srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

Leading a university out of the pandemic

by Warren Bebbington

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

Faced with COVID-19’s array of challenges, the role of leadership in a university has never been more taxing. Many university leaders facing enrolment declines in 2020 move quickly to deal with  immediate financial threats: to delay capital works, to cancel unviable courses, to curtail non-core expenditure and administrative costs, to consolidate management roles, reduce executive remuneration, and to cooperate with unions in introducing salary and recruitment freezes.

But increasingly the minds of university leaders are occupied with the future. For in the shadow of the pandemic, they have a pivotal opportunity to rethink their institutions. Can a university continue with multiple aims of research, professional education, job training, economic advice and community engagement, or should it instead identify and focus more on its most distinctive, most outstanding activity? Would this be on its strongest fields of research? Or on excellent teaching? Or on community engagement?

The pandemic’s consequence of having suddenly drawn online learning from the fringe to the centre of delivery will profoundly affect this consideration of the way forward. With online learning now at the core of teaching, a new balance between physical and online modes will need to be identified across the campus offerings. A university needs to identify the full array of activities needed for instruction and how they might blend f2f and online in a hybrid delivery mode. It has been said lab experiments are impossible online, yet many secondary schools in the pandemic used virtual experiment software in science subjects with success. Methods need developing to better manage staff-student interaction, class discussion, group projects, data sharing, and fieldwork. Even the extra-curricular campus life can be drawn in, as there are ways student clubs, societies, perhaps even sporting fixtures can develop with online components.

Moreover, the financial plight of so many universities makes the traditional but fundamentally inefficient calendar for use of campus facilities less defensible. Universities should consider adopting genuinely year-round operations, beyond the marginal use of summer semesters – to three full semesters, from which student could choose two to enrol in, or accelerate their progress through all three. Full-time faculty should be able to elect whether they teach a full load across two semesters or reduce their load across all three.

A changed F2F/remote balance of delivery will also involve reconceiving the physical university:  abandoning the construction of more new lecture theatre and classroom buildings and instead repurposing existing buildings to interactive learning commons, innovation hubs with industry, or student-led learning spaces. Moreover, it may be that sessions for students off-campus at rented neighborhood schools or community centres should be added, where small groups of students can come together locally rather than travelling to campus,  a far less costly arrangement than providing new campus buildings. Meetings in rented space off-shore might be needed in significant quantity too.

Undeniably, all teaching faculty will need enhanced development programs in pedagogical skills, covering instructional design blending F2F and technology, introducing online learning practices and current digital tools, and considering the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous modes for each subject. These development programs will need to consider how to motivate students online, how to promote deeper rather than superficial understanding of content, and how to develop online assessment and feedback. It is also time to promote research in cognitive learning more broadly, gathering empirical data for different methods of instruction, and developing a reflective future teaching practice for the hybrid environment.  IT development and support of a campus’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) will need expansion, and staff support networks in online pedagogy will need incentivising.

A university’s  increased complexity may now be a weakness, as it strives to serve too many aims—to educate for the professions, to train for jobs, to conduct research, to offer expertise to local and national governments, and to aid the economic development of each university’s local region or the nation. Trying to satisfy a “multi-varsity” set of goals adds costs and increased size of a kind that is now demonstrably unsustainable. And slavishly tailoring a campus offering to the rankings might be questioned: better for a university to define its mission more sharply, then choose its own suite of appropriate performance measures.

Narrowing a university’s mission leads to the question of right-sizing the university itself. The future is likely smaller than the large, complex multi-varsity of the past – each university should focus on carving out more sharply a truly distinctive character and appropriate size for its future. Universities will need to play to their greatest strengths – to focus on a limited array of first-class research areas; or on distinction in teaching and learning, graduate or undergraduate (not necessarily both).

Prospectively, there is no stronger principle for restoring financial sustainability than a focus on a smaller core; reducing administration costs to match; and freeing up capital, not just by abandoning new building programs by selling property no longer essential in a hybrid learning environment, but also by repurposing existing buildings, renting local or offshore space where F2F teaching demands it, while instead investing strategically in online infrastructure, in digital staff upskilling, and in blended course development.

Despite the unprecedented disruption it brought, the 2020 pandemic signalled a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a strategic transformation in universities, toward more differentiated character and missions for each university, and a resizing of each university and its resources to fit new, more focused goals.  COVID-19’s wrenching of online learning and digital tools to the core of delivery methods should begin a development towards a menu of hybrid learning modes on most campuses, supported by much more sophisticated preparation for teaching staff in blended learning pedagogy and digital tools.  With bold thought and a clear vision, there is every reason for optimism about the future of the university as an enduring institution.

