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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens next?

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

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

Impact on teaching practice

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

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

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

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

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

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

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


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

by Amy Larsen, Deanna Horvath, Stuart James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The student perception

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

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

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

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

Student feedback

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

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

Student satisfaction

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

So, what have we learnt from this experience?

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

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

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

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


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Scenario planning for digitalised education

by Matt Finch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instructional fables for organizations: a short history of scenario planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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Flexible digitally-enhanced courses that foster active learning

by Giovanna Carloni

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.

Giovanna Carli’s statement can be found here.

The lessons learned from emergency remote teaching implemented during the Covid-19 disruption can be used to inform the design of flexible digitally-enhanced education in the post-pandemic university. Flexibility, which has emerged as pivotal during the pandemic and as a key dimension of educational practices in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, is likely to affect the development of higher education deeply in the near future. In this respect, course design needs to provide students with the opportunity to increase their degree of agency in planning their learning pathways by enabling them, for example, to decide autonomously to switch between various participation modes and select among various types of activities. In this light, course designers and instructors need to bear in mind that digitally-enhanced learning is deeply interwoven with active learning.

Research carried out on some blended and fully online foreign language pedagogy classes delivered as emergency remote teaching at university during the lockdown has identified the affordances of various digitally-enhanced practices suitable for fostering the development of content knowledge and critical thinking from a multilingual perspective in flexible learning environments. The findings of the studies have been used to outline the design of flexible digitally-enhanced courses, combining face-to-face and online modes, taught in a foreign language and suited to catering to the multifarious needs of university students in a post-pandemic learning context. 

The flexible digitally-enhanced course outline developed addresses both the issues related to social distancing and the need of collaborative content knowledge development in higher education. In flexible digitally-enhanced courses, students can choose whether to attend face-to-face classes or online classes, which is likely to cater to students’ multifarious needs in the new normal while increasing their sense of agency. In particular, technology-enhanced activities representative of the Redefinition category of Puentedura’s SAMR model  – “Tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable” – have been designed to promote innovative and highly engaging learning processes. Activities, such as ice breakers, targeted at making learners feel as members of a learning community have been created. To foster a sense of in-group membership, collaborative activities requiring students to co-construct multimodal artifacts have also been included in the blended learning environments outlined. 

In the post-pandemic context, the attainment of students’ wellbeing needs to be integrated into the pedagogical dimension of the learning experience. In this light, in flexible digitally-enhanced course design, teaching and learning practices have been devised from a pedagogy of care perspective. Furthermore, equity, another dimension emerged as essential during the pandemic, has been accounted for while designing flexible digitally-enhanced courses by adopting an open pedagogy approach, targeted at catering to the needs of all the agents engaged in post-pandemic university education. In this respect, adopting open textbooks, instructors can foster equity; in particular, open textbooks enable instructors to personalize content and activities catering to students’ needs in face-to-face and online learning environments. Likewise, using open textbooks, students can modify content to build new technology-enabled knowledge. Digital open educational resources, suitable for enhancing critical thinking through scaffolded hypothesis making and discussions in a foreign language, play a pivotal role in active learning development.

Overall, post-pandemic education needs to be flexible, digitally-enhanced, and targeted at fostering students’ active learning as well as learners’ metacognitive and professional skills through collaborative work.

Giovanna Carloni, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Urbino, Italy. Her fields of expertise are foreign language didactics, teaching Italian as a second and foreign language, CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), English linguistics, corpus linguistics, virtual exchanges, educational technology, design for learning, and teacher training. Among her publications: Corpus Linguistics and English Teaching Materials (Milano: Franco Angeli), CLIL in Higher Education and the Role of Corpora. A Blended Model of Consultation Services and Learning Environments (Venezia: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari), and Digitally-Enhanced Practices and Open Pedagogy in English-Taught Programs. Flexible Learning for Local and Global Settings in Higher Education (Milano: Franco Angeli).


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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact sylvie.lomer@manchester.ac.uk or jenna.mittelmeier@manchester.ac.uk for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.

References

Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430

Marcia Devlin


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Reconsidering university education. Again

by Marcia Devlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple? Hardly.

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

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

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

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


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The path towards a socially just learning design

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

Introduction

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

What is socially just learning design?

