The Covid -19 situation has been described as a paradigm shift in HE, if we understand the expression “paradigm shift” as a fundamental change in an approach or assumption. In HE we are asking our staff and students to teach, learn and support teaching in different ways that the ones they were used to, not necessarily because we can perceive the change as an enhancement but because we do have to change. Change comes as result of a disruption and this transition through the change is perceived as traumatic, that is why the HE sector should respond to this change by embedding the values of kindness and compassion at the very heart of any strategy or approach that we may adopt. We, the international education community, are going through a transitional journey and we must look after our staff and our students.
The conversations that are taking place in the HE education sector, both in Europe and internationally, envisage three stages or phases in this transitional journey:
- In the last three months, professionals like me who are responsible for providing guidance and mentorship to academic colleagues on how use the best pedagogical models and learning platforms to support teaching, were immerse in what it was called ‘emergency learning’ or ‘remote learning’. Our role was, primarily, reactive as we had to train faculty staff and students to use the basic tools and technologies already available in our institutions to communicate online and get in touch.
- We are moving now, over the summer, to a second phase called the ‘blended learning’ phase or ‘Hybrid learning phase’, in which most of the universities are introducing new blended learning models that integrate elements of face-to-face teaching and online learning. Those blended learning models need to be responsive to respond rapidly to changing pedagogical requirements as lockdown restrictions may be imposed or lifted. This phase will continue during the next academic year and the main challenge for digital educators like me is to train and support course leaders to adopt these responsive blended learning models in their courses for September 2020.
- The final phase in this transitional journey receives promising names such as ‘future digital education” or “fully embracing digital transformation”. In this phase, traditional universities will have to re-think their mission and their role in society as providers of digital education as they will have to co-exist with the proliferation of private education providers, such as MOOC providers. In any case, the predictions for this last phase involve a debate between two conceptions of HE: the European model, in which universities contribute to local communities and promote values and identity, and the Anglo-American model, in which universities train graduates for the workplace.
Come what may, as we are still going through this ‘blended learning’ phase, it is important to have clear how to approach this phase. For me, the key principles that our universities should reflect in whatever blended learning model they may adopt should be promoting the creation of learning communities, and prioritising the digital wellbeing of staff and students.
There is enough research evidence supporting that the sense of belonging, of being part of an online community is essential to learning. Any responsive blended learning model should adopt pedagogical approaches that make students feel part of a community, a cohort, wherever they may be studying since classrooms, in this ‘blended learning’ phase, will be seen as a combination of physical and online spaces.
The expression ‘digital wellbeing’, coined by JISC, refers to the impact that technologies and digital services have on people’s mental, physical and emotional health. In this transitional phase of “blended learning”, the responsibility of ensuring the digital wellbeing of our staff and students relies on professionals like me, who are responsible for the provision of the training in the pedagogical models and learning technologies that facilitate the ‘blend’. Ensuring the digital wellbeing of our academic staff and students involves providing appropriate training and guidance in a relatively short timeframe, for which we need to provide the right resources.
We also need to measure the impact that digital activities of those new blended learning models will have on tutors’ and students’ health and how both will manage the digital workload. Maybe this is an opportunity for British universities to re-consider the feasibility of our academics’ workload models.
Ensuring the digital wellbeing of our staff and students involves ensuring that they have access to right equipment, software and tools as well as guidance on how to use those tools. The Covid-19 situation forced the Information Services divisions of our universities to re-think our internal processes for the evaluation and acquisition of new technologies and software, as well as to reconsider what technologies, platforms and services can best support the new pedagogical requirements of our blended learning models.
If the assumption that ‘one size does not fit all’ when applied to learning technologies was considered true before the Covid-19 situation, this assumption is equally true now. This puts the professional services responsible for supporting the technology in the awkward position of stretching their resources for providing support for the recommended information technologies, services and platforms while being open enough to allow early adopters to introduce other technologies and tools that can be more appropriate to teach their academic subject in a blended learning environment. This also brings to the thorny questions of who is going to pay for these more appropriate tools: Information Services, Schools or lecturers themselves? In turn, this opens the Pandora’s box of GDPR considerations, data integrity security and many other issues around the rapid purchase of new technologies to support the ‘blend’.
Resourcing is the main challenge that digital educators and professional services face in this ‘blended learning’ phase as we need to reach, train and support all faculty staff in preparation of Semester 1 2020, and over the summer period, where our academic colleagues have the right to enjoy their well-deserved holidays. As budgets are being scrutinized, with predictions of droppings in students’ numbers and therefore income, we can develop some workarounds to guarantee enough resources, such as the creation of training hubs, online courses to teach our academic colleagues the new blended learning approaches and engaging our graduates as online enablers to help us reach and train their peer students.
The transitional journey that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about is certainly not easy. That is why it is of paramount important to promote international solidary and collaboration among universities. European and British universities are going through the same transition, the same disruption, and we can share our experiences, expertise, the solutions that we envisage… as well as our mistakes. This journey is new to all of us. That is why is so important that we work together as a global community of learning.
Did you miss out on the Teaching and Learning Conference 2020? Click here to purchase an on-demand ticket to receive access to all of our on-demand content from the conference until 6 August 2020. Tickets are available to purchase until 23 July 2020.
Mari Cruz García is an expert in digital education and a former international telecom consultant. Working for Telefónica Móviles International, she was the founder of the Interconnection Department at the start-up company Group 3G-Quam (Germany). In the United Kingdom, she has worked in three top-ranked universities and was part of the initial team that started the Kuwait Scotland eHealth Innovation Network (KSeHIN), an educational partnership between the Dundee Medical School and the Dasman Diabetes Institute. She is an HEA Fellow and currently works at Heriot-Watt University (Scotland).