Warren Bebbington is a Professorial Fellow at the L.H. Martin Institute, University of Melbourne, and former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide. This blog follows a paper presented at the L.H.Martin October Webfest 2020; a fuller treatment of this subject is Warren Bebbington, “Leadership Strategies for a Higher Education Sector in Flux”, Studies in Higher Education (Dec 2020).


Leave a comment

The impact of COVID 19 on private higher education: the Ethiopian experience

by Wondwosen Tamrat

This blog is a short summary of the author’s paper for a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. This issue is currently free to access and includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020. Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021. The paper presented the findings of a study that sought to examine the impact of the pandemic on the private higher education (PHE) sector in Ethiopia. It employed a mixed-methods design using a weekly diary of significant events kept between the months of April and August,2020, and two online surveys conducted between the months of April and May, 2020, and at the end of August, 2020, respectively. Among 110 private higher education institutions contacted for the purpose of the study, ninety-seven institutions (89%) responded to the first survey while 77 (70%) institutions gave back their answers during the second survey.

Together with tourism and travel, higher education has been identified as one of the major sectors upended by the COVID-19 pandemic (The Economist 2020). Despite the lack of research on the area, anecdotal evidence suggests that the effect of the pandemic may be more pronounced in the private higher education (PHE) sector whose resource base and capacity are too limited to withstand the impact of a crisis of this magnitude.

Arguably, in many systems, private colleges are over-reliant on student tuition and do not count on direct government support or emergency grants to keep them afloat. The search for external support is also not easy at a time when institutions are losing their selling points due to the pandemic which has indeed presented an unprecedented challenge such as reduced admissions, cash flow problems, inability to pay salaries, and furloughing of staff. 

Initial experiences and reactions

The first confirmed case in Ethiopia, reported on 7 March, was a Japanese advisor employed to provide technical assistance to Ethiopian schools. Things moved quickly after the Ministry of Health reported the case in public media. Ethiopia’s 30 million learners in schools and nearly a million in its 50 public universities and more than 250 private academic institutions were identified as high potential transmission sites. On 16 March, the Prime Minister announced that schools and universities would halt classes for 2 weeks. On 17 March, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave further directions on how universities should act during the closure.

In the immediate aftermath of the closure, the Ethiopian government set up a national task force that mobilized the public towards combatting the impacts of the pandemic. Most higher education institutions (HEIs), including the privates, responded to the call by donating money, sanitary items, essential supplies, and even their buildings to be used for quarantine and storage purposes. According to a figure obtained from the Ethiopian TVET and Private Higher Education Institutions’ Association, donations worth more than ETB 30 million (nearly US$ 1 million) were raised by private institutions for the cause. Private medical colleges also enlisted nearly 4000 of their medical students to be deployed by the government to combat the pandemic.

Government also made further interventions in the form of declaration of a state of emergency and providing support to the private sector. Whereas the initial government shutdown had a largely common impact across sectors, the declaration of a state of emergency loomed as potentially disastrous for many private institutions. The limited assistance provided to private enterprises by government went mostly to manufacturing, hotel, horticulture, floriculture, and others labeled most affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, PHE was not on that priority list and as a consequence, the only workable benefits extended to PHEIs were a 4-month employee income tax exemption, the postponement of pension payments for a few months, and regulation that bans landlords from increasing rents and evicting tenants including PHE institutions.

The challenges of shifting online

Shifting to online delivery was difficult in the Ethiopian context for many reasons. Poor internet access, cost, availability of computers and related technology, little previous preparation, and students’ and teachers’ twin problems of limited technical knowhow and negative attitudes towards the use of information and communication technology stood out as the most prevalent problems both for public and private HEIs.

Most institutions used social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Google Classroom in their program delivery, a few struggled to develop their own learning management systems more recently. Despite such efforts, not much is known about the most disadvantaged students who are being left behind. Mechanisms such as creating zero-rated access to specific educational websites, universities, digital libraries and online knowledge hubs, and offering free data bundles to students, that were observed in some African countries have not been practised in Ethiopia.

Impact on income

Ethiopian PHEIs rely entirely on student tuition and fees. An overwhelming majority had the practice of collecting fees on a monthly basis which immediately put many of them in jeopardy immediately after the official closure of the sector. Government policy that crippled undergraduate finance has been a weightier problem for private than public since PHE depended almost solely on tuition from its undergraduates.

