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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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In search of the perfect blend – debunking some myths

by Ling Xiao and Lucy Gill-Simmen

A blended learning approach has been adopted by most UK universities in response to the Covid pandemic. Institutions and higher education educators have become fully committed to and invested enormous resources in delivering such an approach. This has helped to maintain a high quality education and to some extent, to mitigate the potential dire impact of the pandemic on the students’ learning experience. This approach has no doubt accelerated a reshaping of pedagogic approaches, facilitating deep learning, autonomy, personalised learning and more. With the rapid pace of the UK’s vaccine rollout, and the semi promise by the UK Government that we’ll be back to some kind of normal by the end of June, there is hope for a possible return to campus in September, 2021.  As a result, this now marks a time when we need to reflect on what we have learned from the blended learning approach and figure out what to take forward in designing teaching and learning post-pandemic, be it hybrid or hyflex or both.

The Management Education Research Group (MERG) in the School of Business and Management at Royal Holloway, University of London recently held a symposium on ‘Reflecting on Blended Learning, What’s Next?’. It showcased blended learning examples from various universities across the UK and was followed by a panel discussion where we posed the question: what worked and what didn’t work? We found that some of our previous assumptions were brought into question and a number of myths were debunked.

Myth 1: Pre-Recorded videos should be formal and flawless

Overnight, and without any training, educators took on the role of film creators, film editors and videographers. Spending hours, days, weeks and even months developing lecture recordings from the confines of our home working spaces we were stopping, starting, re-starting, editing out the slightest imperfection. It has to be perfect, right? Not so fast.

For many institutions, recorded video is the primary delivery vehicle for blended learning content, with academics pre-recording short presentations, lectures and informal videos to complement text-based information and communication. Many of us postulated that a formal and meticulous delivery style for pre-recorded videos is required to help to maintain high quality educational materials and for students to perceive us as professionals. Academics’ personal experiences however suggest it is vital to keep the human elements, as students enjoy and engage better with a personalised delivery. A personalised style helps to build relationships with students which then provide foundations of learning. Mayer (2009) describes it as a personalisation principle of learning through video and recommends that a conversation style is preferential to a formal style for learning. This also resonates with recent insights from Harvard Business School Professor, Francesca Gino, who reflects in her webinar on the power of teaching with vulnerability in COVID-19. She explains the importance of being open, honest and transparent with students and sharing one’s own human side in order to strengthen the educator-learner bond.

Myth 2: Students enjoy learning from the comfort of their homes

Blended learning empowers students to become autonomous learners, since they can engage with their courses when real-time contact with lecturers is not possible. However, such autonomy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and turns out to be a lonely road for many students. Instead of relishing staying at home and learning when they want, some students declare they miss the structure, the sense of community and the feeling of belonging they associate with attending university in person.

Universities are more than places for learning, they serve as the centre of their communities for students. Students not only learn directly from the education but also, just as much, from interaction and collaboration with lecturers or their fellow classmates. It emerged in conversation between students and faculty that students felt it generally took longer to establish a sense of community in an online class than in a traditional face-to-face classroom but that it could be achieved. So, it’s up to us as educators to foster a sense of community amongst online learners.

Central to learning community is the concept of cooperative learning, which has been shown to promote productivity, expose students to interdisciplinary teams, foster idea generation, and to promote social interaction (Machemer, 2007). One such technique is to introduce collaborative learning opportunities, and those that reach beyond online group work and assessment – which in itself may prove problematic for learners. Instead, educators should look to develop co-creation projects such as wikis or blogs where students can come together to cocreate content together. Social annotation platforms such as Google Docs and Padlet enable students to share knowledge, develop the understanding of learning objects through collaborating on notes, commenting specific parts of materials, etc (Novak et al, 2012; Miller et al, 2018). Padlet for example has proved to be particularly popular with students for collaborative learning given its ease of use.

Myth 3 :  It makes sense to measure student engagement merely by participation metrics

After months of preparation and instructional design and preparing the perfect learning journey for students, we tend to expect students to learn and to engage in a way that we as educators perceive to be optimal for fulfilment of learning outcomes.

We all know that students learn and engage in many different ways, but we often find ourselves trawling the data and metrics to see whether students watched the videos, engaged in the readings we provided, posted on the fora we clearly labelled and participated in the mini quizzes and reflection exercises we created. However, as our hearts sink at what appears to be at times a relatively low uptake, we jump to the conclusion that students aren’t engaging. Here’s the thing:  they are, we just don’t see it. Engagement as a construct is something far more complex and multi-faceted which we can’t necessarily measure using the report logs on the VLE.

Student engagement is often labelled the “holy grail of learning” (Sinatra, Heddy and Lombardi, 2015: 1) since it correlates strongly with educational outcomes, including academic achievement and satisfaction. This can therefore lead to a level of frustration on the part of educators when engagement appears low. However, engagement comes in many forms, and in forms which are often not directly visible and/or measurable. For example, cognitive, behavioural and emotional engagement all have very different indicators which are not immediately apparent. Hence new ways of evaluating of student engagement in the blended learning environment are needed. Halverson and Graham (2019) propose a possible conceptual framework for engagement that includes cognitive and emotional indicators, offering examples of research measuring these engagement indicators in technology mediated learning contexts.

