none of these are seagulls

Reflections Week Twelve: People wanted help, we gave them guidance

We often see individual requests for help, we see staff trying to make things work. One area that is well supported by both IT and Learning Tech teams is the kind of inquiry that leads to a “push this button” type response. For example, how do I narrate a PowerPoint? How do I upload this “thing” to the VLE? These are the things that we can solve and we do solve well.

During the Pandemic we have seen some excellent support emerging across academic development and learning technology units in response to these urgent and immediate needs. Certainly across a range of universities we saw teams of professional services working long hours to get people online and feeling more prepared. Confident in their use of the tools. As the pandemic went on, those inquiries, in institutions that we have spoken to have lessened, in some cases considerably, possibly as academic staff have had to engage on a more regular basis with the technology.

But as the weeks have gone on we have also seen staff asking wider questions around designing for online learning, and asking how do i get student engagement? And other questions that don’t have single answers to. They still need the immediate response, but it is not a subject that lends itself to getting an “easy answer”.

One academic told us that the resources provided by the academic development team were excellent, and when they get time to read them they are sure they’ll help. Similarly we have academics telling us about webinars being put on and panel discussions, which at any other time would be good to engage with and take the time to consider how they might impact on their teaching. But right now, they want quick answers, not “development opportunities”.

This is another manifestation of how the rhetoric of “the online pivot” as part of a continuum of culture change is potentially damaging. “We’ve got them using the tools – now we are going to enforce our pedagogic principles”.

This is a similar tension to the “easing lockdown” or “come the next semester” guidelines issued nationally by the Govt, UUK or QAA – universities have a need for help now, and sometimes they also need resources. Guidelines actually provide more work than they have time to complete.

Chris Headland, tweeted this week:

“DfE have published guidelines tonight for HE regarding the reopening of university campuses.” https://gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-reopening-buildings-and-campuses Honestly, it’s one of the vaguest documents I’ve ever read.”

Also a great article from Debbie McVitty, my second favourite writer over at WONKHE. In her article Of Knights and Knaves, she writes of two documents produced by UUK and QAA:

Boiled down to their essentials, both documents state that in planning their September offer universities should comply with public health guidance to protect the wellbeing of staff and students, deliver learning and teaching of an equivalent quality to that which was previously on offer, and engage with various stakeholder groups – staff, students, the community – in doing so.

These sorts of documents are very familiar to the UK higher education sector. They’re designed to offer assurance to the public – and, these days, to students – that universities have collectively got a grip on the issues, without specifying the exact ways any individual university should be operating*. 

*my emphasis

Universities need help, they got guidance! (and no funding). Perhaps “Guidelines” are a get out of jail free card for those writing them? A way of saying here are some ways you could do things but you need to do the work yourself, and if it goes wrong, by the way, it’s your interpretation that is the problem. I might be too harsh.

When it comes to the pedagogy, I expect more models of online learning to emerge in this period of the pandemic than the last 10 years of educational development. Certainly if the number of calls for chapters and contributions to publications is anything to go by. And all of them will be creating their model, their brand.

Some institutions are moving more toward the appointment of “instructional designers”, that will work alongside academics to design learning and teaching activities. But, it seems there is less of a culture of that in the UK than the US, Canada and Australia.

I have no idea what will happen next semester, I do worry that in some places we are more concerned with providing sound guidance around pedagogical theory than we are with providing help.

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