The strain of paying monthly rent, staff salaries, and other expenses was also a serious challenge. Under normal circumstances, along with salary, rent accounts for more than three-fourth of PHE’s monthly expenses. PHEIs were forced to ask for the postponement of payment periods, abandon some of their branches, and/or settle their rents by taking loans from other sources. While a limited number of institutions continued to pay salaries, the majority faced the increasing difficulties of meeting this responsibility. Making late payments, salary reductions and entering into litigations due to failure to pay such expenses were challenges faced by many HEIs.

Impact on employment

Many institutions have frozen new employment and stopped employing part-time workers who constitute a significant portion of the workforce in the private higher education sector which relies heavily on such staff. Another impact has been the reduction of the productivity of workers compared to the earlier days. Institutions also claim that the output of their employees has been reduced significantly after the disruption of classes. The pandemic is further expected to have a significant impact on the future employability of graduates (around 150,000 per annum) across both the public and private sectors.

Leadership challenges

The leadership in the private sector carried huge burdens in combating the impact of COVID 19 which was exacerbated by the sadness of the pandemic and the little preparation they had. Institutional limitation in collecting fees and paying salary and rent has created a condition whereby leaders had to abandon their normal plans and attend to day-to-day challenges. The declining work ethics and their failure to provide enough information about the fate of their institutions was another challenge. The struggles to convince students to pay and employees to share the financial strains they are going through were the major occupations of institutional leaders for the past several months.

Leaders were also perturbed by a high level of uncertainty and hopelessness as regards the fate of their institutions. Although they are hopeful about the start of classes in the last two months, the feeling of uncertainty still appears to linger in their disposition as adjusting to the ‘new normal’ cannot be an easy task. Further, the limited help obtained from the government so far appears to have worsened the feeling of hopelessness compounded by the fear of the unknown which still appears to haunt most of the leaders.

Conclusion

It is possible to envision a post-COVID future in which PHE has lost much bad as well as some good from its long-unbridled expansion and in which some of the fitter not only survive but improve their organizational management and certainly their use of technology in educational provision.

Private institutions still expect meaningful interventions in areas that include tax exemptions, long-term loans, rent waiver or reduction, direct financial support from the government, assistance with online platforms, reduced internet costs, facilitating student access to computers with reduced costs, etc.

It is understandable that the government is overwhelmed by a multitude of social, political, and economic pressures unleashed by COVID-19 as it is preparing for the reopening of higher education institutions. However, unless a substantial intervention is made in terms of assisting the PHE sector and/or influencing financial institutions to provide meaningful assistance, this sector, which boasts the largest number of students in Africa (Tamrat and Levy, 2017) and caters to the needs of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians will be significantly weakened.

While solving the challenges of the economy remains a key to addressing anticipated problems caused by COVID-19, the findings of this survey strongly point to the need for close monitoring of PHE to curb the continued impact of the pandemic. Further, continuous and fruitful dialogues are needed between the government and sector representatives in order to maintain the confidence of PHE institutions in government policy aimed at ensuring their survival.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an Associate Professor and Founding President of St. Mary’s University in Ethiopia. He is an affiliate scholar of the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) headquartered at the State University of New York at Albany, US. He coordinates the Sub-Cluster for Private Higher Education in Africa under the African Union’s Higher Education Cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa, CESA 2016-25.


Leave a comment

Bayes, Keynes, King and Fritz: fake news and academics with fixed ideas

By Paul Alper

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” – John Maynard Keynes

On the Fritz – Unknown. Attested from 1902, originally meaning “in a bad way” or “in bad condition”, malfunctioning of an appliance. Perhaps from German name Fritz, or by onomatopoeia (here, imitating the sound of electric sparks jumping).

In statistics, Bayesianism plays an important role.  According to Wikipedia, Thomas Bayes was an English statistician, philosopher and Presbyterian minister who is known for formulating a specific case of the theorem that bears his name: Bayes’ theorem. Bayes never published what would become his most famous accomplishment; his notes were edited and published after his death.

Bayes’ theorem is the way of combining what one currently believes with the new data in order to come up with an updated belief. In fact, this is how things like machine learning and weather forecasting are done successfully. Eventually, enough new data can override/supplement initial beliefs. Keynes was thus a Bayesian, albeit a couple of hundred years after Bayes.