Myth 4: Technology is the make or break for blended learning

The more learning technologies we can add to our learning design, the better, right? Wrong. Some students declared the VLE has too much going on; they couldn’t keep up with all the apps and technologies they are required to work with to achieve their learning.

Although technology clearly plays a key role in the provision of education (Gibson, 2001; Watson, 2001; Gordon, 2014), it is widely acknowledged that technology should not determine but instead complement theories and practices of teaching. The onset of Covid-19 has shifted our focus to technology rather than pedagogy. For example, educators felt an immediate need for breakout room functionality: although this can be a significant function for discussion, this is not necessarily the case for disciplines such as accounting, which requires students continuously to apply techniques in order to excel at applied tasks. Pedagogy should determine technology. The chosen technology must serve a purpose and facilitate the aim of the pedagogy and should not be used as bells and whistles to make the learning environment appear more engaging. In our recent research, we provide empirical evidence for the effective pedagogical employment of Padlet to support learning and engagement (Gill-Simmen, 2021). Technology has an impact on pedagogy but should not be the driver in a blended or hybrid learning environment. Learning technologies are only applicable and of value when the right content is presented in right format and right time.

In summary, we learned these lessons for our future approach to hybrid learning:

  1. Aim for ‘human’ not perfection in instructional design
  2. Students don’t want to learn alone – create opportunities for collaborative learning
  3. Student engagement may not always be measurable – consider tools for assessing emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement
  4. Technology should support pedagogy, not vice versa – implement only those technologies which facilitate student learning

SRHE member Dr Ling Xiao is the Director of MERG and a Senior Lecturer in Financial Management at Royal Holloway, University of London.  Follow Ling via @DrLingXiao on Twitter.

SRHE member Dr Lucy Gill-Simmen is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and Program Director for Kaplan, Singapore. Follow Lucy via @lgsimmen on Twitter.

References

Gill-Simmen, L. (2021). Using ‘Padlet’ in Instructional Design to Promote Cognitive Engagement: A Case Study of UG Marketing Students, (In Press) Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

Machemer, P.L. (2007). Student perceptions of active learning in a large cross-disciplinary classroom, Active Learning in Higher Education, 8(1): 9-29.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (2nd edn).

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SRHE News on teaching and learning

By Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, archived at https://www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/. SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the January 2021 issue which covers Teaching and Learning.

Academic development and Pro VC roles can go together

Fiona Denney (Brunel) reported her research in International Journal of Academic Development (online 13 December 2020) based on interviews with four Pro VCs with academic development backgrounds: “Over the past two years, four research-intensive universities in the UK have appointed senior academic leaders from academic development backgrounds, a new phenomenon in this sector of UK higher education that may suggest a changing pattern. This study interviewed these four leaders to explore what the appointment means for their academic identity. The interviewees identified internal and external drivers for change and noted their backgrounds as academic developers made their routes into these senior roles different from their peers. For this reason, their ‘academic credibility’ was critical in order to implement culture change effectively.”

How metrics are changing academic development

Roni Bamber (Queen Margaret University) blogged for Wonkhe on 18 December 2020 about her monograph for SEDA, Our days are numbered. Great title, good read.

SoTL in action

The 2018 book edited by Nancy Chick was reviewed by Maik Arnold (University of Applied Sciences, Germany) for Arts and Humanities in Education (online 12 October 2020).

Innovations in Active Learning in Higher Education

The new book by SRHE members Simon Pratt-Adams, Uwe Richter and Mark Warnes (all Anglia Ruskin) grew out of an Active Learning conference at Anglia Ruskin University, leading to a book which, in the words of the foreword by Mike Sharples (Open University) “shows how to put active learning into practice with large cohorts of students and how to grow that practice over many years. The authors come from a variety of institutions and discipline areas … What they have in common is a desire to improve student engagement, experience and outcomes, through active learning approaches that work in practice and are scalable and sustainable.” Free to download from the publishers, Fulcrum.

Now that’s what I call a publishing event

The new book by Keith Trigwell (Sydney) and Mike Prosser (Melbourne) Exploring University Teaching and Learning: Experience and Context, was launched on 10 December 2020, more than 20 years since Understanding Learning and Teaching appeared in 1999. The book focuses on university teachers’ experience of teaching and learning, discussing the qualitative variation in approaches to university teaching, the factors associated with that variation, and how different ways of teaching are related to differences in student experiences of teaching and learning. The authors extend the discussions of teaching into new areas, including emotions in teaching, leadership of teaching, growth as a university teacher and the contentious field of relations between teaching and research.

