The Covid-19 Pandemic is challenging the accepted mechanics of teaching delivery. Such an unexpected switch to online alternatives has inevitably focused teachers primarily on what needs to be taught right here, right now. Julia Taylor – Jisc subject specialist in inclusive practice reflects that as with the Covid-19 infection itself – there will be lessons for the longer term.
Connection and contribution
A new report from Enlitened (part of the Student Room Group) suggests that ‘connectedness’ to the university is crucial to student satisfaction and success. So, at a time when the learning experience is suddenly ‘at a distance’, universities need to take special care to establish that sense of connection and trust. Student interaction and feedback is more important than ever.
Beyond the pressing duty to current students, there are concerns about the economic survival of the sector and its fitness for purpose. On the positive side, this is an opportunity to collectively reevaluate what education is for, both intellectually and
emotionally. We know that widening participation in higher education will impact on social mobility. Beyond the benefits to students as individuals, what should a university contribute to society?
Though we cannot know exactly what awaits current students we do know there are significant global challenges ahead. We have seen close-up, the need for them to manage sudden change. How well are they being prepared for the ‘wicked’ world problems that will need their urgent attention? Like the UN Sustainable development goals – climate change, poverty and social injustice.
Confidence and resilience
Employers already report that new graduates lack confidence and resilience. Current students anticipate more financial challenges than their parents and that is now even more likely to be an issue. Whilst we assume that further education brings better financial stability, graduates place increasing value on jobs that have social impact. Alongside the student mental health charter and stepchange framework and initiatives that support better mental health- – there needs to be a conversation that goes beyond basic employability or maximising personal earning potential.
Improving Mental Health has become a critical priority in further and higher education where the statistics are rightly causing concern. Of course study brings with it stresses – but is there sufficient focus on the skills needed to manage these inevitable difficulties? Staff and students should be thriving, not just ‘managing’. Though the wellbeing culture change is welcomed, the focus is all to often on symptom not cause.
Positivity and problem solving
If we are being forced to change curriculum out of necessity, we could reimagine delivery that engages and involves students and addresses their real-life concerns. At a time when league tables and exams are suspended we could explore building character rather than driving performance by:
- considering ‘positive impact’ as a primary objective in any curriculum decisions we make.
- co-creating activities that highlight the ability to adapt and develop problem solving skills.
- Incorporating wellbeing into curriculum, giving self-care equal value to academic success.
Moving to online learning allows for more individualised curriculum. We can more easily support personalised activities that aim to build the capacity to come through adversity. Models like positive psychology are evidence based but recognise students are human and not just data.
Instinctively we will want to emulate something like ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible but we have a responsibility to ask questions about curriculum design and content even in the short term.
- Is there an opportunity to ‘flatten’ the known stress peaks, such as exam or assignment clusters – substituting potentially more meaningful and managable self-assessment?
- Would group collaboration ultimately benefit students more than isolated competition?
- What can be done to enable more video-based tutorial / contact time if requested?
- How cooperative, responsive and flexible is the engagement and the feedback?
There is a danger that we will inadvertently reduced personal choice and diversity for the sake of expediency. It’s becoming ever clearer that universities must widen their vision for their students future. They must also deepen their engagement with communities, locally and globally if we are to stay positive and tackle the future with confidence.