Giving up a previous position is never easy – people are not machines – and note that the Keynesian quotation is, in fact, apocryphal. To illustrate further how resistant to updating humans are, consider Karen King, a distinguished Harvard professor, as discussed in Ariel Sabar’s book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

Karen King would seem to me to be a classic case of someone, who despite (because of?) being very accomplished, just cannot accept that her idée fixe – Mary Magdalen was both wife and lead disciple of Jesus – could be wrong. In passing, I should note that my long-standing personal idée fixe is that academics in general suffer the same affliction. She is also typical in that when evidence arises that counters her convictions, she actively attempts to dismiss its importance. For details regarding her (mis)weighing of the data, see Mark Oppenheim’s review of Sabar’s book in the New York Times.

The other main character in the book is the con man, Walter Fritz, who may indeed for all I know, be an expert on Bayesianism. He seems to be knowledgeable in Egyptology, papyrology, sex video productions and, for good measure, he was the head of the Stasi museum in Berlin. More importantly, he knew how to exploit the weakness of his mark. He delivered to King precisely what she wanted to be true. Sabar expends a great deal of shoe-leather journalism to find the gaps in Fritz’s storyline and King’s willingness to be a believer.  Almost right to the end, she never was onto Fritz or heard the electric sparks jumping.

But apparently this failure to hear the sparks jumping also afflicts the half of the US who believe deeply, truly and incorrectly that the 2020 election was rigged by The Deep State, an entity so shadowy that finding no evidence of its existence is further proof of its existence. Currently, because of the mob raid on the United States Capitol, Republican legislators are in a Bayesian quandary as to if, when and how to leave the Trump ship. The new data really aren’t all that different from the old data but after a while, as they say, enough is enough, especially when fascist-type behavior is captured on video immediately after deep-south Georgia elected two Democrats to the United States Senate. I am tempted to repeat my favorite quotation from a TV program of my youth:

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time—and them’s pretty good odds.”

Paul Alper is an emeritus professor at the University of St. Thomas, having retired in 1998. For several decades, he regularly contributed Notes from North America to Higher Education Review. He is almost the exact age of Woody Allen and the Dalai Lama and thus, was fortunate to be too young for some wars and too old for other ones. In the 1990s, he was awarded a Nike sneaker endorsement which resulted in his paper, Imposing Views, Imposing Shoes: A Statistician as a Sole Model; it can be found at The American Statistician, August 1995, Vol 49, No. 3, pages 317 to 319.


Leave a comment

Guiding principles for supporting BTEC students

by Chris Bayes

At an SRHE ‘Student Access and Experience Network’ online conference on 19 November 2020, I and colleagues who lead the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) Working Group on ‘Supporting BTEC students’ were privileged to speak about the development of our Group. We also introduced colleagues to the Guiding Principles publication we have recently produced in partnership with Pearson, the UK’s largest awarding body, whose vocational qualifications include Edexcel NVQ and BTEC from entry level to Higher National Diplomas. This blog provides an overview of the development of the Group, our publication and our proposed next steps to support BTEC learners’ progression into higher education.

The beginnings of the Group: NEON, why BTEC learners, and how we developed Guiding Principles

Our Group is one of a number of Working Groups co-ordinated by NEON. NEON is a professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education. Its Working Groups are led by members and bring colleagues from the widening participation (WP) sector together to take forward a specific agenda or area of practice.

The ‘Supporting BTEC Students’ Working Group was formed in 2018, following a successful initial conference hosted that summer by Brunel University. The conference sought to explore issues around the progression, retention and success of students accessing HE via the BTEC pathway. At our first meeting in September 2018, we invited guest speakers from Association of Colleges, Pearson and UCAS, who gave contrasting views on the post-16 qualifications landscape in England and the role of the BTEC qualification within this. The meeting itself was extremely well attended with around 70 colleagues present. As a NEON Executive member, I was particularly pleased to see the number of teacher colleagues taking part in this meeting – our membership has historically consisted of WP practitioners based in institutions and those working on the UniConnect collaborative outreach programme.  This showed that we were covering an issue which was hugely topical across the sector.

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of learners progressing to higher education having studied a BTEC qualification. One in four students currently gaining access to HE have taken a BTEC National, about 100,000 students. There is a clear correlation between students studying BTEC qualifications and socio-economic status; research undertaken in 2016 by the Social Market Foundation showed 47% of students entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas (Q1) are BTEC holders.

