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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Are higher education managers becoming more professional and if so, how?

by Susan Harris-Huemmert, Julia Rathke, Anna Gerchen and Susi Poli

How well are HEIs being managed? Who are those in charge? Can we really be confident in their abilities? At a time in which the HE sector appears more complex and diverse, how sure can we be that those at the top are ‘professional’? How are they being prepared (or actively prepare themselves) for these positions, and if they get to the top, are they themselves making sure that staff members, too, are being ‘professionalised’? Especially in terms of new areas of employment within the HE sector, how are these staff members qualifying themselves? These seem pertinent questions and the ongoing lack of empirical work into HE governance reveals that there are considerable gaps in our knowledge. To address this, we bring together empirical data from ongoing research projects in the UK, Germany and Italy, which, from various angles and viewpoints, explore how professionalism within the HE sector is being developed to meet present and future needs and challenges.

A current German research project, financed by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) – KaWuM – is examining the career trajectories and qualification requirements of so-called higher education or science managers (www.kawum-online.de). Qualitative work has been undertaken to explore in depth the viewpoints and experiences of this particular group of staff, who work at the interface between research, teaching and administration (Whitchurch, 2010). A sample of 32 qualitative interviews has been drawn upon here from the project by Susan Harris-Huemmert and Julia Rathke, who examine the roles of German HE leaders from two vantage points. Firstly how do they prepare for and become more professional as institutional heads, and secondly: how do these leaders ensure that their academic or administrative staff members are also being professionally trained and developed? (Thoenig and Paradeise, 2016: 320). Interviews were conducted with both formal (presidents/rectors/chancellors/VPs) and informal leaders (science managers) and analysed in MaxQDa according to Kuckartz (2018). Findings suggest that formal HE leaders are encountering ever more complex management tasks, with little management training or ‘other’ work experience outside academia. They mainly learn by doing and often lack the time and/or motivation for professional training. It appears that formal HE leaders are seldom professionalised, although management tasks are their main responsibility. However, they are relying increasingly on professionalised science managers and their expertise, who can advance their professionalisation via personnel development.

In her work from within the BerBeo project, which also stems from the same BMBF funding thread as the above-named KaWuM project, Anna Gerchen is examining how the influence of New Public Management, academic reforms and increasing competition between universities have changed the demands on recruitment processes in German HE, in particular those regarding professorial appointments. Professorships in Germany are characterised by a particularly high degree of autonomy and prestige (Hamann, 2019). Almost all full professors are civil servants and hold tenured, safeguarded lifetime employment. This emphasises the importance of professorial personnel selection for which German universities use highly formalised procedures. To professionalise these procedures, Germany’s Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) called for the creation of officers for professorial appointments to take responsibility for the “proper and smooth running of the procedure” (WR, 2005, p5). Following this recommendation and the subsequent legal revisions, many German universities have introduced officers for professorial appointment procedures – non-professorial staff members appointed specifically for quality assurance and decision-making support. These appointment managers – as shown on the basis of a quantitative survey (Gerchen, 2021) – are predominantly female, relatively young, highly educated and from the social sciences; in particular they show a background in administrative science or in law. Informing and advising the university management is reported by 94% of the respondents to be central to their work. This shows that the purpose of supporting the university management in appointment matters, as stated by the Council of Science and Humanities, actually represents the core function of this new position in practice.

In her research Susi Poli turns the lens towards Italy and a number of other countries to investigate the role of research managers (RMAs), as one of the most hybrid or blended groups that can be found in today’s HEIs among staff in professional services. She asks to what extent these managers are qualified for this specific role, even in relation to qualifications, training, and any sort of network provided by their professional associations. Is what they have, and do, enough? Or is there much more than that coming up in the RMAs’ community, even as creators of new discourses in today’s HE management? She draws on Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity, in which he suggests the re-creation of discourse on competences, qualifications, and professional frameworks (Barnett, 2008: 191). In this new age, research managers should be “pioneers or the creators of these new discourses” (Barnett, 2008: 206). Susi’s work includes an analysis of professional networks and supporting bodies in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, the US, Portugal, Japan, South Africa (Romano et al, 2021). She concludes that there is a growing awareness of the identity and purpose of research managers and that the literature is now paying more attention to this staff group.

