HE in lockdown: Same storm, different boats?

I don’t know what I was expecting work to be like as we raced with a sudden urgency into the lockdown but it’s probably safe to say that I was dead wrong. Perhaps I imagined a leisurely commute from bedroom to living room attired only in a dressing gown to then encounter a bit of business-as-usual traffic on Outlook. I certainly didn’t expect the dizzying disappearance of old boundaries or the need for hastily established new routines. Perhaps most importantly of all, I hadn’t anticipated the crucial need to exercise self-compassion in the face of what I can only describe as a feeling that I need to be ‘on’, all the time. It’s probably not unreasonable to expect the here-and-now to demand greater attention in the middle of a global crisis, but finding the right balance of work priorities in a sea of competing invitations to Zoom and Teams meetings has not been easy. Two things, in particular, are very much at the forefront of my thinking though. The first centres on our students’ experiences of the current situation and the second centres on post-Covid HE practices; the ‘new normal’.

Next to speculating on the advisability of ingesting your disinfectant of choice whilst lying under a sunlamp, the second silliest thing I’ve heard politicians say during the last month or so is that ‘we are all in the same boat’. If only. I bet lots of our students can only dream of being aboard the kind of swanky, luxury liner that some people are on; I imagine for many students it feels more like desperately bailing out a leaky dinghy in an effort simply to stay afloat. We’re not in the same boat, we’re in the same storm. Making the rules of on-line engagement explicit to students who are used to face-to-face working, putting emergency regulatory adjustments in place, and offering online help and support with health and wellbeing will be occupying all of us during this time as we try to ensure our students can progress and complete their studies without detriment.

We also need to turn this upheaval to our advantage in the longer term. If someone had told me even in February that by April we would all be in Distance Learning mode for the foreseeable future I would have told them they were mad. Yet here we are. It was an astonishing feat on the part of university staff up and down the country, many of whom are less than comfortable around IT, to get the curriculum online almost overnight. We’re in a situation none of us expected or would have wanted but, on the plus side, we’ve learned a lot about learning, teaching, and student support. It’s not the way I would have wanted us to explore other ways of doing things by any means, but thousands of us have been forcibly exposed to the affordances offered by new technologies. We’ve had to up our skill sets, even if only by a little bit. We’ve had to come to terms with working in alternative and interesting ways. It’s been a very steep learning curve for sure but there are significant gains to be had in amongst all this turmoil. This is not our final destination; we need to engage with our students to start working out what these gains are and to make sure we hang onto them when the lockdown is finally over.

Prof. Mark O’Hara is a FACE Executive Member and Associate Dean – Student Learning Experience & Quality at Birmingham City University

Image credit: Alex 

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