Covid-19 confronted university leaders, professors and staff globally with a threat: transition online with immediate effect, or else cease business. A swift, spirited and collectively coordinated transition after, and with the pandemic in recession, we have returned to campuses asking: has education delivery changed permanently? Has remote working become the norm? Or was the pandemic only an interruption with no sustainable impact on how we teach and learn?
Instead of understanding the transformation universities underwent as wholly unforeseen and unplanned, I see a continuity between pre-pandemic expectations and universities' response to the demands of the pandemic. If understood thus, pre and post-pandemic challenges and strategies become less disjunct, and the more important question becomes: how do we move forward with an eye on teaching excellence?
While few, if anyone, saw Covid-19 coming, in a 2017 survey, leaders from 25 universities revealed their expectations for the decade of 2017-27, and these surprisingly converge with the demands that shortly followed:
- Developing a response to technological advances
- Executing reforms at the interface of education delivery and technology
- Revising human resource practices to recognise and reward teaching excellence.
"We are now at the moment when the technological revolution which has changed so much in our lives is going to transform education," wrote David Willets, the former Minister of State for Universities and Science in 2017. University leaders elaborated on the plural ways they expected technology to impact education and its delivery. For instance, they suggested professions would require a grasp of data science and algorithmic thinking. Technologically bound, highly connected societies would demand interdisciplinary research and curriculum. Teaching practices would revolve around individual learning, enhanced through technology. Alongside these concerns, leaders expressed a need to recognise, reward and develop teaching staff, wanting to balance the scale between teaching and research.
When we retrospectively contextualise Covid-19 within these expectations for the decade, we see that Covid-19 functioned as that singular event that materialised leaders' pre-pandemic expectations of challenges and catalysed the anticipated change. Separating the event of Covid-19 from its consequences, the changes in our ways of working, educating and learning seem inevitable and, as the survey suggests, even anticipated.
The proof is all around us that the pandemic accelerated the anticipated changes. I recall one amongst multiple such accelerations I witnessed at Queen Mary University of London. During the pandemic, our chemistry and medicine educators introduced mixed reality technology to recreate the experience of observing an experiment in person. Staff wore HoloLens smart glasses - a technology deemed for the future became handy and necessary. Teaching staff saw virtual screens in their field of vision overlaid over physical, and this field of vision was broadcasted live to students. When the doctor visited his patients, for instance, students saw what the doctor saw: the virtual scans together with the patient's body. Will these changed ways become a norm? We found they improved students' learning experience and our capacities for co-creating, so considered it more than a temporary response to the pandemic. As students and staff returned to campus, we naturally retained innovative leaps that improved our pre-pandemic learning and teaching experience.
But how do we identify appropriate innovations which enhance the learning experience, ensuring the continuation of the pace of progress achieved over the pandemic? By identifying those who integrate technology positively, ie we must systematically appreciate teachers who remain receptive and fluid in their teaching, adapting to novel teaching methods while remaining faithful to student learning. And this identification happens first and foremost through engagement with the most important stakeholders of the university: students. In this process, feedback from funders and staff also becomes essential.
Therefore, as we emerge from the pandemic and grapple with questions of change again, it remains vital to put mechanisms in place toward our principal duty: teaching excellence. Five practices become crucial to recognise teaching talent:
- Career structure
- Pedagogic qualifications
- Peer support
- Capacity building
- Reward and recognition systems.
The responsibility to institute these falls upon the leaders; for leadership is the thread that connects strategy, execution and reward systems that actively promote and value excellence in teaching and learning. Such leadership involves diverse members from all tiers and functions to create a shared teaching and learning vision and operational reality.
If we wish to continue maximising a university's contribution to society, we must not let teaching excellence be sidelined and ensure equal prioritisation of teaching and research excellence. Teaching excellence holds the key to solving a university's internal challenges – swift technological shifts and introducing innovative teaching and learning formats – but also the ills our society faces by contributing to the development of future leaders.
Stephanie Marshall is the Vice-Principal (Education) at Queen Mary University of London. Since February 2020, Stephanie has led Queen Mary’s approach to co-creating a blended and mixed-mode education, and is continuing to ensure each and every student is able to benefit from the approach.
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