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Higher education’s ‘new normal’: building connections in the post-Covid-19 era

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 31 July 2020

Allison Littlejohn

The Higher Education sector is facing the highest level of uncertainty in its long history. Prospective students are wondering what to expect from study in the 20-21 academic year.

A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found over 70% of UK students expect some online teaching, but only 18% expect all learning to be online. Through our UCL Institute of Education ‘Task & Finish’ Group on sustained future for taught provision, we have been talking with students about their experiences of learning remotely during the pandemic. In general students are understanding about the challenges of moving to teaching online.

They appreciate that the rapid move to online teaching was necessary to protect students and staff from the risk of infection. However, they miss the face-to-face ‘connection’ with academics and other students, so it’s important to re-establish connections in ways that enable our whole community – academics, students and professional services colleagues – to work together. The question is, how do we do this in a way that allows for the current operating restrictions due to Covid-19?

The IOE’s UCL Knowledge Lab has been leading a study of the experiences of staff across UCL during the rapid move to online teaching, research and working from home through the UCL Moving to Online Teaching and Homeworking project (MOTH). Data was gathered beginning March 26, 2020 via an online survey, with participation open to anyone at UCL. Over 400 academic and professional services staff from across all UCL faculties responded. The study is providing insights into how staff experience working from home and the impact of these changes on the academic community. Data analysis has focused on online teaching, carrying out research from home and structural inequalities exacerbated through working from home.

One of the main challenges of teaching online has been using live video conference systems for lectures. Lack of interaction with students makes teaching difficult and stressful. Interactions of students and tutors (student-student and student-tutor) are crucial because learning is not delivered through ‘content’ that can be digitised, packaged and delivered – a key misconception about online teaching. Learning is through engagement with and feedback from experts. Academics need to be supported better in ways that allow them to change online practice from delivering video-based lectures to facilitating student learning activities that encourage students to question and engage critically with problems.

We need to find ways to support real-time interactions between academics and students and between students and peers. From the literature we know that universities tend to focus on facilitating formal dialogue between academics and students. We also know students are instrumental in creating their own environments for informal dialogue, by meeting up outside the classroom either face-to-face or through social media, including WhatsApp, Tiktok and other applications. We need to work with students to encourage and support these forms of interaction.

An important finding from the Moving Online study is that interaction with others is difficult for people with limited space at home. Academics with limited space who responded to the survey were least positive about teaching online. Some reported they shared a small apartment with several housemates; others have children or family in a small space. Those with limited space at home have to negotiate who will work in the kitchen and whose turn is it to work in the pantry. Teaching becomes difficult, especially when students need support with personal issues. Many colleagues – particularly women – reported additional hours offering pastoral care to students. Supporting students through their personal problems can be upsetting at home, because the emotions expressed cannot be ‘left behind in the office’.

Emotional labour falls disproportionately on women, meaning they are less likely to engage in research. Journal editors are reporting a downturn in submissions that are first authored or sole authored by women, which will have a long-term knock-on impact on their careers unless universities adapt how they reward staff. This situation is not unique to UCL and can be extrapolated across the sector. It provides a clear picture of how the COVID-19 crisis has magnified the social divide in higher education by exacerbating pre-existing structural inequalities that impact adversely on the careers of different groups within universities.

While all of this is complex and challenging, it provides an opportunity us to build a better future for universities and for society. We need to develop a vision that fosters agility to allow universities to deal with uncertainty. We need to learn how to avoid building in structural inequalities, creating organisational conditions for more equitable futures while dealing once and for all with issues that burden the sector. Above all we need to foster better and more equitable human connections that form the foundations of human learning.

Professor Allison Littlejohn is Director, UCL Knowledge Lab



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