Online CPD is one pandemic innovation worth fighting for

Let’s not waste this opportunity to make development broader and more inclusive using the lessons of the past 18 months, says Chris Headleand

Chris Headleand's avatar
University of Lincoln
24 Sep 2021
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Online CPD is one pandemic innovation that should stay for universities and the higher education sector

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With the UK government having lifted restrictions and much of the population vaccinated, now is a valuable time to reflect on what we have experienced and learned. While it’s crucial that we critically evaluate the experience, we must do so with a level of awareness and sensitivity. Discussions of the pandemic as a “golden age for [insert business process here]” are entirely tone-deaf and not an honest reflection of the circumstances. To be clear, this article is not about trying to find the silver lining in a pandemic.

That being said, chaos is the foundry of innovation and always has been. Whenever we have a process disrupted we’re forced to adapt, and through this experience we learn something new. It’s incumbent on the sector to ensure we don’t waste this information. Future practices must learn from lessons hard earned over the past year and a half.

One opportunity moving forward is rethinking how we approach individual pedagogic scholarship and continuing professional development (CPD). There are opportunities to make development broader and more inclusive using what we’ve learned over the past 18 months.

Training and practice-sharing could have been one of the casualties of lockdown. In most cases, pedagogic development is a voluntary engagement – and anything optional is often one of the first things to be sacrificed whenever someone’s workload is stretched. Furthermore, most educational training has previously been a fundamentally face-to-face endeavour. Facilitated workshops and activities involving colourful post-it notes and flipchart paper are a sector norm. Although there were some remote and virtual pedagogic training examples, these were few and far between.

However, this is where we’ve seen some real innovation across the sector. There has been a massive emergence of virtual seminars, practice-sharing events, podcasts and open training resources. One strength has been the openness, transparency and camaraderie that has come with the move online. Many institutions opened their doors to attendance from individuals across the sector. There has been a general sense of coming together to help one another, sharing best practices across the sector as quickly as possible. It would be a real shame to lose this as restrictions are lifted.

In one week last year, I managed to attend exceptional talks at four institutions in three countries − all from the comfort of my home office. They were also all free to attend. I calculated that it would have cost nearly £2,500 just in travel and accommodation to attend these sessions face to face. I simply don’t have access to that kind of budget for personal development.

Another artefact has been the audience demographics attending these events. It isn’t uncommon for institutional training to attract a “usual crowd”. I once delivered a guest session at another institution to 14 people (out of more than 600 academic staff) and organisers told me that these were good numbers.

After chatting to the attendees, it became apparent that they came to all these sessions − which was good but realistically meant that the penetration and dissemination of practice was limited to this micro-community.

But, anecdotally at least, this hasn’t been the case with the online sessions. Individuals who have never been spotted at the annual teaching and learning conference are now hungrily capitalising on the free CPD on offer. We can understand why. Sessions have been easy to access, have not typically required advanced booking and haven’t been limited by room capacities. Session recordings and asynchronous opportunities have also contributed to lowering the barriers to access.

The CPD series I started (Pedagogy and Pancakes) regularly featured attendees from various institutions sharing their pedagogy. It often drew large numbers and featured colleagues from across academic disciplines and professional service departments. There were no barriers to access, and everyone benefited from the open sharing of best practices. It has been brilliant seeing a sector-wide community develop to support each other.

It will also be wonderful to see some face-to-face CPD come back to campus even if, truth be told, I don’t miss the Post-it notes. But I honestly think that online pedagogic CPD has been a fantastic addition to the academic environment and is something we should try to hold on to and make part of our new normal.

It’s important to note that people have been asking for more online access for years. Overseas academic conferences are expensive, making them inaccessible to many. And even if you have the budget available, certain visas are disproportionately harder to access for some people. Furthermore, we can’t ignore the environmental impact of overseas travel.

As I mentioned, this article isn’t about finding the silver lining in the pandemic. We just know more now than we did before. We’ve proven we can run these events online. In the case of academic development, we’ve seen how accessible and valuable online CPD can be. Here’s hoping the experience and the lessons learned contribute towards shaping our new normal for the benefit of the whole sector.

Chris Headleand is director of teaching and learning for the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln.


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