In sum, it appears that there is a developing international trend towards greater professionalism within the HE sector, including the work of formal and informal leaders in various capacities. Networks reveal an increasing level of support, but it appears that professional development per se is still very much in the hands of the individual, and is not the result of any particularly well-structured system. This is a question the sector needs to ask itself, reflecting what Thoenig and Paradeise stated in 2016: “If knowledge gaps remain, this may be to the detriment of the strategic capacity of the whole institution”. Our question should therefore be whether we can afford to allow such knowledge gaps, or whether we as a sector can do more, to fill them.

Susan Harris-Huemmert is Professor of International Education Leadership and Management at Ludwigsburg University of Education. Following her doctoral research at the University of Oxford on the topic of evaluation practice in Germany, she has researched and published internationally on topics such as higher education systems and their governance, quality management and the management of campus infrastructure. Contact: susan.harris-huemmert@ph-ludwigsburg.de

Julia Rathke is research assistant at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer in the project “KaWuM – Career Paths and Qualification Requirements in Science and Higher Education Management” since August 2019. In January 2021 she took over charge of the joint coordination and management of the project team KaWuM Central Coordination and Interviews from Prof. Dr. Susan Harris-Huemmert. Contact: rathke@uni-speyer.de; www.kawum-online.de 

Anna Gerchen is a researcher at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) in the research area ‘Governance in Higher Education and Science’. With a background in communication science, sociology and gender studies she currently works on the field of quality assurance and appointment procedures at universities. Contact: gerchen[at]dzhw.eu

Susi Poli is Professional Development Lead in the Education Division at Bologna University, after several years spent as research manager in Italy and abroad. She holds a MBA in HE Management and an EdD in HE from the Institute of Education and her research interests primarily cover research management, staff development, and women’s leadership in HE. Contact here: susi.poli@unibo.it

References

Barnett, R (2008) ‘Critical professionalism in an age of supercomplexity’ in B. Cunningham (ed) Exploring professionalism London: Bedford Way Press pp190-208.

Gerchen, A (in press) Berufungsmanager*innen an deutschen Universitäten. Profilmerkmale eines neuen Stellentypus. Hochschulmanagement 4(16)

Kuckartz, U. (2018) Qualitative Inhaltanalyse. Methoden, Praxis, Computerunterstützung.4th ed. Basel & Weinheim: BeltzJuventa


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The Chair

by Paul Temple

The best novel about university life – and I’m afraid this isn’t up for debate – is John Williams’ Stoner. Published in 1965, its setting is the micropolitics of the English department of a US Mid-Western university, from the 1920s to the 1950s: “A terrific novel of echoing sadness” is how Julian Barnes sums it up on the cover of my edition.

The Netflix series The Chair, with the Korean-American actor Sandra Oh (you may have seen her in Killing Eve) as the newly-elected chair of the English department of a “lower-tier Ivy”, has some similarities with Stoner. The story here also revolves around the micropolitics of an English department, exposing the tensions between older academics whose professional lives have centred on a single narrow (but is it?) topic – Melville in one case – and younger ones, notably Bill Dobson, whose popular classes play around with modish themes. (I assume his use of chalk on an actual blackboard – do they really still exist? – is intended to demonstrate iconoclasm.) But whereas the departmental chair in Stoner is creepily vile, in The Chair she exhausts herself with emotional labour (“playing nice” as an exasperated colleague puts it) trying to help everybody, even when that isn’t possible (Dobson’s joke Nazi salute in class doesn’t go down well).

