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It’s a brave new (educational) world

08 Sep 2020 | Dr Nigel Francis Dr Nigel Francis, with Dr David Smith and Professor Ian Turner, ask what has been learnt and what are the longer-term implications following the adaptations of moving lectures online, reimagining assessments and replacing practical classes with dry lab alternatives as a result of COVID-19.

As we look towards the start of the next academic year no-one could have predicted the major changes that higher education has undergone in the past 6 months, indeed, the changes that our whole way of life has undergone! Yet, here we are, less than a month away from the next academic cycle, living with the very real impact of COVID-19 that poses one of the most significant and challenging disruptions higher education has ever seen.

As coronavirus swept the globe in March universities shut their physical campuses almost overnight and we saw an unprecedented level of change in higher education. The sector reacted with its typical degree of innovation and resilience, moving lectures online, reimagining assessments and replacing practical classes with dry lab alternatives. Whilst these adaptations were far from perfect given the timescale, the obvious questions to ask now are what has been learnt and what are the longer-term implications of these changes for the education sector? Right from the start, there have been tangible benefits from this new way of teaching and learning. COVID-19 has allowed academics to cast off the constraints of the atavistic lecture, essay, exam format and this newfound sense of freedom has seen some incredible invention; perhaps the removal of these traditional, perceived constraints has awakened the latent innovator within many academics? Open book exams have moved questions away from simple recall to authentic, application of knowledge style questions, whilst virtual lectures that can be accessed anytime have provided students with a self-paced learning environment.

However, there have also been significant challenges, one of which, that has faced the life sciences, is the provision of lab and field classes and the acquisition of the core skills that are associated with these learning opportunities. It is here that the true collaborative nature of teaching academics has shone through to help bring together pieces of the puzzle. #DryLabsRealScience, along with other communities of practice in chemistry and physics, has offered these academics an opportunity to share their innovative approaches, bringing the sector together, fostering a culture of collaboration, whilst offering ideas and inspiration for the future. The supportive nature of these networks is driving a move away from process-driven laboratory and field classes, which one student previously described as ‘following a recipe without ever really having any idea how to cook’, to sessions that are underpinned by data interpretation, experimental design and an understanding of the techniques and why they are used. The application of knowledge and techniques is surely the ultimate goal for us as educators to equip our students with the skills to become successful scientific practitioners and pedagogical changes that encourage this need to be retained and embraced widely.

One of the key goals of these adaptations is to maximise the learning opportunities within the limited laboratory and fieldwork time that is likely to be available and to move a majority of the learning, which can occur outside the lab, online. The main approaches for this can be divided into broad categories of videos, simulations and animations, which allow students to familiarise themselves with equipment, techniques and health and safety considerations pre-lab rather than as a traditional introduction. The main advantage of this will likely be that the students will arrive better prepared to engage with the practical and questions of the “how do I…?” nature will be replaced by “what does…mean?” or “what is the significance of…?”. If technical skill acquisition is the ultimate learning goal than sample data provision allows students to focus solely on understanding the “how” and “why” elements of the learning environment rather than worrying about the quality of their data as a measurable output.

This innovation has not been limited to undergraduate laboratory and field classes, the range of ideas shared around alternative final year (capstone) and Master level projects has been equally startling and the work of individuals like Dr Dave Lewis at the University of Leeds has driven this area forward at a rapid pace. One of the challenges of any networks like this is the dissemination of information and in that regard #DryLabsRealScience has been very fortunate to have the support of the lectuREmotely (https://www.lecturemotely.com/) team at De Montfort, Jo Rushworth, Bethan Rogoyski and TJ Moore and the website that they have developed to house a whole range of resources for delivering teaching remotely, including those developed by Dave Lewis. We are immensely grateful that they have allowed us to take over a small corner of their site to host resources, which include recordings of all the #DryLabsRealScience presentations, a series of “How to” guides for various project ideas and “7 Free Resources” infographics for a range of different topics.

So, where does this leave us for the future? Well, to simply revert to the old way of doing things would be a tragedy even Shakespeare would be proud of! COVID-19 has provided us, as educators, with a golden opportunity to bring higher education into the 21st Century and, perhaps, more importantly, offer the learning experiences that the 21st Century graduate needs to be successful in the evolving job market. For the #DryLabsRealScience network specifically, in the short term, this means the provision of further online meetings, as academics trial more novel teaching provision and longer-term, potentially an online conference devoted to innovative lab and fieldwork provision.

The Iron Maiden song It’s A Brave New World contains a line, “What you see is not real, those who know will not tell”. In contrast, what we see and the challenges posed by COVID-19 are very real, but those that know have told, shared their knowledge, ideas and invention like never before…long may that continue in this brave new educational world!

For more information about #DryLabsRealscience – next meeting 14:00, 16 September – please contact Nigel Francis (n.j.francis@swansea.ac.uk), David Smith (d.p.smith@shu.ac.uk) or Ian Turner (i.turner@derby.ac.uk).

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