Since March I have been working at home, as has most of the UK in the Covid-19 pandemic. Reading this title you may be wondering if I have taken leave of my senses to say long live the pandemic, but I am hopeful I have not (although I admit I have been talking to my dog more than usual and teaching my parents to Skype nearly finished me off). Of course, I do not mean the pandemic should continue but I do think some of the effects of the pandemic on Higher Education could be positive and here are my thoughts on the top two benefits.
Recognition that online learning is still learning
For many years, the sector has considered online or distance learning to be the runt of the educational litter. There has been an implicit (and often explicit) view that it is a cheap, easy alternative to face to face education. The pandemic has meant that many universities have been transported into the world of online learning overnight. Academics and professional services alike have been thrown in at the deep end - everyone has flapped around trying to keep their heads above water and, although many have coped admirably, online learning doesn't look so easy now.
Good online teaching and learning is hard to design, deliver and excel in - arguably more so than face to face because you cannot rely on synchronous communication and that all important feedback in the lecture theatre or seminar from the students' facial expressions. No university in the UK, or the world, does this better than the experts at the Open University (although most topical debates on the pandemic and online learning have chosen to ignore them in favour of input from the Russell Group). The OU uses careful design and meticulous planning to produce their courses and the quality is outstanding. The OU model won't work for many universities but what it teaches us is that excellence can be achieved in this mode of learning, and whilst it should be aspired to, it isn't easy or a second class citizen.
We clearly cannot achieve excellence in online teaching and learning in a reactionary situation like this. Not only does it cost a lot of money to do what the OU do but it takes an infrastructure most universities do not have and expertise that is not always there. That is not to say other universities won't do a great job here - I am confident we will at King's College in the Psychology Department - but it is important to recognise that this pandemic is the start of the journey, not the end.
So now we have been forced to open our eyes to the potential of online learning we need to start to reflect more carefully on what it means to teach and learn in all modes and make sure we identify our weaknesses and develop ourselves until we can do better. This inevitably requires investment and universities are in financial difficulties, as are many sectors at this time, but we have a moral responsibility as educators to deliver a quality education and in this strange new world that includes online education. The pandemic is the springboard but I hope HE can now finally see online learning for what it is and play the long game.
My dissertation was drafted in full one month before the deadline, which was luck more than judgement, but it turned out to be a blessing because the day I gave a draft to my supervisor, my Dad had heart attack and I left university to travel home. Ever since then I have set deadlines ahead of real deadlines and organised my life like a military operation because, well, you never know what is round the corner. When I started working the OU years ago as a tutor I remember being so impressed at how the students organised themselves, with nothing but an A3 study planner, they seemed to be entirely independent - it was inspirational to observe. I have seen some equally impressive scheduling from King's students from time to time as well but for many the structure of face to face education reduces the need for students to show the same level of autonomy over their learning. They look at a timetable and turn up or they are asked a question in a seminar and that drives them to look into something more. Online learning takes that enforced schedule away for many and reduces the natural interactions that occur during teaching to spur you on. It puts the student back in charge of their learning and this is no bad thing. I hope that those students who have experienced this come out of it richer - more in charge of their learning, owning it more. This will help them in any return to face to face teaching but it will also be a useful skill to take into the working world.
This week I have been reading an interesting article about teacher agency. The article by Priestley et al. (2014) defines agency as "an emergent phenomenon, something that occurs or is achieved within continually shifting contexts over time, and with orientations towards past, future and present which differ within each and every instance of agency achieved". They point out that agency contains three components or dimensions:
1. Iterational - dependent on the individuals professional and personal history.
2. Projective - forward facing i.e. about achieving something in the short or long term future.
3. Practical-evaluative - within a cultural, structural and social context that must be considered when necessary judgements are made.
The authors of the paper seem to be basing much of their ideas around school teachers rather than those found in Higher Education. They described the current context of education as one where agency cannot always been achieved because of constrained curriculum and policies. They suggest that even where the tide has turned and teachers have more room to move in terms of curriculum, they are in a context which constrains them by the backdoor, for example, through school inspections. This description chimed with the experiences my mother shared during her almost 40 year teaching career in primary and secondary schools, but what about Higher Education?
Well for a while, I found myself feeling a little bit smug about it. I felt that no one really dictated my curriculum to me, I was free to decide what topics I taught and in what order and largely to what depth, provided they sat within the framework dictated (15 or 30 credit points). The framework provided me with a lose structure and I was quite happy to get creative within that space. I felt I had the ability to achieve agency in that space. But then over the period of few days a few things made me realise that this agency-permitting perception was more of a smoke screen.
The first incident was a chance conversation in the corridor about the student numbers of the degree programme that I teach on at King's College London. This programme did not exist in 2015 when I started there. We had a first graduates this summer. The programme has been hugely successful, in no small part due to a very dedicated teaching team having the flexibility of starting from scratch to build an effective degree which did very in the NSS and supported the universities TEF case. We started with around 100 students per year and our fourth intake includes nearly 180. The number mentioned in this conversation was 300. I have given up pointing out the issues with increasing numbers without resource and how unless increases are managed well, quantity can very easily damage quality. But this made me think about my agency - I cannot possibly continue with the assessment strategy and practice I have won awards for with 300 students. I cannot, for example, even with a great team of markers, turn around 600 assignments in 4 weeks (the College assessment policy). Increasing student numbers can constrain us unless resource is properly given.
