Readying for a New Normal: Higher Ed Teaching and Learning after COVID

Zipper closing on COVID
(Image: Gerd Altmann /Pixabay)

We all have something in common right now: this year has been one of our strangest. As we face down December, and hope for a post-COVID 2021, there’s no academic I’ve spoken to who doesn’t feel that time has taken on an unusual quality – in the working days, an all-consuming intensity, and yet looking back on months gone by, past events become curiously unplaceable.

In thinking about this mixture of super-fast and ultra-slow time, it’s been interesting working as a publisher with higher education academics who have witnessed first-hand the tumultuous impact of COVID-19 on the university sector. At SAGE Publishing (the sponsor of Social Science Space), I host two forums: a Pedagogy Advisory Board and a Faculty Advisory Board. These bring together UK academics and librarians who develop teaching and learning programs and policies.

These groups offer valuable insight into the current academic environment. We recently took questions arising from our boards to conduct a broader survey of faculty across the UK and Europe. We surveyed three times between August and November, looking to identify the major concerns and priorities of academics, to understand if they were changing, and to ascertain the key needs they have from publishers.

Having met with the pedagogy and faculty boards twice this year and having received over 2,200 survey responses, here are some noteworthy findings:

The Enthusiasts and the Overwhelmed

The majority of responding academics are feeling overwhelmed, increasingly so over the last few months. Having in March made the emergency move to remote teaching, requiring rapid and effective conversion of in-person courses to online delivery, the number of academics reporting feelings of being ‘concerned’ about making the transition to online delivery began to decline. But also declining was the number of enthusiasts reporting feeling ‘excited’ by the changes brought by online teaching. Instead the percentage of academics reporting feeling ‘tired’ or ‘overwhelmed’ grew steadily, rising from 33 percent to 44 percent between August and November. As reported elsewhere, academics are feeling some serious burnout.

Looking ahead: likely scenarios over next two years

That’s entirely understandable in the wider context, but it comes alongside the recognition that the future of university teaching may be changing significantly. Sixty-two percent of our survey respondents believe there will be a lasting pivot to either majority online or blended learning in their institutions. While our smaller pedagogy and faculty focus groups report that most institutions still insist on face-to-face teaching returning next term, they too feel that the pivot to more online delivery is here for the long term. The transition to this new model is likely to mean an extended period of instability and uncertainty. Many of the innovations being trialled have not settled – for instance the ‘HyFlex’ model (hybrid and flexible in-person and online teaching) is hugely challenging, with one person sharing: “HyFlex has been a disaster for us.”

Are teaching resources changing?

Alongside understanding this changing HE teaching environment, we want to know what academics want most from publishers. We have found some clear trends. Over 65 percent of respondents expressed desire for e-textbooks, while 60 percent want open educational resources from publishers. It is striking that 58 percent of respondents also call for publishers to offer support for online teaching best practice.

What has slumped has been the demand for print textbooks. This declined between August and November, from 30 percent to 21 percent. Is this the death knell of print? While students have consistently stated that print is their preference for deep learning, it feels impossible to ignore that the direction of travel toward e-textbooks has accelerated in the last nine months, and in the UK in particular we may have jumped from an A-road to an Autobahn.

Key to the digital learning experience is more ‘chunking,’ and more directed use of different content types – video, online quizzing, simulations, digital archives, case studies, games-based learning, all alongside e-textbook content — has increased. The role of audio is also more pronounced, with many students choosing to listen to educational material, be it a podcast or audiobook, as a rest from screen reading or video watching.

What about the impact on pedagogy?

Most of our advisers talk about how pedagogy needs more attention alongside any institutional focus on software and digital tools. There may be talk of a ‘pedagogy backlash’ or as a Times Higher Education contributor put it, ‘the p-word,’ but new thinking and exciting work is happening in universities to think through good pedagogical practice alongside its mode of delivery, and teaching and learning units seem more visible, helping faculty to innovate through micro-continuing professional development pedagogy programs. Alongside this, new pop-up learning communities have appeared, such as Chris Headleand’s Pedagogy and Pancakes, that show a real appetite for engaging in positive change in the teaching and learning landscape.

Student Engagement

Meanwhile, there are reports of improved attendance rates due to online teaching. Wendy Garnham of Sussex University mentioned, “I had 100 percent attendance at a 9 a.m. seminar in week eight of term. That has never happened before. Took me a while to get over the shock!” However, she and others acknowledged that sometimes engagement within the seminar is lower than in person, while another academic talked about the challenge of giving critique or challenging others being harder via video, when sometimes helpful in-person ‘feedback’ might simply look like a screwed-up face or a furrowed brow. A concern is also that struggling students can be missed online (though conversely some report that Zoom makes it easier to ensure all students have a voice).

Racism and Equity Challenges

Equity is a key challenge our academics are grappling with. Not all students have reliable internet access, nor computer or laptop devices (Claire Dewhirst from Queens University Belfast commented that some universities have been surprised at the number of students trying to complete courses on their phone alone). In terms of course coverage, the Decolonising the Curriculum movement has been vocal for some time, but this year the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests following the killing of George Floyd have ensured more recognition of institutional racism within the university sector, alongside greater awareness of the lack of Black and minority ethnic people’s representation within the curriculum. To be clear, the BME attainment gap at undergraduate level, and what Leading Routes have shown to be the broken pipeline at postgraduate level, are not new challenges, but rather concerning issues to keep in constant focus.

So, a challenging year, certainly. But despite this, academics are continuing to deliver for their students. Despite the at times overwhelming nature of the work, the academic community has been responding to fast changing teaching and learning conditions, and embracing their role in creating future generations of critical thinkers and subject specialists. Looking ahead to what could be an exciting new normal, here’s hoping time will start to behave itself again.

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