose can be achieved by taking a different approach to academic education: curating academic knowledge

The concept of ‘curating’ is rather fashionable. Until recently its use was restricted to a category of museum professionals who were in charge of maintaining museum collections and organising exhibitions. The job title has its origins in the Latin cura meaning ‘care’ and designating a person that ‘has care of’ or ‘takes care’, not only in the physical but also in the spiritual sense. 

The meaning evolved, as OED notes, from the stricter “one who cares for the souls” (1432) to a more practical “manager or steward” (1632) and “keeper or custodian” (1661). As the parish curate looks after the parishioners and their spiritual well-being, so a museum curator takes care of the museum collections and also perhaps the visitor’s well-being. 

Since the mid-1990s, curating started to have another dimension and be seen as a creative activity, and the curator is, more and more, an auteur who  proposes an idea for exploration and experiments with different formats, different ways of experiencing the art, and creating different meanings. Old views and formats are challenged and new forms are invented and proposed.

In the wake of this development of meaning, curating has become a buzz word in popular culture, and nowadays one can curate almost anything, from web content, or experiences, to performances, music or even food. Thus curating becomes more akin to conceptualising ideas and selecting, juxtaposing and interpreting items to provide an illustration of a central idea. It is time, maybe, to extend this curatorial concept to education and use it in the development of the new multi- and cross-disciplinary academic courses, in which the course organiser becomes a curator. 

In universities, any course organiser is, by definition of his or her terms of employment, a specialist in one particular discipline or field of learning. As such, in erecting the scaffolding of a new cross-disciplinary course, s/he cannot provide the texture and the fine grain of other disciplines, neither of concepts or methodologies, and a specialist in that topic will be required. This is even more relevant when the courses attempt to bridge the science-humanities divide. Humanities, with their softer and fuzzier discipline boundaries provide a better environment for the development of interdisciplinary approaches, and it is not surprising that most of the liberal arts and interdisciplinary courses in various universities are in humanities. Disciplinary boundaries in sciences are arguably more defined and the methodologies working within those field are perhaps more specific, but all these should not detract from the effort to create interdisciplinary modules.

The academic curator will thus provide the theme, the guiding lines and the cross-disciplinary perspective and from this position will interact with academic colleagues, or other necessary contributors, to bring to life the proposed academic theme and give students the opportunity to engage with the subject from a variety of perspectives. 

At the very least this will provide a multi-disciplinary context, in which the various contributors will engage with the central theme from their specialist perspective. But such an approach has also the potential to provide a true interdisciplinary experience. The presenting specialist is now able to engage with another discipline, and the students will get a feel for how to integrate knowledge into a more inclusive framework of analysis.

Museums are places of learning and recently became more active spaces: through smart curating they are creating an environment that fosters making new connections and encourages discoveries of new perspectives. Through a similar creative academic curation, academia can create a new student-centred environment, helping the development of the professionals of the 21st century. 

Dr Emil C Toescu is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK, and Deputy Director, Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries, Medical School,  at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is working on researching the interfaces between science and humanities as seen from a science perspective, and can be reached at emiltoescu.ac@gmail.com.

References

[1] Klein, JT (2017) ‘Typologies of Interdisciplinarity: the Boundary Work of Definition’, in Frodeman, R, Klein, JT and Santos Pacheco, R (eds) (2017) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity

[2] Heckhausen, H (1972) ‘Discipline and interdisciplinarity’ in: Apostel, L, Berger, G, Briggs, A and Michaud, G (eds) Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities Paris: OECD

[3] interactive graph: https://www.digital-science.com/visualizations/ref-case-study-similarity-network/; background presentation of analysis: https://www.digital-science.com/resources/digital-research-reports/digital-research-report-the-diversity-of-uk-research-and-knowledge/. 

[4] https://www.ref.ac.uk/about/blogs/a-disciplinary-perspective-on-interdisciplinary-research-area-studies/ 

[5] Lyall, C, et al (2015) Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges https://documents.advance-he.ac.uk/download/file/4604

[6] Council of Graduate Schools (2014) University Leaders Issue Statement on Interdisciplinarity in Graduate Education and Research https://cgsnet.org/university-leaders-issue-statement-interdisciplinarity-graduate-education-and-research

[7] Encyclopedia of Education (2020) Interdisciplinary Courses And Majors In Higher Educationhttps://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/interdisciplinary-courses-and-majors-higher-education


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Welcome to the new second class: Covid negative with underlying health conditions

by Katherine Deane

HE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

First please understand the risks – you are given a bowl with 100 sweets in it. You are invited to pick one to eat. But, you are warned two of those sweets will kill you, 18 of them will make you so ill you will be hospitalised, but most people find their sweets OK.

Have a sweet.

No? These are the risks the average person runs with Covid-19.

