The 20-year crusade to get more young people into higher education appears at an end, after the universities minister accused England’s universities of “taking advantage” of students with dumbed-down courses that left them saddled with debt.
In a significant shift in policy, Michelle Donelan declared it was time to “think again” about the government’s use of higher education to boost social mobility.
Though wasn’t her government in charge for half of that time? What it appears this will mean is that courses which result in high paying jobs will take priority over those that don’t.
I have always felt that education was so much more than getting qualifications and as a result getting highly paid jobs. Some courses are useful to society, but not from a financial perspective. The question is though who pays for those courses, is it government or someone else?
I have been working on some vignettes about the future. They provide ideas, concept and inspiration on the future of higher education. They are not detailed plans of what is going to happen, but will stimulate discussion amongst leaders, managers and staff in universities on what might happen and what could happen.
Here is an early example:
The localised university
We have become so accustomed to young people leaving home to go off to university that the concept of not leaving home to participate in higher education, though common to many, was seen as a somewhat alien concept.
However with the cost of travel and housing rising, as well as concerns about climate change and the impact of travel and commuting on the environment. Many universities decided to take the university to the community.
Some of the delivery would be done individually online, it was also apparent that the connectedness and social aspects of learning would require students coming together.
In small towns across the country, groups of students would come together to learn. Even though the teaching was delivered remotely, the learning was done together. Core aspects of the course would be delivered to larger groups, whilst more specialised teaching would be delivered to smaller cohorts or in some cases individually. The university would either build, convert or hire spaces for teaching and would use the internet to deliver live high quality video to groups of students from subject experts from across the country and in some cases globally.
The students would be supported in person and locally, by skilled facilitators who would ensure that the students would get the appropriate help as and when required.
Content would be delivered digitally, using online resources as required, or even 3D printing of physical objects in the home.
Specialist and practical subjects would be delivered at regional hubs that could be used by students from any university. This would mitigate the need to travel regularly or commute to a campus everyday.
It became apparent early on that much of student support could be delivered remotely, however local specialist support providers working for multiple universities could easily work with students in their catchment area.
Some bemoaned the decline of the “student experience” on campus, but what was discovered early on, in the same way has had happened on physical university campuses in the past, students would, using social networking, create their own local groups and societies, and then would arrange their own social and networking events. Some of these would be online, by many would happen at local social spaces.
We are living through a period of unprecedented disruption, it isn’t over, so what do we need to do in the short term, the medium term and how will this impact the long term?
Last week I delivered two presentations, one was a planned presentation for a QAA workshop, the other, well it wasn’t supposed to be a presentation, but due to a lack of response from the audience in the networking session I was in, I quickly cobbled together a presentation based on the slides I had used for the QAA.
This post is a combination and an expansion of the presentations I delivered about my thoughts of what happened, what then happened, what we need to think about and what we could do.
I initially reminded ourselves of what we had experienced back in March.
We know people talk about a pivot to online learning, but we know this isn’t what happened. As others have written about, this wasn’t some planned gradual shift to a blended online approach to teaching and learning. It was a abrupt radical emergency response to physical campus closures in the midst of a national crisis.
As universities closed their campuses to staff and students, they were forced to isolate and start to teach and learn remotely. Staff who previously had offices and desks to work from suddenly found themselves in lockdown, working from home amidst all the other stuff which was happening. They may have been lucky and had a working space they could use, but many would have found themselves in a busy household with partners working from home, children being home schooled with all the pressures that brings to space, time, devices and connectivity.
Likewise students were suddenly faced with stark choices, should they stay on campus or go home, for some home meant a flight home. They too would find themselves in strange environments in which they had to learn. They would be isolated, in potentially busy households, potentially without the devices and connectivity they could have used on campus.
In addition to all this the landscape and environment was changing rapidly. Lockdown forced us to stay at home, only allowed out for essential supplies and exercise once per day. There was the threat of infection and with the death rates rising exponentially, it was a frightening time.
