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

Lisa Gray, Senior Consultant, Learning, Teaching and Assessment.

As we emerge from the emergency response to the pandemic, universities will need 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 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 accessible, 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 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

We had been seeing an increasing awareness of the importance of digital since 2018 when PebblePad’s digital capability service launched, and recognition of the need for staff and students to upskill in terms of their digital capability. The drive for students to upskill was mainly to prepare them for a changing workforce but also in terms of engaging with their studies. For staff the drivers include them maximising the benefit of digital in the workplace, and best preparing their students.

Since the pandemic began, that interest increased substantially, and what started as an emergency response has turned to more strategic thinking around the need for sustainable digital transformation (including curriculum transformation), and an expectation of more blended approaches moving forward. Importantly, this now provides us with an opportunity and momentum to embed digital approaches that truly enhance (not just replace) current approaches.

Of course, it’s a real challenge for universities to select and choose the most appropriate digital solutions for them. It’s crucial that any technology adoption is preceded by a clear vision and shared understanding of the requirements (and intended benefits) of any digital solution. ‘Tech for tech’s sake’ is never going to deliver. Once the right solution is in place, place, a successful implementation needs everyone to be on board. Clear leadership is key, as ensuring key stakeholders (including students) are involved in the decision-making and learning design process.

So, universities are increasingly looking strategically at digital transformation, which includes enabling all areas of the business including leadership, the digital and physical infrastructure, and all of the people within it, ensuring all staff and students have the digital capability to thrive in a digital world. So, nobody will be untouched by this transformation – faculty or students. There is no one way that this transformation will happen, the 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 key factors here to ensure all are benefitting (and are not excluded) from the affordances digital can offer. Digital is both an enabler, and a skill for life. It should be developed through appropriate and purposeful application in and beyond the curriculum to ensure success.

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