Now, let’s make you over 70, or with an ‘underlying health condition’, so your bowl of sweets has up to 15 that will kill you and most of the rest will hospitalise you. I hope you’ll agree no sane person would voluntarily eat those sweets.

But I can guarantee in weeks to come I will be gaslighted; told I am over-reacting, being over-cautious as I continue to self-isolate. You see I am at higher risk because I have multiple disabilities which mean my capacity to be resilient in the face of Covid-19 is reduced. I’m not at highest risk, but I would expect to be hospitalised at least with Covid-19.

So, when the lockdown is released and you can “get back to normal” spare a thought for people like me. We will be staying indoors, working from home (where we can), and hoping to not pick up Covid-19 as it sweeps through our communities again and again. Yes, the numbers of those infected will be lower, the risk reduced, but would you want to risk eating even a single sweet from that second bowl? Every trip outside, every meeting, every class, every hospital appointment, will offer people like me another chance to catch Covid-19. And until we have a vaccine – likely to be at least 2 years away – this will be our life. We will be living in ‘splendid isolation’.

This will affect people who previously would never have identified as disabled – asthmatics, diabetics, anyone over 70. Their lives will be disabled by the need to not catch Covid-19. For up to 2 years. We have lives to lead even if they are restricted by Covid. So, we hope that you remember us and continue to offer to get our shopping. We hope that friends will still call us. That theatres and bands will still offer us virtual viewings. For those in education, whether at school or university, we hope that these institutions continue to support online learning for students who fear returning to the large crowded classrooms and lecture theatres.

We hope (probably against hope) that the government will protect workers’ rights to not take a sweet from that toxic bowl, and that whether we are in the highest risk group or just have ‘underlying health conditions’ we are allowed to work remaining isolated if we choose to. We may wish to work from home, and we would like that to be a right where possible. We may need retraining if our previous work role can’t be performed virtually. We would love it if working from home was not implied to be shirking. We would love everyone to remember how difficult ‘splendid isolation’ is to live in.

And remember this is likely to affect huge numbers of people – I guesstimate at least 20% of the working population. With skills and talents and value that should not be wasted just because of a virus. Covid-19 is going to have massive impact on society. Let’s not allow it to create a new disabled underclass isolated and having to make invidious choices between poverty and health.

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


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Don’t call me vulnerable

by Katherine Deane

SRHE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

Covid-19 came along and suddenly we had a whole new dictionary of terms to learn. Social distancing, social isolating, shielding. But some of the terms were already ‘known’ and came with their own baggage. Some people were told they were vulnerable and should shut themselves away – shield themselves from the virus. But as my 79 year old fiercely independent mother said: “I’m not vulnerable, I’ve never been vulnerable in my life.” And she was right – she was at high risk of poor medical outcomes if she were to catch the virus – but she wasn’t vulnerable – she was in a vulnerable situation.

Disabled people, people with underlying health conditions, older people, have the same rights to life as anyone else. We are not vulnerable. But this virus – and the governmental response to it – does place us at higher risk. But risks are something that can be reduced, mitigated, done something about. Risks are the responsibility of all of us to manage, whereas vulnerability lies with the person – and there is nothing that can be done about that.

These labels – vulnerable, elderly, frail, with underlying health conditions, disabled – became an excuse to dismiss the deaths. Oh well, what could you expect – they were already ill and then they got Covid-19, so of course they died. The government reassures the public still – it’s only if you are ‘vulnerable’ that you need fear this virus. But it’s become clearer and clearer that this has allowed a great toll of unnecessary deaths to be excused. The language has prevented criticism and deeper examination of why these people died. After all, they were vulnerable – so they must have contributed less, been a burden on society. The responsibility for their response to the virus was laid upon their shoulders. These people are vulnerable – there is little we can do – so let’s shrug our shoulders. Should they even expect them to have the same access to healthcare, social support, or respect even, as a fit healthy young person does? Their deaths are ‘to be expected’.

But what if the tables were turned – if the virus took the young and fit preferentially. Would there still be stories of the deaths of ‘vulnerable young people’ dying – so sad, but what can you expect? Would they be told off for going outside? Would they be expected to shut themselves away for potentially years on end as they wait for a vaccine? Doesn’t sound so ‘reasonable’ or ‘expected’ now, does it?

We are now seeing that this virus highlights many of society’s inequalities. That it is more likely to kill you if you are black, poor, live in an area of high air pollution. Are these ‘vulnerabilities’ too? Or are they risks? This virus has placed a magnifying glass on some of the structural biases within our society. Are we seeing institutionalised eugenics by neglect?

So, watch your language. As a disabled person I am at risk of an early death from many things, including this virus. We can do – and need to do – something about these risks. Don’t ignore your responsibility for calling for change by calling us vulnerable.

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