Pandemic is no time for a pedagogy overhaul

Calls to redesign curricula for online study ignore how scholars need time and peer support to reinvent courses, says Carole Binns

December 30, 2020
istock

When this year’s lockdowns forced a sudden pivot to online teaching, academics had to scramble to adapt their teaching materials and curricula. You might have thought that they would have grabbed all the advice they could get.

But while a few attended the online webinars on “emergency remote training” provided by agencies such as Advance HE, hearsay suggests that academics did not blow the dust off their curriculum development textbooks.

Two recently published articles in Times Higher Education discussed the roles of educationalists in higher education. The first suggested that “most lecturers dread the interventions of educationalists”; the second countered by advocating that expert educationalists can help academics “sift through papers, draw attention to key theories, and entertain critique and challenge when these come from a position of knowledge”.

The debate reminds me of a study I carried out for my PhD of 96 experienced UK academics who were designing new curricula or revisiting existing modules and courses. About 60 per cent of these academics had a teaching or teaching-related qualification that included elements of training or advice about curriculum design. Nevertheless, for two-thirds of respondents, the most commonly used aid for their most recent curriculum redesign was discussion with departmental colleagues.

Discussions with “educational developers” were used by more than a quarter of academics, most of whom had a teaching qualification, and more than a third used team meetings. However, “how-to” books on curriculum design – which draw on theory, philosophy and pedagogy – were only used by a tiny fraction.

So if the educational literature was barely used when there was no pandemic to urgently navigate, it is hardly surprising it that it was largely ignored when we were working under the intense pressure of the early lockdown.

The 23 survey respondents who volunteered to be interviewed spoke at length about how expanding workloads and shrinking timescales affected their design practice. Moreover, the interviewees – who, admittedly, were confined to one UK university – confided that they were primarily driven by more pragmatic matters, such as accommodating increasing workloads, working around reduced resources, creating engaging and marketable courses, and navigating the bureaucracy of the institutional validation process.

There are likely to be plenty of curricular reviews next year as people scratch their heads about how much online instruction and assessment to retain and how to design curricula at a time of social and economic change. With a little more leisure to reflect than we had this year, there is potential for curriculum design theories to inform the conversations and help better guide responses to the practical issues. But how useful would that be?

It is notable that while curriculum design theories were rarely used by my interviewees in planning their course modules, even by those who had been exposed to them in their professional teaching courses, nobody criticised the educational literature or questioned its relevance to practice.

One role of learning developers is to help teaching staff develop evidence-informed approaches to curriculum design that are appropriate to varied disciplines and diverse student populations. Compulsory in-house professional development schemes, such as those accredited by Advance HE, can be good ways to bring this into effect. But what stood out from my study was that respondents also appreciated informal faculty and school get-togethers, where academics and educationalists can swap ideas, experiences and learning tips.

While attendance at programme development workshops can be perceived as just “something else to do”, they do encourage mutually beneficial multidisciplinary work and discussion. Allocating adequate time for lecturers, academics, programme teams and developers to discuss issues with learning spaces, isolation measures, remote assessment and class attendance could facilitate the emergence of evidence-informed educational approaches post-lockdown.

However, it is important for both sides of the debate to have respect for each other’s craft. Yes, academics need to appreciate educational theories and literature, but educationalists also need to respect academic innovation, creativity and subject specialism.

Without such open-mindedness, academics will continue to feel as if they are fumbling in the dark, while educationalists will feel as if they are knocking on the door of an empty house.

Carole Binns is a lecturer in criminal justice studies at the University of Bradford. She acknowledges the reuse of information from her book, Module Design in a Changing Era of Higher Education: Academic Identity, Cognitive Dissonance and Institutional Barriers, published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2017 and reproduced with permission of Palgrave MacMillan.

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