The emergency shift to remote delivery also was challenging, without the time and resources, or even the support, to design, develop and delivery effective and engaging online courses. We saw many academic staff quickly translate their curriculum design from physical face to face sessions to virtual replacements using Zoom and Teams. What we would see is that this simple translation would lose the nuances that you have with live physical sessions in learning spaces without taking account of the positive affordances that online delivery can potentially have. Without the necessary digital skills and capabilities staff would have found it challenging in the time available to transform their teaching.
I still think as I was quoted in a recent article that this rapid emergency response and shift to remote delivery by academic staff across the UK was an amazing achievement.
In the presentations I gave an overview of some of the support Jisc had been providing the sector, from providing a community site, various webinars, blogs, advice and guidance as well as direct help to individual members of Jisc.
Over the last few months I have been publishing various blog posts about aspects of delivery translation and transformation. I have also reflected on the many conversations I have had with people from the sector about what was happening, what they are doing and what they were thinking about going forward. I’ve also had a fair few articles published in the press on various subjects.
So as we approach the end of term, the planning for September has been in play for some time as universities start to think about how they will design, develop and deliver academic programmes for the next year.
We know that virtually all universities are planning to undertake some teaching on campus in the next academic year, but will combine that with elements of the course delivered online.
Though in the past we may have talked about these being blended courses, though they may consist of a blend on face to face physical sessions and online sessions, they were planned to be blended and not changed over the course. They didn’t need to take into account social distancing, so could combine physical lectures with online seminars. In the current climate, we are expecting to see large gatherings forced online and smaller group activities happening physically face to face.
Blended programme are generally designed not be changed over the time of the programme, so I think we might see more hybrid programmes that combine physical and online elements, but will flex and change as the landscape changes.
I published a blog post about hybrid courses back in May, my definition was very much about a programme of study which would react and respond to the changing environment.
With a hybrid course, some sessions are physical face to face sessions. There are live online sessions and there are asynchronous online sessions. In addition there could be asynchronous offline sessions as well. You may not want to be online all the time!
Some sessions could be easily switched from one format to another. So if there is a change in lockdown restrictions (tightening or easing) then sessions can move to or from online or a physical location.
Listening to a conversation someone was talking about hybrid courses as a mix between online and face to face, but didn’t mention the responsiveness or the potential flexibility. Without a shared understanding we know that this can result in confusion, mixed messaging, with the differences in course design and delivery, as well as problems with student expectations. I wrote about this last week on a blog post on a common language.
Some courses do lend themselves to an online format, whereas others may not. As a result I don’t think we will see similar formats for different subjects. Lab and practical courses may have more physical face to face sessions, compared to those that are easier to deliver online. As a result different cohorts in different subjects will have different experiences. Some universities may find that due to nature of social distancing that classes may have to be spread across a longer day and these has been talk of spreading over seven days as well, to fit in all the required classes and students.
Designing, developing and delivering online courses, or even just components of online courses doesn’t just happen, it takes time and time is something we don’t have. In a conversation about the issues of planning, one senior manager said to me that what she needed was six months and more money.
We have seen that some universities in response to this kind of challenge are recruiting learning technologists and online instructional designers to “fill” the gap and support academic staff in creating engaging and effective online components of their courses.
Maintaining the quality of such components will be critical, and merely translatingexisting models to a simple online format using tools such as Zoom will lose the nuances of physical face to face teaching without gaining any of the affordances that well designed online learning can bring to the student experience.
Building and developing staff skills and capabilities in these areas is been seen as a priority for many universities, but how you do this remotely, quickly and effectively is proving to be a challenge and a headache for many.
Normally when I mention time, I would have talked about how I don’t have a dog, but in this case this is not the case, the development of new designs for the next academic year is not just the main priority, but as we don’t have the time and the skills in place to make it happen.
We are not merely adding online elements to existing courses. We are not going to be able to deliver the physical face to face sessions in the same way as we have done. Everything has to change, everything is going to change.
So what of the future? Well we know for sure it’s going to be different.
We know that change isn’t easy, if it was then all we would need to do would be buy a book on the subject and just do it.
When it comes to the embedding of digital technologies into teaching, learning and assessment I have spent over twenty years undertaking this kind of activity at a range of organisations and across different levels.