TV dramas set in workplaces such as police stations or hospitals tend to take a single case which absorbs the characters involved to the exclusion of all other business (Line of Duty or Unforgotten, say), sidestepping what must actually be the complex, confusing reality of these settings. That sort of dramatic plotting can’t easily work with universities, which perhaps helps to explain why campus TV adaptations tend to be satire (The History Man) or knockabout comedy (A Very Peculiar Practice). The Chair, though having elements of both satire and comedy, is more nuanced, with the Sandra Oh character having to deal with declining enrolments, preventing Dobson becoming his own worst enemy (unsuccessfully), supporting a black woman in her struggle to gain deserved tenure, as well as coping with single parenthood. In that it portrays the “one damned thing after another” aspect of university management, The Chair is perhaps a more accurate reflection of university life than Line of Duty is of police work, but what do I know? (The issue of faculty tenure, which features significantly in The Chair, interestingly seems to assume quite a lot of prior knowledge of university processes on the part of the viewer: perhaps the producers think that graduates will be the main audience.)

Departmental chairs, or heads of departments in the UK, are classic middle-management jobs, an insulation layer between senior management and the workforce, but usually without the authority or resources to respond effectively to the needs of those for whom they’re supposedly responsible. It’s significant that in both Stoner and The Chair the university top brass feature only as distant, vaguely threatening, entities, divorced from the action at the departmental battlefronts. The main exception in The Chair is the man from Communications, sent over to the department to deal with the “reputational management” issues that Dobson has supposedly created: Dobson here shows hitherto unexpected reserves of restraint by not punching him in the face.

The Chair can be viewed as a case-study of institutional change, with structural pressures of declining enrolments, changing expectations of academic life, and student activism coming into sharp focus at the micro-level of the department. The chair herself becomes the personification of all this, the point around which swirl the conflicting pressures of institutional structures, power distribution, and individuals’ goals. In university life, it’s the detail that counts, and The Chair gets this brilliantly.

They’re apparently thinking of a second series: I’ll be watching.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.


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Generous scholarship: a vision for academic life

by Ruth McQuirter Scott, Dragana Martinovic, Snežana Obradović-Ratković and Michelle K McGinn

The life of a scholar is often portrayed in popular culture as one of lonely struggle and pressure. It starts at the postgraduate level, when students work to meet the expectations of their programs and supervisors, jumping one hurdle after another until they complete their studies. If they are fortunate enough to land an increasingly rare full-time academic position, they discover a new set of expectations to fulfill. In application and renewal processes, most universities favour single-authored publications in tier-one journals, along with a research record that shows how the scholar is carving out a unique niche in their respective field. This portrayal of academic life is supported by studies that report pressure to publish, competition, isolation, and managerial influences on academic work (eg Castro-Ceacero and Ion, 2018; Dakka and Wade, 2019; Kyvik and Aksnes, 2015; McCarthy and Dragouni, 2020).

We believe there is a better way of living as academics, one that nurtures the strengths of colleagues and leads to mutual growth for novice and seasoned scholars.

Our group of four academics from two Canadian universities has been collaborating as writers for over 10 years. We represent a variety of roles in academia: professors, a research officer, and a university senior administrator. Since 2007 (until interrupted by the pandemic), we have facilitated residential academic writing retreats, bringing together new and experienced academics, postgraduate students, and outside experts for a week-long writing experience in a rural setting.

At our first writing retreat, we were introduced to the term “generous scholarship” as proposed by Constance Russell (2006). We were intrigued and excited by this term, which we felt captured a central component of the writing retreat and resonated with our approach to scholarly life. Sally Stewart Knowles, a retreat co-facilitator from Australia, was also inspired by the conversation at that 2007 retreat to argue that residential writing retreats foster generous scholarship (Knowles, 2017). Although neither Russell (2006) nor Knowles (2017) provides a clear definition of generous scholarship, we continued to be enticed by the term’s potential. This emerging concept seemed to suggest an intentional, collegial approach to scholarly endeavours that departs from the market-driven, individualistic view of scholarship so commonly present in academia.

To understand what generous scholarship could mean, we systematically examined these and other publications in which “generosity” was mentioned in the context of academia and elicited five key principles that characterize generous scholarship: social praxis, reciprocity, generous mindedness, generous heartedness, and agency.

To illustrate these five principles of generous scholarship, we use the example of our residential academic writing retreats. We provide a short overview of our writing retreat structure, define the five principles, and discuss the ways in which retreat participants enact these principles.