The second incident relates to the Open University where I have been a tutor for almost 14 years. In that period the OU has undergone many changes, some of which I think were brilliant for the students (e.g. electronic submission of assignments and online alternatives for tutorials), whilst others were a loss (e.g. scrapping summer schools). The latest targets that the university has set mean that the module team running a module I teach on are constantly under pressure to get more students to pass. This is a demanding final year module. The university wants 75% to pass - not unreasonable you might think and in a conventional setting I would agree, but where a student can do any module they like, sometimes having never studied a topic before and they can do so whilst working full-time, raising a family and studying another two modules as well, that target becomes pretty optimistic. Even more so when you realise only 62% of students reach the exam on the module. Now I admit to having a slight bias here because I designed the module and the assessment originally and no one likes to see their 'baby' discarded. But I have felt this about other modules where I have little personal interest so I don't think my biases fully explain how I feel about this. The module team responses to tutors are thorough and considered but they are along the lines of ''we have no choice, we have to do this to get to the targets or at least look like we are trying. I can sympathise with this and I think targets like this, along with module evaluations, NSS an TEF are all factors which can constrain teacher agency in higher education.
Reflecting on these two examples (and there are many more I could give), I feel less smug about teaching in Higher Education rather than schools now. I feel we are just as restrained by our context as school teachers may be fixed curriculum.
I think teacher agency is important in and of itself because it can bring, for example, innovative education and contribute to a highly effective community of practice. But I also think that teachers who lack agency will not be able to provide the quality education students deserve because they will become puppets on the stage rather than genuine actors. I have no idea how we stop that happening though.
Culture, Strategy and Breakfast
Many of us have heard the quote that "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" which is often attributed to the famous management guru Peter Drucker. My recent reading for H817 reminded me that this quote applies to more than just businesses in the traditional sense but also to universities.
This week I have been reading a paper by Macfadyen and Dawson (2012) called "Numbers are not enough." In this article they discuss several reasons for why evidence, in the form of analytics, is not often taken on board at universities in a way that drives stategic change. They suggest two broad reasons for this:
1. The perceived attributes of innovation
2. The realities of university culture
When talking about the attributes of innovation, they raise the suggestion that staff workload often blocks innovation or change because people do not feel that they have the time to engage with innovation. I can completely agree with this - workload is one of the most heavily cited reasons for not adopting new practices, and quite frankly, for a lot of substandard educational offerings. But I think there is more to it that than. It is not as though academics and many academic-related support staff are adverse to working long hours; it is a case, however, that all innovation is not created equal. Let's take a hypothetical example. Consider a situation where someone works really hard to redevelop a VLE for their programme or create a comprehensive assessment strategy or innovative module - what is their reward? Now you can make various suggestions here including greater student satisfaction, respect from colleagues for their expertise etc. They may even get a peer-reviewed article out of it, but for the most part, the reward is intangible. But now lets look at another situation, one in which those same hours are put into writing a grant application, which is also successful - what is the reward for that? In many universities the reward is much greater and much more concrete.
The other reasons cited by Macfadyen and Dawson (2012) related to the culture of universities and below I have given some thoughts on each of them:
1. The fact that they tend to operate on a consensus governance model, which in reality is rarely reached. The opposite of this of course would be a strict hierarchy - something which would result in cries of top-down control and extremely unhappy staff. Having seen this first-hand myself I don't think anyone gains with the strict hierarchy, least of all the students but on the other hand having a decision actually made at a university, can sometimes be refreshing.
2. Faculty control over teaching and research is also raised as a potential cultural blocker to adopting innovation. I partially agree with this but I also think this faculty control supports innovation because it allows for smaller scale testing grounds. Whilst this relates in difficulty gaining consistency, it also support grass-roots innovation. The blocker for me is actually communication of the grass-roots findings rather than the fact the grass roots exist.
3. An organisation culture that supports change by adding resources rather than re-allocating them. This paper was written in 2012, which in the UK was just before the fee hike that change the face of higher education and, in some cases, put a massive strain on university finances, at least in the short term. I think we are much more comfortable now with the idea of reallocation but - given the comments above research - I would be amazed if funding would ever be reallocated from research infrastructure to education.
4. A curriculum structure that makes false assumptions about heterogeneity. I suspect this one is still true and possibly even more of a problem than it was in 2012 as we see a greater diversity in students.
In addition to the four listed above, I would like to add Change Fatigue to the cultural reasons why innovation is not often adopted. In some universities there is a constant cycle of changes - so much so that things nearly always reach full circle but many small changes happening one after the other create feelings of uncertainty and the benefits are often too small to be realised. This means that people just get tired of change, which appears to happen just for the sake of it rather than for good reason and to good effect.
Having reviewed the suggestions as to why innovation is rarely adopted, even where there is evidence to support its implementation, I agree there are a range of factors but I suspect they still all come down to one thing and that is the culture of universities - because it is this that determines the value of innovation rather than the inherent properties of innovation.