I’ve been thinking about digital education in the future a lot recently. Partly because I have been asked to as part of work around our future strategy, partly because it is on all our minds in terms of planning for September and partly because it is interesting and what I do every day! Let’s be honest, it’s hard to escape it at the moment.
At our LEaD Directorate meeting this week, Jane Secker, one of our Senior Lecturers, presented a thoughtful and candid account of her experiences teaching online to our Masters in Academic Practice students. Slightly ironically as she pointed out she was teaching modules on digital education when the pandemic hit and she needed to move to remote teaching. We thought about what worked and what was more of a challenge and in particular the need for compassion and engagement when working online. This brought up reflections from my own experience as when I was teaching the Developing Leadership module last year, the pandemic hit mid-module so we moved online and this year I had hoped we might start online then move back to campus, sadly not to be. There have been some great experiences of working online with my students. We’ve had deeper and richer discussions about the literature and see each other more regularly for less time than we did face to face. I feel I have got to know them better by discussing more informal things – often brought on by their personal circumstances coming up in the online sessions eg cats/children/flatmates coming in to sessions- a feeling that Jane also experienced. I’ve also felt completely humbled when all the tech failed despite my best preparations and utterly incompetent trying to sort it out during a session. And I am an educational technologist at heart! I’ve experienced that sudden loss when you press “leave” at the end of the teaching, particularly after a rich session, you go from the lively chatter of the class to silence. It’s hard. I’ve also had the joy of online Lego and getting leadership speakers to talk for longer, as well as improving the assessments – the depth and engagement with the recorded presentations has improved the assessments so much that we will keep this in the future. There are many sessions that I would love to teach face to face again but I am not sure I will ever go back to running the module in the “old” way with 6 face to face full days.
Much has been written about the future for education beyond the pandemic and of course “digital” is here to stay. What we mean by “digital” is not always clear though. For me it is a tool that enables new and different forms of engagement and pedagogies. Used appropriately it should enable greater flexibility for our learners, richer interactions and materials, a more inclusive experience and improved learning and teaching for us as lecturers. Used badly though it can alienate and disengage students, increase inequalities, stress and demotivate staff and damage our reputation as education providers. “Appropriate” use for me means that digital education needs to be introduced in line with the needs of our students and with appropriate support structures for staff and students. It needs to be flexible in terms of development and design. We need to acknowledge that technologies are continually evolving and our approaches will to. We need to be clear about why we are using digital education and how. We need to be honest about our vulnerabilities and those of our learners so we can create safe digital spaces which engage students. And most importantly of all we need to use it in conjunction with our physical spaces. As we move beyond lockdown, this will become more important as we interrogate the best ways to meet our students. How can we use the physical campus to support all the wraparound and social aspects of learning? How can we use online to support this and enhance that on-campus experience? It is not online versus on-campus, digital education is both online and on-campus and has exciting potentials for raising the quality and student experience in both domains.