As a Group, we wanted to work to support the access, progression and success of BTEC students.  Over the course of the past two years, we have refined our focus to developing our Guiding Principles publication, written for colleagues working with BTEC students at each stage of the student lifecycle.

Our Guiding Principles

Following our first meeting, we developed some terms of reference for the Group. Our initial thinking was to develop resources to support teachers and advisors for student progression and to capture the scope of activity taking place to support BTEC learners at each point of the student lifecycle. We are still compiling this information and so if you have an example of practice you would like to share, please let us know!

As the group evolved, we decided to focus on our meetings as opportunities to share practice with invited guest speakers and have used this knowledge to shape our Guiding Principles.  Abstracts of each of these principles are provided below.

  • Championing fair higher education admissions practices for BTEC learners – Dr Alex Blower (University of Portsmouth)

One of the guiding tenets of the NEON Supporting BTEC Students Working Group is to champion fair admissions practices by universities. The group contends that BTEC students, who are often first in their family to attend university, should not have to dig for information about course entry requirements or face additional barriers. It argues that BTEC qualifications should feature as prominently as A levels in prospectuses, and websites, as they are the second most common qualification used for university entrance in the UK. The Group campaigns to make entry requirements/eligibility criteria clear and accessible to BTEC students at all UK HE providers, including Russell Group institutions and those with higher entry tariffs. BTEC learners should be able to establish their eligibility for an undergraduate degree quickly and easily, without the need for them to make further enquiries. If BTEC qualifications aren’t accepted due to course content, the group argues that this should be clearly indicated. The group believes that uniformity and transparency in admissions practices across the sector is a prerequisite to equitable access to Higher Education for BTEC students.

  • Conducting meaningful outreach activity with BTEC learners in schools and colleges – Rebecca Foster (University of East Anglia)

One of the biggest barriers to vocational students entering HE is that pre-entry activity run by Recruitment and Outreach professionals is targeted towards A level students, rather than being focused on their needs. The pre-entry guiding principle champions the need for staff working with students’ pre-entry to be inclusive of vocational learners. This is especially important as learners studying vocational qualifications are often from the most underrepresented backgrounds. Therefore an inclusive approach is paramount, especially from a widening participation perspective. Through raising awareness of the important but sometimes nuanced differences between BTEC and A level learners such as curriculum, learning style, learner identity and learning environment, important changes in promotional language, bespoke events and CPD for college staff can be put in place. The group hopes this will culminate in more vocational learners being aware of HE as an opportunity to them and for practitioners to be equipped to provide appropriate advice and guidance to support their progression.

  • Supporting the transition and student success of BTEC students in higher education – Rebecca Sykes (University of Leeds)

Research shows that BTEC students entering university are more likely to be from a widening participation background, have lower progression and retention rates, be at different starting points in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE, and that a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges facing this cohort. Our third guiding principle, focusing on transition, attainment and retention, uses the core principles of identify, evaluate, share and embed, to create an environment where BTEC students succeed during their studies and beyond. Valuable, informative and engaging conversations in the group meetings and across conference sessions, has allowed open discussions about the barriers facing this cohort of students, enabling us to recognise how practitioners can be instrumental in their own institutions to help overcome these challenges.

  • Understanding the needs of BTEC students through engagement with research – Chris Bayes (Lancaster University)

There is a lack of effective knowledge exchange between policy makers, practitioners and researchers active in the field of widening participation.  With reference to the progression, retention and success of students accessing university via a BTEC pathway, we have identified gaps in terms of knowledge transfer between practitioners and teachers working with applicants prior to university, and academics working with these students when they are at university. Some traditional universities have been guilty of reinforcing a deficit model perception of BTEC students. For many degree programmes, BTEC students’ prior learning has better prepared them for the progression into HE. By supporting the development of reflective practitioners across the sector, our Working Group is ensuring that staff are able to support today’s increasingly diverse student population, regardless of their prior academic background.

Further information

PDF copies of our Guiding Principles publication can be found via the NEON website – https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/resources/research/. To find out more about Working Group, please visit https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/programmes/working-groups/supporting-btec-students/ or join our LinkedIn Group – https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8805592/

The Department of Education is undertaking a consultation exercise to review post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England. The consultation proposes a new system for Level 3 qualifications that creates a dual route based on A Levels and T Levels. This proposed new landscape does not therefore see a separate role for BTEC qualifications, which at present offer learners a route into either higher education or employment. If you care about safeguarding the future of the BTEC, you can access this consultation via the following link: https://consult.education.gov.uk/post-16-qualifications-review-team/review-of-post-16-qualifications-at-level-3/. The deadline for this consultation is 15th January.  We will be working with Pearson to deliver a practice-sharing event showcasing case study examples of how the BTEC qualification supports learners at each stage of the student lifecycle.  Should you wish to be involved in this, please get in touch via c.bayes@lancaster.ac.uk .