Writing Retreat Structure

Inspired by Barbara Grant’s (2008) model of residential academic writing retreats, our retreats consist of five days dedicated to individual writing projects, workshops, work-in-progress groups, and one-on-one consultations with shared meals and informal gatherings in a natural environment. Although most of the days are spent writing, we carve out time for discussions, reviewing each other’s work, and socializing. Accountability and on-site collegial support are embedded in the retreat structure, which promotes writing process and productivity, fosters learning with and from others, and builds a community (McGinn et al, 2019; Ratković et al, 2019).

Principles of Generous Scholarship

The five working principles frame generous scholarship as intentional, reflective, and collegial academic praxis.

Social praxis. Generous scholarship emerges within collaborative and collegial communities of scholarly practice. Our writing retreats enable participants to live and work together in a shared space. A sense of community is built through scheduled work-in-progress groups and workshops as well as meals, informal conversations, and walks in nature. Many new connections, relationships, and collaborative research and writing teams are established as people meet colleagues at various career stages and from different disciplines, departments, and institutions.

Reciprocity. Interrelations within generous scholarship are based on reciprocity through peer-to-peer learning and non-hierarchical mentoring. A key component of our writing retreats is the work-in-progress groups that meet each evening to present and respond to written work. The groups are mixed in terms of fields of expertise, academic roles, and career stages to provide multiple perspectives and rich discussions. When a writer’s work is being featured, another participant acts as a note taker, enabling the writer to focus on comments and suggestions from the others. Participants take turns over subsequent evenings, with each participant serving as writer, contributor, and note taker. The participatory and interactive workshops provide further evidence of reciprocity in action as participants exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences.

Generous mindedness. Generous scholarship involves acknowledging other people’s situations or perspectives and committing cognitive resources to advance those individuals and their scholarly work. The workshops during our writing retreats foster generous mindedness as workshop facilitators and participants draw from their varied backgrounds and disciplines to inspire and inform each other’s academic practice. During work-in progress groups, writers are asked what type of feedback they wish to receive. Readers are asked to focus on specific aspects of the draft, or to respond to the overall piece. This practice helps readers to focus their responses and to make their feedback meaningful.

Generous heartedness. Generous scholarship requires empathy and emotional support for others. Generous heartedness has been a key feature of our writing retreats. We are open to adapting workshop content and the retreat structure to the needs of participants, and are flexible in expectations (eg participants spend parts of each day in ways that they deem most useful: reading, resting, or taking walks in nature). Emphasis is placed upon the importance of careful listening and attending to the emotional needs of writers as they share unfinished work during work-in-progress groups. A generous spirit is also fostered among participants through communal meals, informal walks, and evening activities.

Agency. Generous scholarship involves deliberately choosing and taking action to contribute to the scholarly community, the field, and society. It demands consciously embracing and modelling all the principles of generous scholarship. As organisers, we use our agency to structure and facilitate the writing retreats. We also engage as writers and participate in all workshops and work-in-progress groups. Many retreat participants demonstrate their commitment to generous scholarship by returning year after year to this community of scholars. Participants often report creating their own writing groups and retreats. Some have published scholarly work about writing retreats (Winters et al, 2019).

Conclusion

We acknowledge that following the principles of generous scholarship may challenge institutional structures that reward individualistic, competitive approaches; it can be difficult to navigate the logistical and human factors inherent in building a community of scholars. Our own writing retreats face an annual financial challenge, as we must repeatedly convince internal funding providers of their value. However, we are determined to overcome such barriers to enact and enable generous scholarship, and we look forward to returning to our residential writing retreats when pandemic restrictions allow. We have also found that following the principles of generous scholarship enhances, rather than undermines, academic productivity and personal satisfaction (Ratković et al, 2019). Furthermore, we are encouraged by the structures recently built into academia that might provide opportunities and spaces for enacting generous scholarship, such as open-access publishing and knowledge mobilization.

We invite you to consider generous scholarship in your own academic life and to share with SRHE blog readers examples of generous scholarship already present in your practice.

