Your greatest asset: how to focus efforts to upskill staff

Online teaching demands new pedagogical and digital skills among faculty, so universities need to consider how best to focus training and resources, as Susanna Kohonen explains

Susanna Kohonen's avatar
5 March 2021
Where to focus training and resources upskill staff for digital teaching
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Let’s imagine a new normal. Where is higher education going next? Online, on campus, a bit of both?

Many wish to get back, as soon as possible, to the way courses were organised and carried out before the lockdown, while others enjoy online teaching and studying and would like to keep doing so. Then there are some worried about managing hybrid modes of teaching, with students attending on-site and online at the same time.

Whether or not we can “return to normal”, now is the moment to take the situation seriously. First of all, ask staff how they are coping; second, whether they feel they have the skills they need to teach effectively online, on-site or both in the longer term; and third, what training and support should be provided.

A chance to understand learning: developing pedagogical and digital skills

The pivot to remote digital teaching and associated concerns about how to prevent students cheating online have proven a wonderful blessing in disguise.

I call it a blessing in disguise because it has forced critical reflection upon three crucial points:

  • Our understanding of what learning is all about.

  • Our understanding of what assessing and evaluating learning is all about.

  • Our understanding of what a teacher-student relationship is all about.

This is a moment of truth. The fully online mode has highlighted the need for pedagogical skills among university teaching staff in a way that not many anticipated. University leaders now need to carefully consider where to focus their training efforts to support and upskill staff to meet this challenge.

They can start by considering the following basic steps:

1) Invest in making the most of the pedagogical and digital expertise at your reach

What you have very likely already done, since last March, is meet the immediate need for technical and digital support. Now is the time to re-evaluate what took place since last March and move forward.

Focus on digital pedagogy support and aspects of critical digital pedagogy. Facilitate discussion on what it is that guides and informs us in our practical, daily choices for online teaching methods, as well as for online assessment methods. Make it possible for a diversity of voices to be expressed.

2) Set up a staff peer-support system

Create a digital pedagogy facilitator team made up of experienced teachers to support future-oriented development, asset analysis and collaboration between different staff teams and support service providers. This team should also provide collegial support to fellow teachers, ideally with members of the facilitator team representing the university’s different schools and units.

3) Reach out to staff and identify existing pedagogical expertise as well as development needs

Use your digital pedagogy facilitator team to find out where staff feel they need support in online course design and delivery. This enables you to focus training efforts and design centralised advice resources to help advise on these key areas. Establish where different expertise lies within your staff so you can capitalise on that knowledge, calling on staff with certain skillsets to support those who lack them. Develop resources such as a digital course design toolkit for staff across multiple disciplines to refer to.

4) Offer student peer support, integrated to online study skills courses

Most universities have a student tutoring system in which more senior students become tutors for first-year students. The lockdown has already changed the nature of this tutoring. Invest in training these student tutors within the online framework and in well-being skills and link the student tutoring to first-year students’ prep courses on edtech and academic study skills.

5) Support staff development by limiting teaching time requirements

Enable each member of staff to set aside enough time in their work schedules for professional development and peer support. If this feels impossible, perhaps do it for just one year. Or even six months. Give it a try.

A great way to acknowledge the incredible efforts of staff during lockdown would be to provide more time and resources for them to further their own skillset, enable their own lifelong learning within digital pedagogy, and support their colleagues to do the same.

Care enough to adjust resources

To make a long-term success of online or blended teaching and its associated challenges, faculty need support to develop new coping mechanisms alongside pedagogical and digital skills.

This needs to be supported through greater care and compassion on the part of the university leaders, worldwide. Among many, Anne-Marie Scott, deputy provost at Athabasca University, promotes care as a sustainability practice, for students and staff.

Alongside compassion, educators must be adequately resourced. Many academics have been working around the clock throughout the pandemic, and this is not sustainable. Additional support is needed. How much we are expected to do with limited available resources has emerged time and again in discussions among academic colleagues.

With teaching staff so concerned about resources, this should now be the number one concern for university leaders. We need a critical re-evaluation of what it is universities want to accomplish, how and why. Then resources need to be distributed sensibly to support this.

Let teaching staff figure out what makes them tick

The pandemic has forced academics to adopt many new identities, from graphic designers to videographers, alongside their traditional teaching and research roles, as Christine Rivers and Anne Holland recently wrote in Times Higher Education. University leaders should provide time, space and opportunity for teaching staff to rework their professional identities.

I would no longer be a teacher had I not rebuilt my professional identity several years ago as I restructured all my on-campus teaching into the fully online or blended learning modes. I built connections, networked, studied more, learned from peers, experienced care and compassion and have been enjoying wonderful support ever since. Online. That is why I wanted to join the digital pedagogy facilitator team at my university.

The question for teachers is: What is it that makes you tick? Think about your most memorable moment of “flow” in your teaching career and what caused it. After this come technology and digital online solutions. These should never come first.

The question for leadership and management is: Do you listen to your teaching professionals and experts? Have you set aside enough resources in the budget to allow staff-wide research opportunities for development, collegial peer support, student support, and thus, both staff and student well-being? Because this will secure a successful future for your institution.

Susanna Kohonen is a lecturer and digital pedagogy facilitator at the University of Eastern Finland.

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