A life post-Covid: how will Higher Education respond to pandemic challenges for the long term?

March 17, 2022

By Lisa Gray, Senior Consultant, Learning, Teaching and Assessment at PebblePad.

A life post-Covid: how will Higher Education respond to pandemic challenges for the long term?

As universities emerge from the emergency response to the pandemic, many have reflected on the need for time and space to reflect on what has worked well, and what hasn’t. The pandemic accelerated the pace of digital change, and now that we’re out of the initial crisis, we have a unique opportunity to build on those digital approaches that have truly enhanced, and not just replaced, learning and assessment practices.

A period of reflection and rebuilding

Understandably, not all of the emergency response was necessarily an improved experience for students as we sought to provide alternatives at short notice. Perhaps most notably, much online learning during the pandemic was content centric – focused on getting learning material out to students. This meant although essential knowledge was made available, those opportunities to ensure students were engaging in meaningful ways with that content, their peers, and teaching staff may not have been.

At PebblePad, we believe that now is the time to learn the lessons from that experience, and further explore approaches that make the most of what digital can offer, rooted in good learning and assessment design. To build connections, community and belonging, that best prepare students for their studies, and make space for the development and authentic assessment of broader skills that prepare learners for a 21st century workplace.

We also know that both students and staff have been under great pressure during the emergency response, and many of our conversations have highlighted the exhaustion across the sector. So a focus on wellbeing, and perhaps a period of recovery and reflection[1] is required before rushing too fast into deciding on the future of learning, teaching and assessment for our universities. Already we have seen some excellent approaches to supporting students with induction and orientation through PebblePad, not only into the first year but also preparing students as they move between years. These are the practices we need to learn from and continue to build in even if a full return to campus is the goal.

An accelerated journey to digital transformation

Pre-pandemic we were already seeing an increased awareness of the importance of digital approaches, and as we have all seen, that interest has increased substantially and many are moving away from an emergency response to think more sustainably and strategically about digital transformation. And not just in the curriculum space, but looking more holistically to consider how we can enable leadership teams, the physical and digital infrastructure, organisational culture, and staff and students to have the capabilities to thrive. Nobody will be untouched by this transformation – faculty or students. And very ubiquity of digital in our lives means that many are more capable and confident – but also many people require support to adapt to these shifting contexts. Accessibility, inclusion and wellbeing for all are also key factors here to ensure all are benefitting (and are not excluded) from the affordances digital can offer.

In the curriculum space, perhaps through a greater appreciation of the flexibility blended and hybrid approaches can bring for both staff and students, there is emerging evidence that these approaches will continue to increase significantly as we move forward.

But what will be the best blend for your students and staff? How can we ensure practice is rooted in good learning design, appropriately blending the strengths of digital with face to face? This doesn’t just mean moving content delivery from face-to face to digital formats, but, for example, providing flexibility for students to engage in time and space with their learning to suit their personal circumstances; providing opportunities for students to co-create their own learning and assessment designs; and providing opportunities for peers, tutors and external stakeholders to feed in to the process of learning in more formative ways.

We also know that learners don’t always feel that their educational experience is best preparing them for success in the future, whether that is the workplace or elsewhere[2]. Can we do more to help make more transparent those broader and transferrable skills through our curricula? And assess those through authentic approaches that better align to the ways learners will develop through life? Often we hear about.a ‘skills gap’, but students may also not be confident in recognising and articulating the skills they have – so can we do more to help students rehearse how to speak to their skills, and evidence them in a range of contexts?

I’ve touched on assessment in the themes above, and pandemic has caused, out of necessity, a radical rethink of the common assessment methods that we tend to fall back on. Now we have experience of moving at pace to alternative approaches, can we now go deeper to consider whether these methods are truly fit for purpose?

One useful underpinning framework for rethinking assessment (and learning) design is a principle-led approach[3]. By summarising the research on good practice, it can help place pedagogy at the heart of redesign, considering for example whether assessments are fostering active learning, developing autonomous and self-regulating learners, and promoting learner employability. These frameworks (and others like them) can help provide practical ways to help us move these critical conversations into practice.

[1] MacNeill, Sheila (14/1/2022) ‘Do we need a period of convalescence in education?’ HOWSHEILASEESIT https://howsheilaseesit.net/curriculum-design/do-we-need-a-period-of-convalescence-in-education/

[2] PebblePad (March 2022) ‘Career readiness: building skills and boosting confidence for students’ https://resources.pebblepad.co.uk/careers-readiness-download

[3] Jisc (March 2022) – Principles of good assessment and feedback https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/principles-of-good-assessment-and-feedback

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