Ruth McQuirter Scott is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, where she is Assistant Director of Teacher Education and teaches Junior/Intermediate Language Arts. Ruth’s research interests are in the effective infusion of technology in education. Connect via rmcquirter@brocku.ca or on Twitter @wordstudy

Dragana Martinovic is a Professor at University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and a Fields Institute Fellow. In her research, Dragana explores knowledge for teaching mathematics, ways in which technology can assist in teaching and learning of mathematics, and epistemologies of STEM disciplines in relation to teacher and K–12 education. Connect via dragana@uwindsor.ca

Snežana Obradović-Ratković is Research Officer and Instructor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include migration, indigeneity, and reconciliation; transnational teacher education; research education; decolonizing arts-based methodologies; mindfulness and well-being in higher education; academic writing and publishing; and generous scholarship. Connect via sratkovic@brocku.ca

Michelle K McGinn is Associate Vice-President Research and Professor of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Her primary interests include research collaboration, researcher development, scholarly writing, and ethics in academic practice. She is a co-investigator for Academic Researchers in Challenging Times. Connect via Twitter @dr_mkmcginn or mmcginn@brocku.ca

References

Grant, B (2008) Academic writing retreats: A facilitator’s guide. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia

Knowles, SS (2017) ‘Communities practising generous scholarship: Cultures of collegiality in academic writing retreats’ in McDonald, J and Cater-Steel, A (eds), Implementing communities of practice in higher education (pp 53–80) Springer

McGinn, MK, Ratković, S, Martinovic, D, and McQuirter Scott, R (2019) ‘Creating and sustaining a community of academic writing practice: The multi-university residential academic writing retreat model’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds) Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 136–148) Brill/Sense

Winters, K-L, Wiebe, N, and Saudelli, MG (2019) ‘Writing about writing: Collaborative writing and photographic analyses from an academic writing retreat’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds), Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 149–168) Brill/Sense.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge Jeanne Adèle Kentel for first introducing us to Russell’s (2006) use of the term “generous scholarship.” We extend our thanks to the many colleagues who have practised generous scholarship alongside us during the writing retreats and in other academic spaces. Details about our analysis process and an elaborated discussion of the principles of generous scholarship are presented in a paper currently under review for publication. Authorship of this blog and the associated paper has been shared equally.

Marcia Devlin


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Making space for compassion

by Marcia Devlin

As is the case in many countries, the COVID pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Australian universities. While many universities are now beginning to experiment with ‘hybrid’ models that combine online and face-to-face teaching and learning, efforts are tentative. Executives and staff are nervous about committing to what many students are increasingly telling us they want – a ‘normal’ university student experience with on-campus components.

This nervousness is well-founded. Our vaccine rollout is not rolling, the federal and state governments are blaming each other, and we have had to have another snap lockdown just this week. Ensuring ‘COVID-safe’ campuses in these circumstances is tricky and, not to put too fine a point on it, connected to potential life and death scenarios.

International borders remain closed. International students – so important to Australian universities and their finances – are not allowed into the country. The current Education Minister gave a speech about the future of international students this week. It was invitation only but from what can be gleaned from social media commentary from those fortunate enough to secure an invitation, it didn’t leave audience members brimming with confidence about the immediate future.

In this set of circumstances, it is challenging to focus on the core university ‘businesses’ of teaching and research. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that those providing the education and research are human beings who are themselves living in and through the pandemic. The work of academics and professionals in universities is complex, messy, deeply human and relies on individual passion and goodwill as well as qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience.

I attended a seminar recently at one of my alma maters, Macquarie University, led by a well-known Australian author, Hugh McKay: the importance of compassion was central. Arguing that the most significant thing about us as people is that we share a common humanity, that we humans all belong to a social species, that we are “hopeless” in isolation and that we need others to nurture and sustain us, McKay underscored the importance of compassion, kindness and simply being nice to one another in our current shared pandemic context.

I’m not sure about other SRHE readers, but compassion and kindness aren’t topics I’ve often heard discussed in universities in my 30 years in the sector. McKay suggested the pandemic has been a mass experiment around what happens to people when they are isolated. The results have included more anxiety, more suicidal ideation, more domestic violence, among many other negative outcomes. But also more time for introspection and for deep consideration of what is important to us. Many of us have more clearly understood how crucial our social and personal connections are.

