Author: Dee Vyas – Technology Enhanced Learning Adviser, Manchester Metropolitan University

The UK Higher Education sector has been through a period of intense transformation at a rapid pace in response to the necessary changes prompted by the pandemic (Jisc, 2020). The approach for many universities was similar to the scene from a Wallace and Gromit film (The Wrong Trousers), where Gromit lays the track just in front of the speeding train he is travelling upon. This feeling of being only one-step-ahead of what’s needed has been common. Indeed, research tells us that this has been a similar picture across many HEIs (Jisc, 2020; Williamson et al, 2020). It has however, provided green shoots of opportunity, flickers of good practice during a major change in digital skills and some challenging situations.

The changing landscape in Higher Education has provided opportunities, where digital plays a central role in the student experience while also providing a new platform for staff interaction. The move from the traditional face-to-face delivery mode to online delivery requires confidence, the skills to deliver new methods of interaction and delivery, support from a wider university support base and the resilience to combine several factors to deliver teaching online.

Universities that fail to adapt and reimage themselves as digital organisations may see their appeal diminish and their business come under pressure as students opt for models that suit their lifestyles and preferred ways of learning.

The experience of the last eighteen months has highlighted the challenges that universities must rise to. These involve the update of digital skills, the upgrade and implementation of technology, the redesign of study programs and the implementation online of this new method of delivery.

Few universities in the UK, beside the Open University, tend to deliver primarily online, as the majority of teaching is delivered face-to-face. An exponential rise in adapting to online delivery, interactive content and engaging students with activity-based content has presented both opportunities and anxiety, with some commentators predicting a possible change in the landscape for online education long term.

Changes in delivering online teaching and learning during the pandemic has had a profound effect in a number of areas:

  • Migration of majority of sessions online (with exceptions to practical studio work)
  • Redesign of programme delivery (shorter sessions as webinars)
  • Convenient approach to attendance and accommodation, organisation and running of courses with no travel and no rooms to book
  • Innovative approaches to delivering technical subjects (opportunities towards exploring various approaches to remote learning and engagement)
  • New learning of technology (training and interactivity)
  • Exploration and application of varied pedagogical approaches, encompassing online interactivity
  • A breakdown of institutional silos over the year
  • An increase in the number of training sessions delivered online
  • An exponential rise in the number of media uploads

These changes do not necessarily and directly address all the positive and challenging experiences faced by staff delivering teaching online; and also students’ online learning. Amongst many institutions, these experiences will be similar and provide a number of outcomes that may require addressing when campus-based teaching presumes; in whichever format universities use.

Anecdotal review

Manchester Metropolitan University developed a 24-week calendar of scheduled teaching. Block Teaching used a curriculum structure of 30 credits teaching at one time, delivered predominantly in a 6-week block, scheduled with assessment in the seventh week. An anecdotal review of the challenges and positive experiences of academic staff (n=5) for Block-based teaching, provided the following outcomes.

Challenging experiences

One of the major challenges has been to upskill the digital capabilities of staff to deliver online learning. The pressure of training thousands of staff in a limited time on a new product (Microsoft Teams) is demanding. A generic training approach did not significantly address academic staff anxieties prior to start of term, although they grasped some basics to be able to deliver their courses online.

The working environment for both staff and students at the Man Met has highlighted the ‘digital poverty’ that exists. The ability to have a dedicated working space, Wi-Fi capabilities, devices and the mental wellbeing for staff/students highlighted a number of disparities.

Student assessment was limited to a 6-week Block teaching approach, and required writing assessments based on critical evaluation and argument.  The student focus appeared to be too narrow for assessment with only the opportunity to satisfy learning outcomes, but without the deep learning experience.

Positive experiences

Present-CoVid teaching delivery has presented a new model for on-campus education where a blended approach is integral to teaching. Online learning has been proved not to be deficient in student engagement and learning utilising technology and simple engagement processes. The discourse that online learning is the mimicry of teaching is emerging not to be the case.

The support of the Technology Enhanced Learning Advisors (TELAs) has been critical and welcoming. It has emerged that “…they provide an invaluable resource especially when teaching and instant help is needed, or the resources developed for digital skills are required to be accessed”.

Students have so far enjoyed the interactive approach of the learning where TEL played an integral part of the session using quizzes, discussion in breakout rooms, apps for teaching and learning (Padlet, Vevox, Mentimeter). A change from the passive nature of face-to-face learning to provide an interactive experience where student input was important and welcoming.

The shift to online teaching has opened opportunities to reimagine the approach to teaching. The discourse that online learning and teaching was not “proper teaching and learning” has been disproved. Within educational institutions and with TEL, we can deliver an interactive teaching and learning experience, but also reflect on our learning objectives.

From these key observations, the question of how to deliver the necessary knowledge, skills and behaviours that students require in a post-pandemic world that is student-centred, can hopefully be answered. A shift in the approach of delivery whilst notreplacing the new with the old teacher-centred pedagogy, where innovation forms a fundamental part should remain implemented. Online teaching has highlighted a need to adapt and enhance the lecture delivery, to ensure the learning outcomes for students are successfully met.

References:

Jisc. (2020). Learning and teaching reimagined A new dawn for higher education? Avalable at: https://repository.jisc.ac.uk/8150/1/learning-and-teaching-reimagined-a-new-dawn-for-higher-education.pdf ​

Williamson, B., Eynon, R., & Potter, J. (2020). Pandemic politics, pedagogies and practices: digital technologies and distance education during the coronavirus emergency. In Learning, Media and Technology (Vol. 45, Issue 2, pp. 107–114). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2020.1761641


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