With coronavirus, we are living in strange and worrying times. We don’t know how long this will last, but we know that it will pass and education will resume. However, to what extent things will be the same and return to ‘normal’ is a matter of some debate. The current crisis is likely to accelerate changes already underway. Now might be a good time for a stocktake of your existing knowledge, skills, aptitudes and abilities in preparation for these changes. In this article, I want to suggest some areas that are likely to change and how we can best prepare ourselves for the opportunities that might follow.
Working from home has increased the use of online tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams; this is certain to continue to increase. One consequence of this is that participants need to stay focused and avoid the temptation to go off the agenda and to pursue personal and sectional interests which are not relevant to the matter in hand. We can all recall meetings which would have been much shorter and more efficient if people had just stuck to the point. I once heard meetings described as ‘the practical alternative to work’ and it seems that many meetings only take place to show that a meeting has happened and to fufil audit or administrative regimes. In future, perhaps we will all question whether so many meetings are really necessary.
Distance learning, as it used to be called, is not a new thing in education. My father learned his clerkly skills of shorthand and typing by a correspondence course in rural Norfolk in the 1930’s; the Open University was built on distance learning. The Guardian recently reported that some institutions are preparing to teach first-year students online from Autumn 2020, although there are fears that school leavers will miss opportunities to develop as independent learners. The development of technology has massively increased the use of online education. Many lecturers have enthusiastically embraced social media for communicating with students, arranging tutorials and giving feedback on assignments; rules and protocols have also developed to govern the use of such media and ensure it used responsibly and safely.
As a retired academic, I am not an expert in matters relating to technology and the latest developments in online learning and education, but I can say that it will be crucial to new and existing academic staff to become part of this new reality. When you are applying for your first, or a new, post in higher education you should consider how you will demonstrate your current skills and knowledge, as well as your plans for continuing professional development. Have you developed online learning programmes? In what ways have they improved teaching and learning? How have you improved and developed them in response to feedback and reflection? How do you keep up to date with developments and opportunities? Have you researched online packages from other institutions? The Open University offers some free short courses you can try – a good lockdown activity!
However, given these developments in distance and blended learning it is important for teachers, in all sectors to maintain and develop their skills as face-to-face teachers. Students will want and expect, given the fees they are paying, to taught by and have tutorials and seminars with people who are researchers and experts in their fields – such interaction is at the heart of the university experience. So, teachers and lecturers will need to be able to plan effective teaching and learning sessions and to use a range of methods and techniques. In addition, some things will be difficult or impossible to teach online, whether they be science experiments, engineering projects or drama or painting and drawing.
Professor Steven Jones of the University of Manchester suggests that ‘Covid-19 is our best chance to change universities for good’ and that ‘competition and casualisation must surely give way to fairness and social responsibility.’2 Such changes will be welcomed by many, but given the growth in short term contracts and casualisation, teaching staff will need to keep a careful eye on their terms and conditions of services. If you are a trade union member it will be useful to keep up to date with developments.
The experience of lockdown is not pleasant for some and some people working from home may feel increasingly pressured to do all the things they did previously but from a distance. During this period, for your mental and physical health, try to take some time to rest and relax. Time spent at home provides opportunities for doing other things and extending your own learning within and beyond your specialism. Reading beyond your subject can frequently provide all sorts of fresh insights and different ways of thinking. For instance, my own interests are the social sciences and the humanities, but I recently discovered some really interesting connections between physics and poetry, which is helping me to understand both a little better. An old maxim has it that a truly educated person ‘knows everything about something and something about everything.’