Going back to when I was a Business Studies and Economics teacher at what was then Brunel College (now City of Bristol College) I kind of fell into the use of technology to support teaching and learning. I was an ILT (or TEL) Champion before even the phrase existed. Going back a little further I was never the kind of techno geek or computer nerd many of my peers appear to be when comparing histories. I didn’t do Computer Science at school. I didn’t own a computer, I didn’t have a BBC Micro, nor the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum or anything like that. I did have a bike though!
At University in the late 1980s we had a VAX system and it was really that kind of got me interested in technology, but it was as a tool to solve problems. I discovered I could use this thing called electronic mail to send letters to a friend at another university instead of using the post! This was quite illuminating, until I got flamed by the administrator at the other university, for not using the correct format for my e-mail… Most of the time however the use of the computers was in many ways pointless as my examinations required me to hand write essays, so why would I use a word processor, having said that I did get introduced to Word Perfect 4.2 and did think that this was better than a typewriter.
After university on a business enterprise course I was introduced to spreadsheets that I used for creating balance sheets and cashflow forecasts. For me that was probably the eye opener that got me into technology, more so than anything I had seen before, well does that make me a boring person?
By the time I was working at City of Bristol College I was using my own PC at home to create presentations, photocopying onto clear acetates as initially we didn’t have a digital projector, and we were still using OHPs. When the college did buy a projector (we had one for the whole college) it was a real effort to use it, it was the size of a small suitcase and we also had to lug the screen around as well. Due to lack of processing power, I would often bring in my own PC box, as the laptop couldn’t cope with the strain of my presentations. My PC also had a Matrox Rainbow Runner video card which I used to show full screen video. There was no internet and certainly no wireless network. My what we take for granted today, looks at his phone which can stream HD and 4K video to a projector using 4G connectivity, things do change. Things did improve and we started to see more technology in classrooms.
One outcome from all this was that as I was seen as something of an innovator in this area I was asked to support and train staff, not just from my faculty, but also other areas of the college. One clear memory of this was the impact, often I would train individuals who would then go off and do their own thing (or not). Sometimes I would train all the staff in a faculty and this is where I would often see not only the most resistance, but also the biggest impact. Where a faculty set expectations about how technology would be used, you would see the greatest impact. One faculty I taught how to use Powerpoint to (probably badly) many of the staff were quit resistant or complained they couldn’t do this technology thing, there weren’t enough PCs, not all classrooms had PCs and projectors, and so on… remember this was 1998 or 1999. The head of faculty though had made it clear that not only were all staff to do the training, and create presentation materials, but that all the presentations would be stored and shared centrally. No presentations stored on floppy disks (we didn’t have USB sticks back then) being used by individuals only.
What was a transformative moment for me was the understanding that showcasing, cascading and piloting really didn’t have the transformative impact that senior managers hoped for. Generally the main impact was that enthusiasts would become more enthusiastic and those more reluctant, would either not do anything, or just pay lip service to any initiative. What really caused institutional change was effective strategy and leadership and clarity about what was going to be done, what was expected from staff and what they needed to do and by when.
This did stick with me over the years I moved into positions where my role was to embed technology into teaching and learning. Though I often used the cascade model for staff development, but knew that this was not the ideal model for systemic holistic change across an organisation. It worked well on some individuals, but it was not transformative.
In a similar vein the use of other people’s research and running pilots was interesting and useful, but did not result in institutional change, it could inform other activities, but the idea that the best way for mainstream transformation was to run a pilot was something that I found never worked and never had the impact that others thought it would.
What I really tried to do was transform the entire institution. I would use tools such as cheeses and models, but one key aspect was culture change. Changing the culture was often about hearts and minds, but also challenging the myths and misconceptions about technology and using learning technology with learners. I would use pilots and research to inform this process.
I also knew that if something didn’t work, then to try again, but this time do it differently. Don’t keep trying to do the same thing again and again.
I know that this isn’t easy, if it was easy then we would all have done it!
One thing that came out of this was the understanding that we often make assumptions about staff capabilities and their ability to know how to embed technology and the potential of what technology can do. Just because a member of staff can has been given the training in how to use the tool or service, it doesn’t mean they know how best to use that tool or service to enhance teaching and learning, and for what function or process of the learning activity the tool would support or enhance.
I also know that isn’t easy too….
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