McKay proposes that many of us have previously found useful hiding places in ambition, IT devices and consumerism, which have promoted individualism and competitiveness and a greater focus on ourselves than on our role in families, communities and society. As I reflected on university life, and life more generally, I couldn’t help but think he had a point.

As we co-create the ‘COVID-normal’ university, I wonder if we might all find a bigger space for our humanity, our compassion and our kindness to each other. Not only might that bring a better experience of work in universities for ourselves and those around us, the quality and impact of our education and research might also improve as a result.

Former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and an Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.

Marcia Devlin


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Let’s not waste any more time

by Marcia Devlin

Last year, I was sent a satirical article about how to sabotage the productivity of your organisation by using a CIA manual from 1944.  It contained advice such as:

  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five;
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions; and
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

There’s more and it’s worth a read.

Reflecting on my time in higher education over three decades, the article was both funny and depressing. Funny, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is peculiar and amusing and many of us would have it no other way. Depressing, because it precisely describes daily life working in a university, which is highly bureaucratic and inefficient and often a profound waste of talent, goodwill and time.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided many opportunities to rethink what we have always done and to do things differently. I’m wondering whether universities might eventually benefit from this terrible crisis, including in ways that could be permanent.

Following the scrambling, adjustments and re-learning required for the global mass uptake of online and digital forms of education, our attention has begun to turn to the implications of this move.

Always of interest, academic integrity and the quality and standards of learning are now the subject of increased interest and scrutiny. As the ubiquitous, supervised, closed book exam en masse became impossible, along with other forms of assessment that require physical supervision of students, less frequently used assessment approaches have been considered and deployed.

Academic integrity is having a day or two in the sun as educators in universities consider how to ensure it, when they can’t always see what students are doing, including during electronic classes. Approaches that are being considered and used include: more gentle and/or educative interpretations of existing assessment and academic integrity policies; the use of technological proctoring tools, including homemade solutions using student phones; and so-called ‘alternative’ assessment.

In Australia, assessment policies have been changed, or waived in part, including through the granting of special power to a senior officer of the University in some places. All of these shifts have occurred with the aim of enabling to practical solutions to challenging and sudden changes.

New and streamlined governance arrangements have been created and enacted to ensure appropriate oversight of teaching, learning and assessment changes in the very short timeframes possible at the time. This one might confound any current CIA operatives in universities who are intent on slowing us down.

Considerations of academic matters that used to take one or two long Academic Board discussions and a fair amount of angst, not to mention tension and in some cases ongoing resentments between parties with different views, gave way, at least momentarily.  They were replaced by shorter, more focused considerations, often in single, brief meetings of key people. As far as I observed at my own University and elsewhere, we have made sensible and defensible positions and enacted them, with broad acceptance and little or no negative ripple.

Of course, we were forced to move quickly by the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which is the defining feature of most of the world’s experience in 2020. As we enter 2021, a ‘new normal’ is emerging in every aspect of human existence. It is understandable that we should hope things to return to the ‘old normal’, at least in some respects. But I’d argue that academic governance is one area in which we should try to retain the new normal, at least to some extent.

Imagine what might be possible if university staff were freed up, even just a little, from the at times tortuous dance of academic consideration that unnecessarily uses up precious talent, goodwill and time.

What if, post this terrible world crisis, we emerged with a commitment to do things differently in universities and in ways that maintained integrity, but did not steal our precious resources?

What if, instead of us doing as a CIA operative would recommend, such as: “Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences”, we simply didn’t do that anymore?

What if we all became more conscious of the time of others that we use up in the pursuit of ancient but no longer purposeful traditions? And what if we all committed to stopping doing this and trying something more respectful instead?

That we have moved many millions of university students to profoundly different ways of learning, teaching and assessment, and created new and efficient ways to consider and govern effectively with academic integrity apparently intact, tells us that anything is possible in the university sector.

When we finally emerge from COVID-19, the world will be a different place and human contact will be more deeply appreciated in many ways. Why don’t we try to respect that contact in our universities by not wasting each other’s talent, goodwill and time any further?

Marcia Devlin is a Fellow of SRHE and former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, now Adjunct Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Helle Mathiasen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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