In-person teaching now needs to be justified

If we take the same critical lens to in-person learning as we once did to online, rationalising our need for the former, how much better could we make our teaching?

Stephen Dann's avatar
26 Apr 2022
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At the start of 2022, how many senior academic leaders breathed out – and then promptly tried to restore their campus plans from their 2019 saved files? For many of them, the pandemic is over, online education is back in the “can’t be done” box, and the genie will get back in the bottle if it wants to retain tenure. What were standard practices in 2021 as the guiding “new normal” once again become “accommodations on request” for the foreseeable future as we usher in the golden age of people in physical places.

Welcome to a “touch campus” worldview.

Touch campus is that amorphous sense in the strategy documents, vice-chancellor-driven internal emails and general worldview that everything will be OK again as long as the students set foot on the physical campus. All the problems of education past will have resolved because everyone will realise that we missed the campus, and now people will return to campus ready to attend classes in record numbers.

This might not be as true as previously hoped. Many of the challenges facing our students with precarious work (and pernicious employees) remained or intensified. Economic conditions are harsher as we see the ripple effects of Covid closures on the economy. Even the Great Resignation slowly morphed into more of a Great Sigh of Resignation, as people stayed in employment for want of a better option.

This is before we accept that the current state of the post-pandemic world is that much more complicated, with history now being a real-time event across Europe and the world showing no signs of slowing down on climate change, extreme weather events and natural disasters.

The changes we made to education, to bring flexibility, adaptability and survivability to our students aren’t going to be lightly discarded, even with the designs on going back to 2019 in our approach to education delivery.

We’ve had a taste of the pedagogical opportunity that online life offers for quality student experience. We know the value of captioned video for learning support. We have equity and access through time-shifting to full-time work, family and carer duties.  But only if we treat online with the respect it earned under the harshest of conditions.

Trying to throw the flexibility we created with online-by-design out the ventilation-providing window is a short-term game. Despite very serious academic management very seriously intoning the impossibility of online education, the world delivered in digital. We must accept that our new students have succeeded in the online space, and if they arrive at a university’s virtual doorstep to find the welcome mat on fire, they’ll look elsewhere – and possibly not even at the higher ed sector at all.

Try as some university senior executives might, the sector can no longer insist that the only true way to learn is between 3pm and 5pm on a Thursday in Room 404B. Educators know that’s not true – the world proved it in 2020 and 2021, and students expect us to know better than trying to dismiss their past two years of experience as substandard learning. The academy has tested and validated digital pedagogical considerations under the most trying of circumstances, and yet, as many campus reopen, we may be overlooking the real gift of circumstance – the chance to question the face-to-face delivery mode.

Remember in the before times when you had to validate any modal shift to experiment with online delivery? The rationales and arguments that needed to be launched in education subcommittees as you pre-emptively validated a flipped classroom, online assessment or, vice-chancellor forbid, remote delivery?

Well, why not take this moment to apply the same standard for the return to face to face?

Instead of treating the reopening of buildings as the touch-campus talisman, we should embrace the modal shift with intentionality. We need to capitalise on the generational change of in situ student life and work with it, to go with the flow of the two years of high school education (or: up to two-thirds of a degree) that have been delivered online and consolidate the success stories.

Of course, in the same manner, we do know that some aspects of online are not optimal for education.

Those areas inadequately served by the virtual sphere should be given a chance to redeem themselves in the physical world. Some may well prove to be well suited to in-classroom delivery – with validated proposal and evidence of effectiveness forthcoming. Others may need special accommodations for in-person delivery.

Laboratory-based learning, experiential workshops and hands-on courses could stand to gain from access to campus spaces with the right rationale. With that in mind, those educators should be able to articulate the pedagogical and andragogical benefits of the learning proximity environment.

For others, the challenge of rationalising in-person delivery could result in a much-needed shot in the arm for their course – long gone are the days of sage on a stage monologues as best practice.  With the change in conditions, as a sector we could explore if the campus needed those lecture spaces. If we take the same critical lens to campus-based learning as we once did to online and have to bid for space, justifying and rationalising our need for in-person, how much better could we make use of campus capacities?

Using a touch-campus approach without assessing if proximity learning enables quality outcomes risks jeopardising student experience, our sector’s success under crisis conditions and everything learned in the decade that was 2020-21. Rather than risk diminishing the value of the campus teaching space with the contempt of familiarity, we should embrace this modal shift as a new chance to revisit our in-room pedagogy.

Stephen Dann is a senior lecturer in marketing at the Research School of Management in the Australian National University and a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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