Back at the start of lockdown 2020 I wrote a summary of what I’d learned about online teaching and learning over the years, to inform my way ahead. That now seems like a lifetime ago and much has happened in the intervening time: formulating and re-formulating plans, preparing and ‘going-live’ with a new model of student engagement, and responding to continuous situational changes. Nearing the end of the term, I ‘m taking stock of what appears to have gone well, and what less so, and where the challenges and opportunities exist.

Partnership has been key to progress

As the HE sector did its emergency online pivot in March and April, our pro-active SU were engaging with students and feeding this in to wider planning. They completed a detailed survey and a summary report about what was working for students and what was not. Key headlines: issues of connectivity were very widespread; challenges at home make studying extremely challenging for many; while varied teaching styles are valued, a consistency of approach is needed to prevent confusion online; ensuring digital accessibility is addressed is essential for all (and helps with consistency); synchronous teaching is isn’t always manageable due to distraction issues in the home, and students can be nervous to contribute; asynchronous experiences offer a welcome level of flexibility; personal contact with staff is appreciated by students; and, there is a good level of understanding and mutual empathy about the current situation. Partnership research gave a local mandate to many of the things that were already recognised to be effective, and so our blueprint for online learning was born. This report gave rise to a cross-institutional plan, as well as professional development for all.

In twenty years (ish) of HE, I have never encountered such an impressive piece of partnership working. In case anyone wants to follow up, the Harper SU Student Voice report is online and second ‘how are we doing?’ piece of work is in progress by the Harper SU.

Synchronous is still tricky!

Live sessions continue to be tricky for many. Connectivity challenges are rife among staff and students, the question of whether to record synchronous active learning sessions remains unresolved (does recording deter engagement but help with accessibility?), and a perception of students being reluctant to fully engage causes the value of some synchronous activity to be questioned.

I managed to look over one student’s shoulder while they were in a live session – what struck me was the nervousness they held about contributing on the text chat – worrying about grammar and prose, then by the time they had crafted an input the session moved on and they deleted it. More research around the student experience of synchronous sessions is needed. To date research in this area may be skewed towards students who actively chose to study in this way.

Boundaries are hard to find – how much is enough?

After working with colleagues, students, and the students (and school pupils) in my own family and social circles, I have a concern about our collective boundaries at this time. Without shared space we lack many of the usual cues to know when a good job has been done. The result is some students pouring over notes unsure when they have done enough, replaying lectures to capture every word, or trying to read everything. I fear that we will see a little more burnout.

The performance calibration, feedback and guidance is missing from so many places. For students it may be a tutor making a remark as they walk by in a class, it may be through the reassuring conversations at the end of a class, or it may be a regulating conversation with students within a tutorial group. Social distancing, masks, and some online configurations have reduced the ability to access signals of performance. Special effort is needed to ensure students are reassured, and they they know when they are doing enough.

Sharing has been incredible – but not always

Colleagues across the sector have been awesome at sharing practice, for the benefit of all students. I’d like to thank everyone who has shared ideas on policy and practice – this has undoubtedly helped me personally. Nevertheless a glance across any sharing space (internal or external) is enough to trigger even established teachers to feel inadequate. Sometimes there is a risk of information overload and inadvertent pressure on colleagues who may be struggling a little.

In Michelle Morgan’s WONKHE article I saw the brilliant phrase ‘real models not just role models’ to describe the idea of sharing the reality of the current situation with students, so not to generate unreachable expectations and to give a level of frankness to decision making. Arguably though, for those of us working in HE, it is just as important to model the reality between ourselves as well as for students. At a trivial level I personally love dogs and kids joining Teams calls, but more substantially we could share feedback, challenges and difficulties. In the last week or two I’ve tried to make a point of sharing some of my own ‘fails’ and struggles with colleagues, in hope to (real-) model our collective struggle.

A two-tier revolution

Are we having a revolution in HE? The jury is out, though it would be nice to think that deep change was ahead in relation to matters of assessment, accessibility, flexibility and appropriate use of technology.

Perhaps we need to be careful to not overclaim here though – some HE colleagues are romping away with the technology, embracing all that is available and providing inspiring, engaging experiences and reimagining assessment. I see snippets of practice that sparkle, but while these star tutors spin the decks of all their tech with the aptitude of Zoom DJ’s, others are uncertain of what is permissible or what options may be available in the tech toolbox. This is not said in judgment – technology use by faculty is the product of many factors – but we need to be careful with tempting claims of revolution. Perhaps the real revolution is one where care, compassion and humanity are the main ingredients. Time will tell.

Mechanise or energise assessment

Something is going on with assessment as exams are proving often unfeasible, presentations in person are tricky and practical tasks may need rethinking. This needs research and in time this will no doubt emerge. I have seen clear transformation of assessment thinking – a personal favourite is a switch from an MCQ exam to asking students to create a scientific information video made for a wider audience, which may actually get some use! However, I’ve also heard discussion about ‘solving’ assessment issues with a technological migration – to simply mechanise what was always done (how do we ‘do this exam’ through technology?). Such an approach serves to maintain the old order, and in reflection terms feels more single-loop than double. There is limited questioning of underlying assumptions. Somewhere in-between all this I have seen conversations get close to the brink of mechanisation, before a critical realisation occurs which change everything.

As the educational development community moves to ask what has happened to assessment in pandemic, we need to look at a wide variety of experiences and stories, as well as looking at what happened. We might also look at how individuals navigated the assessment landscape (what factors were given priority in decision making?). A window to that decision-making process could be insightful for the long-term.

And now?

My note to self after processing all that reads:

  • Partnership matters.
  • Focus on supporting the boundaries of others – how do we let students know when they are doing enough and succeeding, not just in formal assessment but in all that comes before? How do we let colleagues know that we are doing OK (or better than OK in many cases!)?
  • Technology support should be accessible to all; watch out for being carried away and normalising expectations by the practice of the tech champions.
  • Model imperfection – be authentic and don’t hide the scars.
  • As we research assessment (and probably any other aspect of this pandemic change) look far and wide for experiences of difference.

Perhaps this piece shouldn’t have been titled ‘pandemic term’ – despite all of the negativity of circumstance it has been a reflective term, a term of possibility, a term of progress and a term of determination, sharing, caring and pulling together to help a generation of students to learn, stay well and keep their hope.