Psychological contract profiling for managing the learning experience of higher education students

László Horváth (ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) used a service marketing approach for his article in the European Journal of Higher Education (online 27 January 2020): “Combining … six factors for expectations (personalization, development of soft skills, competent teachers, labour market preparedness, support, flexibility) and three factors of obligations (performance and activity, preciseness and punctuality, obedience and respect), we created Psychological Contract Profile Clusters (outcome-centred, teacher-centred, learner-centred, learning-centred, content-centred and self-centred students).”

“Grade inflation remains ‘a significant and pressing issue’”

That was how the OfS chose to present its analysis of degree outcomes published on 19 November 2020, quoting OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge. The report itself said the rate of increase in ‘grade inflation’ had slowed in 2018-2019, and buried in the text was this: “It is not possible to deduce from this analysis what factors not included in the modelling (such as improvements in teaching quality, more diligent students or changes to assessment approaches) are driving the observed changes in degree attainment.” No recognition by OfS of the research by Calvin Jephcote (Leicester), SRHE members Emma Medland and Robin Lygo-Baker (both Surrey) published in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, which concluded: “The results suggest a much more positive and proactive picture of a higher education system that is engaged in a process of continuous enhancement. The unexplained variables, rather than automatically being labelled as grade inflation, should instead point to a need to investigate further the local institutional contextual factors that inform grade distribution. The deficit lens through which ‘grade inflation’ is often perceived is a damaging and unhelpful distraction.” Perhaps Nicola Dandridge was auditioning for Queen of Hearts in the OfS Christmas panto: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards”.

Jephcote, Medland and Lygo-Baker had also blogged for Wonkhe on 14 October 2020 about their research: “Evidence for why grades are trending upwards, or the less loaded phrase of grade improvement, reveal a complex landscape. According to our recent research, the most influential determinants of grade improvement were shown to be the geographic location of an institution, research output quality and the increasing quality of student cohorts – although even this variable was determined on grade entry points, which the recent A Level debacle in the UK has pulled into question. … What this evidence reveals is that a combination of student aptitude, and changes to the structure and quality of UK higher education, appear to be largely accountable for graduates attaining higher grades. It also, importantly, points to the problems associated with our criterion-referenced approaches to assessment being critiqued using a norm-referenced rationale.”

Peer review of teaching in Australian HE: a systematic review

The article by Alexandra L Johnston, Chi Baik and Andrea Chester (all Melbourne) was in Higher Education Research and Development (online 18 November 2020) “A thematic synthesis revealed teaching development outcomes gained through peer review of teaching span factors at organisational … program … and individual … levels. Organisational factors included disciplinary context, program sustainability, collegiality and leadership. Program factors included framework, program design, basis of participation, observation, feedback and reflective practice. Factors at the individual level included prior experience and participants’ perceived development requirements.”

What do undergraduate students understand by excellent teaching?

SRHE member Mike Mimirinis (West London) published the results of his SRHE-funded research in Higher Education Research and Development (online 21 November 2020): “This article explores undergraduate students’ conceptions of what constitutes excellent teaching. … semi-structured interviews with students at two English universities yields five qualitatively different conceptions of excellent teaching. In contrast to the current intense policy focus on outcome factors (eg graduate employability), students predominantly discern process factors as conducive to excellent teaching: how the subject matter is presented, what the lecturer brings to the teaching process, how students’ personal understanding is supported, and to what extent the questioning and transformation of disciplinary knowledge is facilitated. More importantly, this study demonstrates that an expansion of students’ awareness of the nature of teaching is internally related to the expansion of their awareness of the nature of disciplinary knowledge.”

The German sense of humour

The article in Studies in Higher Education (online 3 June 2019, issue 2020:12) was based on two large surveys of how teachers used humour in their teaching, and how students responded. It seems to come down to what the teachers meant by using humour. The research was by Martin Daumiller and three other colleagues at Augsburg.

Teaching in lifelong learning: A guide to theory and practice

The third edition was published in 2019, edited by James Avis, Roy Fisher and Ron Thompson (all Huddersfield).

A conceptual framework to enhance student learning and engagement

Alice Brown, Jill Lawrence, Marita Basson and Petrea Redmond (all Southern Queensland) had an article in Higher Education Research and Development (online 28 December 2020) about using course learning analytics (CLA) and nudging strategies, based on “a 12-month research project, as well as by the theoretical perspectives presented by communication and critical literacies. These perspectives were applied to develop a conceptual framework which the authors designed to prioritise expectation management and engagement principles for both students and academics. The article explains the development of the framework as well as the elements and key communication strategies it embodies. The framework contributes to practice by explaining and justifying the accessible, time-efficient, student-focused approaches that can be integrated simply into each course’s online learning pedagogy to support both academics’ and students’ engagement.”

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog, emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.

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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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.


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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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Work-based learning and assessment during Covid-19

by Nick Mapletoft and Andy Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of key findings

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

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

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


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The varieties of online learning experiences

by JJ Sylvia IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Balancing courage and compassion in research-based learning

by Helen Walkington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1: Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentoring

(Shanahan et al, 2015; Walkington, 2020)

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Helle Mathiasen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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