Interview
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Building a better future

University teaching and learning have seen radical transformation in 2020. Three members of the Digifest steering panel look to the future, discussing ways to harness positive change while supporting both staff and students.

In conversation:

  • Debbie Holley, professor of learning innovation, faculty of health and social sciences at Bournemouth University
  • Sarah Jones, deputy dean in the faculty of computing, engineering and media, De Montfort University
  • Cameron Mirza, chief of party for USAID Pre-Service Teacher Education in Jordan

How can universities raise the appeal of online learning for students?

Debbie Holley

Debbie:

"We need to reframe the offering and help our academics become more agile. There is still this idea that online is second best. The joy of online and blended learning - which is about digital co-creation and expanding our horizons - hasn't really come yet."

Sarah Jones

Sarah:

"What happens in an engineering lab or a TV studio can't be replicated online in the same way – but if we think creatively, we can develop learning spaces that allow students to be expressive, active, and engaged."

Cameron Mirza

Cameron:

"We need to rethink, re-design, and re-imagine what education could look like, considering the balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning, and moving away from high-stakes exams towards a more balanced way of assessing students."

How can we support our diverse student population?

Debbie:

"Instead of asking ‘how do I move two hours’ teaching online?’, we should be asking ‘what do I want my students to learn? And how can I break that up?’ Because it's exhausting being on screen all the time! We also need to think about access.

"Around Bournemouth, we have students who can’t get wifi, students who are sharing homes with clashes over internet connection, and students facing issues of affordability. A National Union of Students report on COVID found that 20% of students struggled with access to online learning. We have to be careful that learners aren’t being left behind."

What post-COVID culture change have you seen?

Cameron:

"In the emergency response to the pandemic, universities did the best they could in difficult circumstances. Now, we need to look to the future, because where we were before COVID, wasn't working. We need a more strategic approach, using technology in our long-term thinking, rather than as an add-on."

Debbie:

"In the Jisc digital experience insights students survey last year, while 70% of students thought digital skills were important for their chosen career, only 42% said their course prepares them for the digital workplace - so there are huge gaps. The culture shift has to focus on the students’ experience, and towards universities collaborating."

How can technologies help build a sense of belonging?

Sarah:

"I worry about the language that’s used around lectures going online, as if lectures are the only way we teach. There’s this idea of teaching in a uni-directional lecture theatre – but we do workshops, we do studios, we do labs. It's experiential. We need to invest in staff development, looking at digital platforms."

Cameron:

"I've seen a reluctance to change approaches to pedagogy and embrace technology as an enabler. At the moment, the HE sector is generally constraint-driven rather than possibility-driven. We don't ask ‘what if?’ enough. We have to adapt around how young people learn."

Debbie:

"Social media is part of this conversation. We can learn a huge amount from algorithms - but let’s not assume all learning happens through the VLE. If you ask students where they’re working, they'll name five apps. If we can redesign and restructure teaching and learning to weave in all those wonderful technologies, we’ll be starting to measure what matters."

Sarah:

"There's almost a snootiness around social technologies beyond Blackboard or Moodle. What's wrong with doing a lecture via TikTok? At DMU, we created a virtual studio on Instagram for graphic design and illustration students, because that cohort of students learn by exchanging ideas and networking. Let's embrace these platforms and make things easy for students. That doesn't undermine the learning or destroy the credibility - it's just helping."

What are the challenges in supporting student wellbeing?

Cameron:

"The key stakeholder in the education sector is the students – and I think we're doing them a huge disservice at the moment. We need to move beyond being ‘student-centred’ to being ‘learning-centred’. Technology can play a huge part in that."

Debbie:

"A recent study shows that loneliness is the biggest single risk factor for students, particularly impacting those with low household income, those in halls of residence, those with no family support, and those isolated in quarantine who can’t access the usual spaces to make friends and get support. The trouble with everything going online is we’ve lost some of those informal ‘watercooler moments’ where we used to help students."

What have universities learned about the importance of staff wellbeing?

Sarah:

"University staff are so passionate and they really want the best for students, so while they’re thinking about the normal demands of the university life cycle - admissions, recruitment, open days - they’re also learning a new set of skills to deliver in different ways.

"The pressures have increased massively, and instead of moving away from how we used to do things and transitioning into a new way, staff are trying to do both. I make a point of saying it’s OK to make mistakes. Staff need to be supported in that way. And with students, it’s about partnership, letting them know that we’re on this learning journey together."

How will higher education be different in 2030?

Debbie:

"A report by Ernst Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce forecasts a move towards digital fluency where, instead of having a three-year funding pot to attend one institution, people can go in and out of the workplace, taking a more personalized learning route. I also think there's a huge role for simulation and immersive reality in the future."

Cameron:

"We’re moving towards a blended approach with some activity on campus and some off campus. I think delivery will be more modular, omni-channel, and lifelong, as the world of work is changing at pace and becoming more digitally driven.

"Now, more than ever, we need universities to be at the centre of communities, playing a dynamic part in helping people rise out of poverty and come together through difficult times. That is why the sector has a pivotal role to play right. This is the time for universities to rise up and be the enabler in transformation."

Debbie Holley, Sarah Jones and Cameron Mirza are members of the Digifest steering group. This discussion explored culture and resilience, themes that will be explored in-depth in the sessions, debates and workshops of Jisc’s forthcoming four-day digital event, Digifest 2021Registrations are now open.