‘In a fast-moving world, students are adapting brilliantly’

The pace of change is dizzying, and students are embracing it. Reflecting on their experiences at the University of Edinburgh, Colm Harmon – vice-principal of students – and Peter Mathieson – principal – take a moment to learn from student resilience

In an academic year full of tribulations, students have adapted at speed – sometimes literally; the three million minutes of digital content digested by the University of Edinburgh’s students in the first week of term alone was largely viewed at 1.5x speed.

There’s a strange comfort in this. University leaders spent six months planning for students to return, worrying about their academic progress and debating how they would equate their expectations for university life with the unfolding reality of blended learning, hybrid delivery and digital-at-scale.

This vignette tells us what we need to know as educators: students adapt brilliantly.

Complex and uncertain

For previous generations, student life was very different. Expectations were clear and achievable, and the aim of the university experience was simple: you graduate and settle into a job and a home.

Today’s students face the challenge of ambiguity. Even before COVID-19 struck, they were entering a complex and uncertain world. Most will have more than one career, and many are training for work that could be jilted out of existence by the forces of globalisation and technology. But they adapt, embracing the innate value of a university education.

Optimism at a time of seismic change

This is a time for leaders to harness that spirit. Learning and teaching reimagined – a sector-wide initiative led by Jisc, Emerge Education, Advanced HE and UUK – is bringing people together to plot a path for the future of the sector, helping secure positives from this extraordinary period.

Let’s start by recognising that students are more independent than we often give them credit for. They value traditions but know when to challenge them.

They embrace education but aren’t rigid about how it’s delivered. They like the anchor of institutional reputation, but they can construct a scaffold for their education that’s nowhere near as linear as we tend to see it.

The last decade in HE has seen the pace of change accelerate – and the next decade could be seismic. Some institutions will face existential threats, and no institution will be able to avoid the need for deep-rooted assessment of how they operate and what they do. But in this ‘real-time’ laboratory, students are teaching us that we have reasons for optimism.

A ‘student-first’ approach

The higher education sector’s response to COVID has been remarkable because it’s been focused on giving the best student experience. As we look to the future, we must retain that approach and extend it beyond the traditional three-year course. Universities must look to gain some understanding of their students long before they come to university and retain connection with them long after they leave.

Embracing ‘threats’

The great shift we need to see is institutions taking a long-term stake in their students’ futures. The failure of the MOOC online revolution to take hold is, in part, due to the social nature of the university experience. Let’s take that support beyond the boundaries of the degree. If we believe in the transformational power of higher education, we should, as providers, be willing to invest in our students’ future, supporting them to understand and navigate the post-graduation trajectories that their developing expertise and capabilities afford. Lifelong learning shouldn’t be based on returning to education but, rather, never quite stopping it.

Finally, we should be more experimental. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can embrace many of the changes we feared: blending digital content alongside traditional delivery did not, as it transpires, cause the world to collapse. Now is the time to learn from our students’ agility and take a chance on doing things differently.

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