SRHE member Chris Bayes has worked in the field of Widening Participation (WP) since 2007, holding practitioner and managerial roles in WP teams at a number of universities and previously leading a number of collaborative partnerships in NW England.  Chris is a research-active practitioner and his research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment & Widening Participation’ appeared in the Forum for Access & Continuing Education (FACE)’s 2019 Conference publication. Chris has been an Executive Board member of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) since 2015 and has acted as Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since this was established in 2018.


Leave a comment

Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world

by Anastasia Olga Tzirides, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Anastasia Olga Tzirides
Mary Kalantzis

Bill Cope

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. This statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic led higher education institutions to rethink the way that instruction can occur under the newly established circumstances. Many universities in the US and around the world have resumed instruction in hybrid format that is based to face-to-face instruction, coupled with online portions. In the case both of fully remote and hybrid learning, the gold-standard for learning remains traditional face-to-face, where online is modelled on the pedagogical processes and instructional artefacts of face-to-face. In this post, we are presenting the main characteristics of a hybrid format in a big US Mid-Western University and we are providing five ways that could transform it to a completely online format. Not only would this address the current needs set by the COVID-19 crisis; it would also change the concept of higher education by addressing in new ways the needs and the characteristics of contemporary students.

In the selected case of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, given that the health safety circumstances would allow it, the hybrid format of instruction was chosen, considering the significant value of the residential experience for the growth and development of undergraduate students, the training and advancement of graduate students and the production of new knowledge and research.

For the modified on-campus delivery format, the administrators of this institution had to rethink classroom capacities, to accommodate less than 50 students, and better utilisation of the spaces in order to aim for safe instruction with social distancing. They also had to re-evaluate time schedules, by taking advantage of irregular times (eg Friday evenings) and days (eg Saturdays), as well as passing periods, between the start and the end of classes. Online sections were an inevitable addition to the courses, as most lectures would be delivered online and the discussion parts were aimed to be face-to-face. Moreover, the administrators re-structured the calendar of the 2020-2021 academic year, ending the semester remotely to minimize the returns of students on campus after break periods. In the area of course development, instructors were provided with professional development training in order to develop new course modalities deploying different techniques and approaches to online education.

As it can be understood, this is an example where the institution selected to use online education as supplementary to face-to-face by trying to migrate their traditional practices online without really taking advantage of the possibilities that online education can offer. We argue that online can be completely different, and with the right tools, potentially superior to in-person teaching. To reap the benefits of online learning, we need to abandon the current generation educational technologies—systems and processes that mostly do little more than reverse-engineer traditional classrooms. At the University of Illinois, we’ve been researching the transformation of in-person learning and developing and testing online learning solutions (Montebello et al, 2018;  Cope, Kalantzis and Searsmith, 2020)

Here are five reasons why we choose to teach online and why we would never choose to teach in-person again.

1. Scale Up Higher Education and Scale Down Its Costs

In order to make higher education available to all, even workers and people with domestic caring responsibilities, we need to reduce the costs of teaching and learning, by providing access to it without the necessity for the student to leave their communities and homes. This can only be achieved with online education as a thoroughly renovated version of distance learning, which would be affordable to people from all social and economic conditions.

2. Develop Pedagogies of Social Knowledge and Collaborative Intelligence

In-person instruction is considered so valuable by its supporters, due to the element of human interaction. Nevertheless, in lecture theatres we hardly ever see interaction among students and even in classroom discussions, only one person is talking, and the rest have to listen. On the other side, with online learning and specifically with simple video lectures that contain prompts, students can engage in synchronous or asynchronous interactions below the videos in the platform used. Therefore, every student can comment and be part of the classroom discussion in this format. Moreover, learning analytics can track every learner’s engagement and this format is simply a far superior communication and pedagogical architecture than traditional in-person classroom interactions.