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

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

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

Interactivity … what it means to me (the learner)

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing it all together

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

Figure 1: Framework for socially just learning design activities

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

1. Creating relevance by adding context to an existing OER

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

2. Adjusting rubrics to accommodate for any media-delivery

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

3. Giving learners choices in assessments

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

Conclusion

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Curating Academic Knowledge

by Emil Toescu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Supervising and assessing ‘the new generation of researchers’: the power of posing questions and sharing perspectives

by Bing Lu

The SRHE event on doctoral supervision and assessment, followed by a celebratory book launch, in February this year had at first struck me as pretty ambitious. The description on the website said that, as members of the research community, we should strive to undertake new research through supervising and assessing ‘the new generation of researchers’. With doctoral supervision being my own doctoral research field, I cannot help contemplating whether our research community has already moved into a new generation. How does this ‘new generation of researchers’ differ from the older generation in terms of research interests when they first embark the research journey? And how much intellectual tradition we should keep in such a fast expanding community which is increasingly marked by globalization and individuality? With this curiosity in mind, I arranged my trip to London, hoping to find answers from the presenters and other attending researchers.

The six speakers were authors of the six newly published books in the Success in Research series. Referred to as being ‘interactive and practical’, these publications aim to add value to doctoral education, and cover six themes: inspiring doctoral researchers, collaboration and engagement, seeking funding, publishing, mentoring, as well as doctoral assessment and supervision. The event was attended by a wide range of researchers coming from different universities, experienced and novice supervisors, research developers, recently graduated doctoral students, and postgraduate students who are undertaking doctoral studies like myself. It was a pretty fun and productive day led by the positive and energetic ‘lady gang’, as Pam Denicolo from University of Surrey amusingly called themselves.

As the first presenter, Pam articulated ‘inspiring’, a major theme that would go through the whole session. By inviting the audience to think over the question, ‘what is inspiring supervision?’, she reminded supervisors and researchers of proactive participation in the research community by doing things like deliberately creating ‘lucky opportunities’, and reflecting on actions that make supervising/being supervised enjoyable. Julie Reeves, a research developer from University of Southampton, then presented on the value of collaboration and engagement. We were invited again to reflect and discuss with other members the nominal value of inspiring collaboration and why it matters in research supervision. It was a fun-filled experience of listening to others and sharing my own views with them in the group discussion. Also I noticed how effectively the first two presenters led us to think by deliberately posing reflective questions and encouraging us to talk. By doing so, I felt the boundary between presenters and audience was blurred, as we all contributed to each theme by listing our ideas on posters, with many of them indeed being ‘inspiring’.

The four presenters in the afternoon also demonstrated their topics with the same strategy, posing enlightening questions and prompting original thoughts. Marcela Acuna Rivera, research development manager, from Royal Holloway, University of London contributed a practical speech on seeking funding. Her presentation kindly provided a nuts-and-bolts guide navigating research funding with an emphasis on preparing the application, and reminded us why having a holistic view of the research landscape matters so much. The presentation up next was on publication, given by Dawn Duke from University of Surrey. She offered 10 top tips regarding publication strategies, and posed powerful questions about why impact matters in research community and who cares/should care about one’s own research. Funding and publication are always valued and even prioritised in research community, and sometimes the two issues cause anxiety among novice researchers. The two speakers presented both topics in a fun and productive way, pinpointing the significance of being confident and prepared for success.

Mentoring in the research community is a field I had known less about before, but was able to gain more understanding thanks to the fifth speaker, Alison Yeung, from University of Surrey. As an experienced mentor in helping postgraduates with writing skills, Alison explained the relationship between mentor and mentee, narrated her own stories of mentoring students, and invited us to think over the value of mentoring in assisting supervision. Sue Starbuck, from Royal Holloway, University of London contributed the wrap-up speech on doctoral assessment. She declared that doctoral assessment should be inspiring and empowering, and invited us to work in groups reflecting on the factors and motivators stimulating us to improve productivity in the assessment process. Again it was a quite fun discussion.

Have the questions that I posed at the beginning of this post been answered? I think yes. The global research community is fast expanding and changing today, and the rate is being accelerated by different facilitators like technology and increasingly professional training support. Having said that, in the doctoral education, as the main site for cultivating modern researchers and an area of practice for a large number of researchers/supervisors, there still exist essential traditions that can be followed. These traditions are people-oriented, characterized by inventiveness, curiosity and everlasting pursuit of answers. This productive event again verified the power of posing questions and sharing perspectives as a strong support to any volatile situation in the research community.

