They say that a week is a long time in politics, but three weeks in the current situation feels like a lifetime ago! That was when I blogged about what some universities and colleges are thinking about for the next academic year and what the new normal might look like. But what do we want it to look like?


Innovative approaches to online teaching 


In higher education we rarely get the opportunity to stop doing everything in the way that we’ve always done it and try it a completely different way, well probably not since Gutenburg! But that is exactly what many institutions have done as they’ve shifted almost their entire operations online overnight. I’ve heard a number of vice chancellors (half) joking that they have managed to achieve their 10-year strategies on online learning approaches in the space of a matter of weeks!


For many GuildHE institutions this has included moving online many highly practical subjects from the creative arts to land-based and allied health subjects, and some of the hugely creative ways in which this has been done has been truly inspiring.


For example, there’s the paramedic course that has replicated a practical element of responding to an emergency call into an entirely online experience from scratch: the student receiving the 999 call, riding in the ambulance to arriving in the house. All done through re-purposing materials online including videos, photos and sounds effects such as heartbeats and ECGs. The tutors take the student through this and discuss what they’re thinking at each point. All this from academic staff who had barely used the collaborative elements of the online platform before the current situation.


There has also been the theatre performance and acting courses that have been using the current crisis as a way of thinking through some of the challenges for delivering theatre in a socially distanced or online format in the future to help future-proof graduates. It has been fascinating hearing how universities are linking up with their industry and seeing what their professionals are doing – such as on Instragram or TikTok – and using that to inform what they’re teaching students, and seeing increased engagement from some students as a result.


I hear from many staff who, having had the opportunity to discover the range of opportunities for blended approaches, do not want to simply revert to the old methods of delivery when this is all over. Indeed, there is also feedback from students that there are elements of the current experience that they prefer, such as the online lectures followed by online discussion forums. They find these much more valuable than the old-style chalk and talk lectures, and I’m sure that’s not just because they want to attend in their pyjamas! There will be many looking forward to returning to face-to-face approaches but there is also much that we might want to retain from these new innovative approaches as well.


Opening up 

I’ve mentioned above about the increased staff and student engagement with online learning, and unlocking some of the more creative ways in which it can be used. It’s important to consider what elements of these approaches we would want to retain, and we will need to speak to staff and students to gather their views. But also when considering how we are supporting students to engage with their learning, and ensuring some groups of students aren’t being left behind, has prompted some more nuanced ways of using learner analytics to track and support student engagement.

It has also been noticeable that in addition to students engaging well with online lectures there has also been a positive response to one-to-one online counselling sessions, with perhaps even more usage than normal. This may of course be due to the increased pressure that students are under, but perhaps this is also due to easier accessibility and the fact that we have all been more willing to talk about some of the mental health challenges of the current situation.


An environmentally sustainable normal


As we all respond to the current crisis it is worth remembering that there is another one on the horizon, and I don’t just mean the economic one. The climate and biodiversity crisis may lack some of the urgency and feeling of immediacy of the current crisis but as we consider what we want the new normal to look like we must ensure it is an environmentally sustainable normal, so that we don’t just survive one the crisis to stumble at the next.


Some of the adaptations that institutions have previously been considering in response to the climate emergency, but perhaps put in the “too difficult” box up until now, have been put in place in response to the current situation. We should, therefore, take the opportunity to reflect on what we would like to retain before we just revert to the old approaches.


It is probably fair to say that historically there has been a degree of scepticism in many universities to staff home-working. The current situation has shown many of the possibilities and opportunities of this, and a number of institutions have recently introduced new home-working policies. This combination of a more blended approach to teaching and learning, and other activities, along with staff being encouraged to work from home, could make the 2030 target of carbon neutrality feel more achievable in many universities. Furthermore, the supply-chain challenges of the early stages of the current crisis created an opportunity to build in more local procurement which will also support carbon reduction targets, along with helping the local economy to recover


Plane sailing


This is especially true when broadened out to consider international travel and conferences. We may come to realise that they are not so important as we thought they were: virtual conferences are able to work for some things almost as well. There are also a number of countries reassessing their official view on online learning, which could create more online opportunities for new forms of Trans-National Education. 


We will never entirely end the need for international work travel, and the importance of face-to-face meetings is probably not lost on many of us craving a laugh with an old colleague over a university buffet in-between meetings. But as I look up at the sky and am surprised every time I see an aeroplane, this might be an opportunity to consider whether all the international travel is quite as essential as we thought it was.


Conclusion


Universities and colleges have done an incredible job at shifting their entire business model online, and we’re all thinking about what we need to put in place to protect staff and students in the medium term as we consider the next academic year. However, it is also important to reflect on what we might want to do differently in the longer term and how we can create a new normal that is a more environmentally sustainable normal should be high on considerations, and something that will resonate with many prospective students.

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