3. Create Pedagogies of Intense Engagement

In traditional models, learners are knowledge consumers and they demonstrate the acquired knowledge though end-of-course, summative assessments. In online learning architectures, it is possible to position learners as knowledge producers and co-contributors to knowledge communities. A simple way to do this is to have students research and make posts into the class activity stream that exemplify themes prompted by instructors. Another is to create peer-reviewed projects, where interim feedback in the knowledge production process comes from multiple perspectives: peer, instructor and machine feedback. Then projects can be published and shared by the instructor to the community as collective knowledge. Embedded, on-the-fly formative assessments can track community engagement and personal progress (Haniya et al, 2020). An example: in one of our recent 8-week courses with 54 students, using our CGScholar platform there were 14,500 pieces of actionable feedback on 3.3m datapoints, giving students and instructors a far richer and more reliable picture of learning than ever possible with a traditional test.

4. Focus on Higher Order Thinking

In the current world, the digital devices that we use everyday function as cognitive prostheses. They remember things for us, and they can provide us with a vast amount of knowledge that we don’t have to remember. So, the foundational objectives of education change. In reality, learning should be about careful navigation of at-hand knowledge resources and appropriate application of machine-supported procedures. Thus, the goal of education should be higher order thinking, including critical, creative and design thinking. Online environments can uniquely achieve this, by leveraging collaborative knowledge processes. Instead of individual minds, the social mind is acknowledged in the provenance of knowledge and the collaborative contributions of peers in the learning process. Artificial intelligence can track and offer suggestions on the basis of what we term “complex epistemic performance”. Machine learning works synergistically with human learning.

5. Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Online learning, by contrast to the monastic origins of the residential experience of university and college education, can be embedded in the real world. It can be continuous, lasting for as long as life and stretching as wide as social and personal needs. The students in our online courses are in the world, contributing as partners in our knowledge communities and testing live in real-world contexts, the new things they have learned in our classes.

We argue that online instruction can be completely different, and with the right tools, it can potentially be superior to in-person teaching. The real problem is that none of the commercial or open source learning management systems can do what we have just outlined (check here for a comparison of the most popular learning management systems). Thus, in this time of crisis, we must seize the day and imagine a different future for higher education, by abandoning the back-to-the-future learning management systems and looking for or designing alternatives that address the future of education. With focused investment in people and technology we can renew and revitalize our pedagogical and social values. If nothing else, this crisis should lead to that.

Anastasia-Olga (Olnancy) Tzirides is a PhD candidate in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on exploring the potential of using digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence combined with a multimodal and translanguaging approach to language learning. Currently, she is as a teaching assistant for online graduate courses in the Learning Design and Leadership Program at the College of Education. In the past, she has worked as a graduate assistant designing online courses for the International Studies Program at the College of Education and as an instructor at the Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Anastasia-Olga holds a master’s degree in “Teaching of Multilingualism and Linguistic Policies: Language and Culture Dissemination in Multilingual Settings” from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and Université du Maine, France, and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.  

 Mary Kalantzis is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was from 2006 to 2016 Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before this, she was Dean of the Faculty of Education, Language and Community Services at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. With Bill Cope, she has co-authored or co-edited: New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, Cambridge University Press, 2008 (2nd edition, 2012); Ubiquitous Learning, University of Illinois Press, 2009; Towards a Semantic Web: Connecting Knowledge in Academic Research, Elsevier, 2009; Literacies, Cambridge University Press 2012 (2nd edition, 2016); A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, Palgrave, 2016; and e-Learning Ecologies, Routledge, 2017.

Bill Cope is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include theories and practices of pedagogy, cultural and linguistic diversity, and new technologies of representation and communication. His and Mary Kalantzis’ recent research has focused on the development of digital writing and assessment technologies, with the support of a number of major grants from the US Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The result has been the CGScholar multimodal writing and assessment environment.


Leave a comment

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

by Nathan Loewen

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

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

Going Public Online

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

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

Publicly pragmatic

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

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

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

Hacking Education

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

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

We will survive

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

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

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

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


Leave a comment

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

by Richard de Blacquiere-Clarkson

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

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

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

Who benefits? Who loses?

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

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

What are we aiming for?

