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Going solo? Mining the learning gaps in a pandemic

16 Dec 2020 | Michael Mansfield, Anthony Mansfield and Michael Thacker The challenges of a commitment to flexible learning opportunities and implementing new ways of working from staff, students and providers.
    "The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” Martin Luther-King


    “I would rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned.” Richard P. Feynman

The relationship of teaching, research and academic citizenship are some the core purposes of higher education. The core activities for higher education academics, professional support services and students are in the midst of one of the most challenging environments in recent times. Higher education providers have had to embrace, rapidly upskill, learn and experiment with online and hybrid teaching and learning platforms – all while maintaining and enhancing high quality curriculums and outcomes for students. One learning and teaching challenge is to maintain focus on the principle that students are much more than simply ‘consumers of education’ (1,2). Higher education providers, in collaboration with students, have a responsibility to deliver research informed education platforms fostering independent thinking, lifelong learning and positive impact to society (3). This requires a commitment to flexible learning opportunities and implementing new ways of working from staff, students and providers. This is not without its challenges.

Fostering lifelong learning and independent thinking are not new positions for higher education. Higher education providers, government, regulatory bodies, academics and students have grappled with this on many occasions in recent history. A notable example was the Industrial Strategy released towards the end of 2017. The strategy asserted the need for the United Kingdom to foster 'career-long learning' and how the government would seek to 'embed a culture of learning throughout working lives' (4). The Industrial Strategy alongside the Government Office for Science’s ‘Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning’ publication both argued that lifelong learning was crucial for increasing productivity in the United Kingdom. Both publications, furthermore, viewed Higher Education – alongside Further Education – as a critical driver for lifelong-learning in the UK economy.

Before the pandemic, regulation of the sector had a method of assessing the impact of Higher Education with a developing triumvirate of assessment frameworks: Research Exercise Framework (REF), Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), and the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). Of course, the REF is the more established member of the trio, but TEF and KEF are advancing. In TEF, the Office for Students sought to evaluate the excellence of teaching at universities and colleges.

In 2017, the Department for Education published the TEF specification in which they articulated an assessment criteria. The framework stipulated that teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes and learning gain as the main ‘aspects’ each with their criterion. According to the specification, teaching quality should foster course design and assessment that stretches ‘students to develop independence’, and learning environment should hold the resources to encourage the ‘development of independent study and research skills’ (5). Many have questioned whether the TEF actually measures teaching excellence – its intended purpose. We can posit that the pursuit of skills and productivity is the underlying cause for the importance placed on graduate outcomes in the TEF, described in the framework as highly-skilled employment. However, it cannot be denied that the assessment framework has elevated the profile of teaching excellence within institutions, an intended aim of the TEF.

Considering the rapidly evolving education landscape, however, these core purposes appear under strain. At the start of the first national lockdown, the National Union of Students (NUS) surveyed nearly 10,000 students on the impact of COVID-19. The NUS survey revealed that 74% of surveyed students were concerned about the impact that COVID-19 was having on their final qualification. The survey reveals the strain the pandemic had placed on those students on a degree with a placement element in which 77% of 2770 respondents were concerned that there would be a negative impact (6).For Higher Education staff, even before the pandemic it was clear that their wellbeing was impacted negatively. In fact, publications from Higher Education Policy Institute and Wellcome Trust underscored the difficult culture, the high workload and ongoing stress that academics were experiencing (7).

The value of higher education and academic expertise has been questioned and under regular scrutiny to demonstrate ‘value for money’ across some areas of society. The turbulence of this health pandemic is likely to magnify this scrutiny and have socioeconomic and political ramifications for higher education providers not just in the immediacy but longer term too. It is essential that working practices and outcomes are collegial to demonstrate higher education’s purpose and value in society. Enhancing the visibility of how higher education learning programmes foster an opportunity to safely and constructively question opinion and theory, generate new knowledge and understanding will enrich regulators, academics and learners recognition of ‘value for money’ in higher education.

The current health pandemic has meant learners’ ‘contact hours’ has had an altered pathway to e-delivery platforms. This, for some groups of learners, has meant increased study isolation and may in fact blur some of the lines between independent study and ‘contact hours’. A popular observation will be that more contact hours through synchronous remote teaching will mitigate this observation. Conversely, we believe an enhanced direction, that is far beyond than simply supplying more contact time, is indicated. Simply providing more academic contact time to meet expectations during this pandemic may not be a sustainable solution. Staff and students should embrace collaborative bi-directional working including both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ strategies. This is not a dualistic procedural approach to quality assurance of the delivery of a learning experience, rather it highlights how all stakeholders in learning activities require regular consulting, collaboration and iterations to maintain the expectations of quality outcomes.

Independent learning has traditionally been an interesting item of debate for students, academics, government and regulators. In some groups it is viewed that as learners are paying for degrees they do not need to attend or even should attend more often (8). Perhaps the viewpoint across all stakeholders requires re-framing. In part, this has seen mandatory developments through the COVID-19 pandemic where learners and academic staff are engaged in hybrid learning models incorporating synchronous and asynchronous lectures, seminars and tutorials. The re-framing should take place across higher education providers, working with their staff, students and other stakeholders to articulate, and appraise the provision of learning opportunities (9). Independent learning should not be seen as a poorer connection when discussing learning opportunities. Independent learning does not mean that students learn by themselves in isolation from peers and tutors (10). Rather, it provides the opportunity for learners to transition across the lifecycle of their study from directed learning to independence (11). The transitional development requires careful planning to incorporate the necessary intellectual, affective, practical and transferable skills and behaviours across the breadth of a learning programme. The most important aspect is that learners develop so that they do not rely on teachers, lecturers, friends or others for continued development. Although there is a responsibility on learners engaging with their own independent learning, the academic staff should aid students within the objectives and boundaries of the learning programme. In this current environment of e-learning deliverables, both academic staff and learners will need to embrace functions of e-learning platforms to translate this into their own critical thinking and appraisal of subject matter. Guided learning opportunities must encourage the explorative and curious strategies associated with deep and active learning in order to meet learners’ expectations and achieve success. Connecting with learners (and learners connecting with one another) to achieve shared and agreed understanding of expectations and outcomes to learning during this pandemic will be critical for success (12). Through sharing previous learning experiences and discussing independent learning strategies as a community of learners and provide opportunities (such as group work, study-buddies, online discussion boards) learners will have the opportunity to visualise, understand and develop their own learning paths which are fit-for-purpose for their chosen careers (13).

Now, more than ever, we need to work collegially with our learners as we navigate through this pandemic and changes in higher education delivery. Collaborative working across unions, sector agencies and higher education providers should provide robust strategic and operational learning roadmaps. Recognising the purpose of higher education and the impact of independent learning during study isolation periods requires careful planning and direction to support our learners. Collecting robust data to enhance the learning experience in the immediacy and longer term is clearly indicated as we move out of this global health pandemic.

The authors:

Michael Mansfield MSc BSc (Hons) HCPC MCSP MMACP FHEA, Pain Research Cluster; Ageing, Acute and Long Term Conditions Research Group. Department of Allied Health Sciences, Social Work and Advanced Practice. Institute of Health and Social Care. London South Bank University @MM_Physio Tel: 020 7815 7815

Anthony Mansfield PhD MA BA (Hons) SFHEA, Strategic Planning, University of East London. @AntMHistory

Michael Thacker PhD MSc Grad Dip Phys Grad Dip MNMSD, Pain Research Cluster; Ageing, Acute and Long Term Conditions Research Group. Institute of Health and Social Care. London South Bank University. @dibbygibby

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