Is it possible to think big thoughts virtually?

When discussing complex problems online, without the ability to read the room, the focus often shifts to what can be achieved rather than taking risks, says Donna Murray

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Donna Murray's avatar
11 Jul 2021
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Is it possible to grapple with big questions in a virtual environment?

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University of Edinburgh

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In a normal year, we would have seen each other in real life. We would have been energised by the life of the university – seeing the students, fighting for space in the library. We would have met up at conferences and seminars and chatted while waiting in the queue for coffee. We would have had general conversations that didn’t need to be scheduled and didn’t depend on broadband speed. We wouldn’t have been distracted by cats walking across screens or had to check the pile of washing was out of view or realised that the little camera on our computer was not very flattering.

But it has not been a normal year, and we’ve all had to adapt for the greater good. This has involved many small challenges like those outlined above, but I also wonder how it has affected the larger picture of academic collaboration. After all, in higher education, we often want to think about things that have no obvious solutions or even parameters – but is this possible when working mainly online?

One of the concepts brought into focus by the pandemic is resilience and a desire for this to be seen as something that should be tackled by changing institutional structures and practices rather than by focusing on individuals and their responses.

When you start talking about concepts such as resilience, the conversation will fairly quickly reach a stage where someone says: “This is a complex problem.” At that point everyone will realise that, yes, this is complicated, and it will start to feel unmanageable. This concept of “wicked problems”, ones with no obvious solution or clear path, is well known. It covers all aspects of teaching and learning and is not specific to any academic discipline.

When we are together, wicked problems can seem less intimidating. Someone might make a joke and the anxiety around “solving” things dissipates. Online, without the ability to read the room, the comfort zone becomes focused on what can be achieved − rather than taking risks.

How do we move beyond this? We may soon be seeing colleagues on campus again, but we cannot tell when the same will be possible at large conferences. The move to online has had many unforeseen benefits including enabling people to attend events without needing to travel. In turn, this has reduced travel costs and helped improve the environmental impact of academic collaboration and it has equity aspects.

When the costs of travel and accommodation are removed − and when people don’t have to spend days away from home − conferences become more open for both colleagues at the start of their careers and those with caring commitments. These benefits are of such value that online collaboration and discussion may continue to be a key part of academic life. How, then, to replicate the open discussions and wide-ranging dialogue in a virtual environment?

Recently, QAA Scotland asked for funding bids for resilience-themed projects, which seemed like an ideal opportunity to consider whether these large concepts could be explored effectively online. The University of Edinburgh is leading a coalition of four universities – along with the universities of the West of Scotland, Heriot-Watt and St Andrews − and as a group we’re looking at different ways of approaching resilience. We wanted to see if big, wicked issues could be discussed and a resource produced out of these discussions, but without prescribing how that might happen. So far, we’ve had presentations, polemic opinion pieces, panels where students discussed their experiences, and a video on a university listening project and explored the concept of academic “ghosts” as well as having lots of group discussion.

Importantly, we’ve noticed that because we can’t gauge reactions as easily, it’s harder for participants to move out of the comfort zone of focusing on the challenges faced. By giving each university freedom to lead the discussions as they wish, we’ve gone some way towards facilitating expanded thinking, and some interesting and novel suggestions are emerging. We’ll be producing resources over the summer that we hope will help with embedding new approaches to resilience.

Another aspect of the freedom we’ve given one another is that it has replicated the conference experience of exposure to a variety of modes of interaction, and with this has come mutual respect that has helped facilitate confidence around engaging in robust academic debate on a big topic.

It’s been truly fascinating trying to discuss a complex area online, and I think what we’ve learned is that there are no rules. If people are given freedom and are willing to commit to being open and to approaching these messy problems in different ways, then virtual discussions can be every bit as innovative and stimulating as when everyone is in the same room.

Of course, it may be that we’re all just a bit more used to online environments so are more confident about interacting with people without being physically together. Or it may be that by having a series of meetings, we’ve gained a certain level of confidence in our interactions and we’ve learned how to interpret one another’s virtual “body language”. Most pleasingly, we’ve all coalesced virtually, or not, around ways to encourage structural changes rather than focusing on “fixing” the individual.

Saying that, I still love hearing other people’s ideas in the flesh. So if you see me in a coffee queue at a conference, please talk to me.

Donna Murray is head of taught student development at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Academic Development.


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