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

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

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

Interpreting undefined terms in the legislation

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

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

Difficult cases

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

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

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

Looking forward

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

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


Leave a comment

The creepy university: professorial zombies and Zoom zombies

by Jeremy Hunsinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leave a comment

Staff experiences of the rapid move online: challenges and opportunities

by Eileen Kennedy and Allison Littlejohn

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 has necessitated major changes to research, teaching and professional working in Universities. In the UK more generally, there was surprise at the degree of public support for lockdown, and the Prime Minister’s directive to “join together” to beat the virus. Commentators have observed, however, that despite the constant suggestions that we are all in this together, the pandemic has affected people very differently. For example, the UN has observed that while the virus may not discriminate, but the impacts on individuals certainly do

We wanted to investigate how far this picture of uneven impacts may be affecting university staff. So, to capture staff experiences as they changed how they worked during this period, we launched a programme of research at UCL which involved a series of staff surveys and follow up interviews, Moving to Online Teaching and Homeworking (MOTH). This research was led by Allison Littlejohn with Martin Oliver, Lesley Gourlay, Eileen Kennedy, Tim Neumann, Kit Logan, John Potter and Jennifer Rode. Our aim was to understand how the crisis might be exacerbating pre-existing structural inequalities that impact adversely on staff, as well as posing challenges and opportunities for teaching and research.

We had 421 responses to our initial survey, which included asking about the challenges and opportunities of the shift to online teaching and researching at home. We also asked participants to share images that they considered communicated their experience. We sent out follow up surveys throughout the summer, and invited 32 participants to take part in in-depth interviews to explain their responses in more depth. 

What the findings showed us quite clearly was that the impact on staff was not the same for everybody.  Although respondents who identified as men and women reported caring responsibilities, caring appeared to manifest differently. Women found it more difficult to focus on research because of the caring labour they were doing – caring for children and adult dependents, for students, for colleagues. These activities lead to reduced time for research and to publish research papers with potential consequences for long-term career progression. 

Staff with physical and/or mental health challenges – either pre-existing or as a result of the pandemic – also experienced the lockdown differently, with reports of headaches, eyestrain, aching back, shoulders or wrists health impacts from 7.7% of survey respondents. Those with more space were more positive about the move than those with fewer rooms to work in, and staff on fixed term contracts experienced anxiety about the impact of the pandemic on their careers. 

The research we conducted showed very clearly that University staff experience is not uniform. This is an important message to those making decisions about how to support staff at universities during this crisis and beyond.

As for the move to teaching online, once again, experiences greatly differed. A slightly higher number rated their feelings as positive or very positive than those who rated their feelings as negative or very negative. Most people, nearly 40%, were undecided. A number of themes emerged, however. In terms of the challenges they described, the biggest issue were the lack of interaction and engagement with students online, technology problems, time and resource demands and the need for professional development. 

It became apparent from the survey that the most reported challenges that concerned teaching involved using live video systems like Teams or Blackboard Collaborate, and the key problem was the lack of visual cues, impacting interaction and engagement from students. This made online teaching more difficult and stressful for staff. This was borne out in the interviews. Staff said that students would not switch their cameras on,  “so, I was talking to a picture of myself on the screen” (interview participant). Staff really missed the energy from students they were used to in traditional teaching, and without this teaching online was stressful and exhausting. What made the difference for those staff who were more positive about online was prior experience. Those participants were also much happier with student engagement, and saw the move online as an opportunity presented by the pandemic.

“I feel positive about the probability that one of the outcomes of the COVID crisis will be more widespread general understanding about productive ways to use technology to support learning, not least among academics, but also, I hope, among education administrators and managers” (survey participant).

This research has given us insights into how university staff have experienced the pandemic. But it has told us more than that. A defining feature of the data was the central role that emotions played in every aspect of the move to online teaching and homeworking. Participants regularly described their anxieties about colleagues and students, the extra time they were putting into tutorials,  pastoral  care for students who experienced extra difficulties during the crisis and the impact this was having on themselves. This has led us to revisit the theme of emotional labour in teaching, and how we can make sense of the care that participants show in digital education. This is an aspect of online teaching that is seldom discussed. Our question, therefore, is what is the role of technology and the move to online and home working in supporting the caring labour of University staff?

Dr Eileen Kennedy is a Senior Research Associate based at UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Her research focuses on ways of enhancing and sharing practice in online and blended learning. Eileen works with two ESRC-funded research centres: the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) and the RELIEF Centre. With CGHE, Eileen is exploring the transformative potential of digital technologies for higher education. With RELIEF, Eileen is researching ways of using digital education (particularly in the form of MOOCs) to build inclusive prosperity in the contexts of mass displacement.

Professor Allison Littlejohn is Director of UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Allison works in the field in Education, specialising in Digital Higher Education. Her expertise is in applying learning theories to complex interventions for professional learning that capitalise on digital technologies. The context of her research spans the energy, health, finance, education, and international development sectors across various countries.


Leave a comment

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.