From hurried to heroic

Academics might have scrambled to adjust to online teaching but their expertise has taken flight and merits a global platform to share it

February 4, 2021
Butterfly emerging from cocoon
Source: iStock

Early in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University (ASU), watched as universities scrambled to transition overnight to an entirely remote operation.

For ASU, this was more straightforward than for most because of its long-standing strategy and investment in developing a sophisticated approach to technology-enhanced teaching. But it was still a big shift.

As the weeks passed, he noticed a narrative emerging that this change, while necessary, represented a dramatic diminution in the quality and value of the teaching being provided.

“Online learning has been demeaned by lots of groups,” he told me in an interview this week. “When the pandemic got going, I sent off a rather direct note to the president of one of the Ivy League institutions, saying: ‘Please have your law school stop telling people that online learning doesn’t work, because they are obviously clueless.’

“In fact, whether it’s full-immersion synchronous learning or online asynchronous learning, we’re finding tremendous learning outcomes. I taught last spring semester and I am teaching this semester, and we’re finding these technologies to be very powerful, very enhancing to the learning process.”

How did the Ivy League president reply? “He said: ‘I can’t control the law school,’” said Crow with a laugh.

Fair enough. But his point – that any analysis of the efficacy or otherwise of online teaching has to be based on evidence, not assumptions or perceptions – is an important one, particularly when the public narrative, too, is that students whose broad university experience has been so gravely disrupted by the pandemic are getting a substandard education into the bargain.

For universities that are not as far down the road as ASU – which has, after all, invested tens of millions of dollars in building the infrastructure and culture to support a new way of delivering teaching – it is also important to acknowledge that the emergency transition may have had to happen overnight but that building strategies, operational capabilities, technological support and cultural shifts all take far longer.

What is clear from our Digital Teaching Survey, the results of which are analysed in this week’s cover story, is that the past year has been one of Sisyphean workloads for academics, and that while an emergency transition was never going to be perfect, it has been heroic.

My interview with Crow marks the launch of a new section on the THE website, which we’re calling THE Campus and which provides a unique space for academics to share their resources, experiences and insights into best practice in every facet of online learning and teaching.

The goal of this platform is to facilitate peer-to-peer learning and collaboration, and to build a global community that can support the ongoing development of excellent online teaching, in a way that works for faculty and students.

These resources are freely available to all, and we would love academics and universities with expertise to share to get involved. Please visit the website to find out how to do that and to explore the resources already available. My interview with Crow is also on the platform, if you would like to find out more about ASU’s strategic approach.

As we approach the first anniversary of the lockdowns that triggered the move to online delivery, and with universities likely to retain a greater proportion of digital learning in future regardless of the course of the pandemic, a key issue now is about putting teaching on a sustainable footing.

Our survey this week, based on more than 500 responses, shows the toll that the past year has taken on the mental well-being of many academics (more than half reported that it had affected their mental health) and their doubts about the sustainability of the current approach.

This issue is the topic of our first Spotlight collection on THE Campus, which will be published on 11 February and bring together resources to help build resilience. We will be publishing special collections focusing on the most pressing challenges every fortnight.

Crucially, all of these will be authored by academics. Putting faculty, knowledge and the fundamentals of the university at the core of any digitally mediated future is vital.

As Crow put it: “If the digitisation of teaching and learning moves away from the core of knowledge, then it will fail – as in so many for-profit, and some not-for-profit universities. That’s the worry I have. But if it stays attached to the core, then the ship is moored in the right way to the right things.”

The fundamentals of higher education are the same as ever. Everything changes, and nothing changes.

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