SRHE member Bing Lu (Warwick) is a second-year doctoral researcher from Education Studies, investigating how academics who have returned after a doctorate abroad conduct doctoral supervision in their home countries. Twitter @BingluAlice


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Troubling transitions: re-thinking dominant narratives surrounding students’ educational transitions

by Karen Gravett

This blog draws on recent research into educational transitions within higher education. Student transitions are a central part of higher education policy and practice internationally. However it is striking that much of the work within this important area is underpinned by unquestioned assumptions surrounding what transition as a concept might mean. Too often understandings of transition defer to narratives that reinforce stereotypic and limited understandings of students’ experiences of life and learning.

In recent years, student satisfaction and successful outcomes for students have become key institutional priorities, and narratives surrounding transition can be seen to employ a number of recurring ideas in order to explain and regulate students’ outcomes. These include the navigation of distinct stages: induction; ‘welcome’ week; the ‘first year experience’, as well as conceptions of transition as a structured process, or a linear pathway, to be smoothed and bridged. Words matter. These narratives have implications for how students’ learner identities are constructed, as well as for how students are interpellated into discourse. Recurring tropes of bridges and gaps reinforce the implication of a personal deficit within the student, a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ that exists from the very outset of a student’s experience at university. These metaphors are also underpinned by the assumption that individuals should adapt to their university environment.

Such narratives also ignore the multiplicity and diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. Depicting students’ experiences as uniform is particularly problematic given the reality of today’s diverse student populations and differing individual circumstances. Pathway metaphors also support a view that upholds individualised discourses of aspiration and resilience, and yet recent events remind us of how quickly trajectories can become unsettled, how easily linear pathways can be disrupted, through no fault of a student’s own. Within the narratives surrounding student transition, then, an intense focus on fixed time frames and ‘progressive’ outcomes can be seen to construct limiting timescapes of higher education and such fixed conceptions can be problematic for students who may for a variety of reasons need to ‘drop out’ or change direction.

Overall, the need for more nuanced understandings of students’ experiences into and through higher education has been brought into sharp focus recently with the unprecedented disruption to life and learning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Understanding difference becomes even more important as we begin to see how different learning experiences may be for different students – those with space to work at home, those with a stable home, those with access to computers, printers, broadband connections, those without ill-health or caring responsibilities. And other new questions arise: is it still appropriate to speak in terms of rites of passage, linear pathways and first year experiences? What does transition into higher education now mean given that are students are currently transitioning to online study and facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change? Perhaps it is time instead to consider how we can we foster greater consideration of the granularity of students’ experiences, considering that beneath institutional discourses there may lie a more nuanced picture: one where students’ experiences can be understood as diverse, messy, and rhizomatic.

Recent empirical research with staff and students also suggested the diverse, fluid and ongoing nature of students’ transitions at university as depicted in these students’ comments:

You’re constantly changing, you’re constantly meeting new people. (Laura, second interview)

I was already quite independent when I came to Uni … because my mum, she’s disabled, so I already do a lot of stuff at home for my brother. (Maria, first interview)

It doesn’t feel like I’m living the same experience as they would, even though we go to the same uni. (Mena, first interview)

In these studies, our data portrayed tensions between the stories, narratives and linear timescapes that surround traditional conceptualisations of student transition, and the fine-grained, messy, changing, becomings of students’ lived experiences. The implications of such a reconceptualisation thus offers new potential for a rethinking of approaches to theorising and doing transition, as well as raising new questions regarding our understanding of students’ experiences. A new question for institutions now exists: in how to reconcile the fluidity and rhizomatic experiences of students with the conventional linear and modular institutional approaches to the acquisition of knowledge that may be driven by neoliberal agendas of efficiency and managerialism.

Indeed, to date such traditional conceptions of transition have encouraged a focus on short term, practical, strategies to promote success, for example pre-entry, induction and welcome week initiatives. Perhaps instead we might wish to consider individuals’ lived temporal rhythms, the ongoing nature of learning and development within higher education, and the ongoing nature of transition itself. What would a rethinking of transitions as something necessarily troublesome, as rhizomatic, and as part of an individual’s ongoing series of becomings offer? Key implications will be a need for institutions to offer support beyond the initial stage conventionally termed transition, as well as to seek to depart from approaches that construct students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’, or as experiencing a transition period that should necessarily be managed, smoothed and eased at all. Rather, considering how we can share an understanding of the inevitable challenges and difficulties inherent within learning, and the ongoing nature of change and becoming may be more useful, particularly in our troubling times where we might conclude we are now always experiencing a period of transition, or becoming.

This blog post is based on research recently published in Studies in Higher Education and Higher Education Research and Development. Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment network.