Back to ‘what’ Normal? #AulaCon

Last week (May, 2021) I attended my first ever totally online event since the pandemic started in March 2020. This was a big thing for me, not least was how much effort it took to not only keep my diary free of meetings but also to keep the distractions and messages/calls/chat to a minimum so I could concentrate.

AulaCon 2021, from Aula, a fully online event hosted on Hopin (check it out, it worked really well!) had the rather huge title of ‘back to what normal?’ … something we’re all thinking and trying to understand at the moment.

Lockdown restrictions are easing, universities have weathered the emergency response, and it looks like semester start in the new academic year might finally bear some resemblance to normal.

I wasn’t completely successful with my plan to attend the whole event; I had to drop out a few times during the day and some of the later sessions but all in all, I’m proud I was able to attend more than just the token sessions.

Split into sessions running the day, there wasn’t the overlap of needing to choose which stream to attend, there was only one. First job of the day, I didn’t have to worry about choosing the right stream or missing a great talk elsewhere in the event. From the welcome ‘fireside’ chat between Anders Krohn (Aula) and Professor John Hattie the scene was set … this was an event for thinkers and planners; those who need to think ahead and what we and the students will need, and those who need to plan ahead on how to actually do some of this stuff.

Below are some of my notes from the parts of the day I was able to focus on:

Fireside chat – Anders Krohn and Professor John Hattie.

What have we or can we learn from how we’ve approached the pandemic, and how can we use this learning in taking education forward. Notes: 60% of faculty witnessed a drop in student engagement in the switch to fully online delivery, and 70% of academic staff worried about their ability to deliver effective learning during the pandemic. Students reported a major factor affecting their engagement has been a “sense of belonging in the institution”. 

Why does community and belonging matter? – Students learn in class AND when not in class, from peers and through social interactions. You don’t get that from Zoom or online calls/chats in ‘class’. The pandemic has shown it’s cheaper and easier to deliver over Zoom, but we’ve lost the ability for students to learn through interaction and engagement. 

Relationship and engagement, what does the research show? – 95% of what we do to enhances student engagement. Don’t ask ‘what works?’, rather we should actually ask ‘what works best’? Don’t fixate on how to teach, we should be fixated on the impact of the teaching. Be attentive to social and emotive learning and make them related to achievement and outcomes. Engagement = how do you know the students are engaged? You know when students are engaged in the work, not when they are doing what you tell them. Community is critical.

What can change to improve engagement? – In high schools, 80% of the engagement isn’t designed or provided by or with the teacher – test scores don’t tell us anything. You can see if a student has been engaged from what they produce, but not the quality of the engagement. What we miss is actually listening to the students, what do they want/need. Failure is their best friend. Students don’t go to class to learn what they already know, they go to learn what they don’t know or struggle on. Teachers talk 90-100% of the time, no listening!! Build opportunities for students to talk!! Show respect to students, increases engagement AND a sense of belonging. 

Technology: loss of community exposed in Zoom, what is the role of technology and pedagogy – We’ve been using technology as a substitute to what we already do, not enhance it. Powerful technology is social and social media. Student are more willing and prepared to talk to others out of the classroom, so why not give them the opportunity IN the classroom by using this technology? Students can talk about right and wrong topics, help each other and learn from each other. Students possibly have more experience in social media than the teachers, why not use this? 

What about coming back to the classroom, what to retain from pandemic teaching? - What we did in pandemic was not perfect, nor was what we did before it either. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to ask ‘what is working?’ Students are critical of “boring teaching” by turning cameras off or not attending. Social/emotional learning is an important outcome of pandemic teaching, we need to continue and embrace this for student engagement 

What is the teacher’s role? How do you know the teacher has contributed to the outcome? – Test them? Example: after a test, ask yourself what did I teach well or not? How many students engaged with me or the materials? And how many turned up? Ask the questions and learn about your impact and adjust to improve your impact and the student’s engagement. “Teach back” – ask students to teach something to their peers.  

Concept of ‘subject’? Does ‘right’ apply across all subject? – Academics know their class and subject is different, but teaching it isn’t. Not really. Look to what works best, it will work in your subject area too, not exactly, but close enough. Study your impact and engage with the students where you’re needed. Focus on feedback, focus on impact, focus on community. Don’t just focus on knowledge and subject.

“Learning Experience of 2030” 

Ian Dunn, Coventry University – Going forward, we need to look back too. We need to look back beyond just the last 12 months. We need to approach this with some fundamental thinking on models for teaching and technology, and what works. We need to think about the numbers of students in 2030; models show we can expect an increase in students in higher education by 2030. We need to think about the changing demographics of these students too. We hear that HE has been ‘deeply innovative’ in the pandemic, but all we’ve done is make teaching work in difficult circumstances. This isn’t ‘innovative’, we’ve retrofitted teaching to the circumstances rather than developing something new. The experiences of the last 12 months are at risk of being lost as we ‘return’ to campus. The role technology plays is not to replace classroom teaching, but technology can bring change and support to learning beyond the overly simple ‘delivering individual pieces of content’. We have lots of data, we need to exploit it to gain insight into what works. We are on the cusp of extraordinary times. Exploiting technology to support students and student journey … so we can honestly say that everyone who can access HE has best experience … by 2025, not 2030!! 

Professor Diana Laurillard, UCL -  We could not have predicted what we are experiencing in 2021, even from only a few years ago! What’s behind the question about 2030 is ‘what can we do now to be in the best place for 2030?’ What’s our vision for the next 9/10yrs? UCLs vision is ambitious, its mission statement too. UCL is similar to all HEIs – improve quality and reach of student learning. We cannot meet our vision statements unless our teachers create opportunities for the students, and unless teachers think about T&L and how students will benefit. Think about UN sustainable development goals and the roles HEIs play within them – HEIs play a huge role in this, to improve quality of life for humanity – HEIs provide teachers and a “universal quality”. How do we support professional learning? Professional development is often thought of as the poor sister of HEIs which focus on UG and PG teaching. Professionals are changing the focus on education – professionals don’t have or need the hand-holding of UG students, can maintain motivation and focus in different ways, are less ‘onerous’ than UG students? Large scale online professional development frameworks are needed. Research in scholarly work must consider and cover professional development. 

Professor Shân Wareing, University of Northampton – Policing apprenticeships, degree, and prof development (example) from the only HEI in Northamptonshire. High impact locally, working nationally on this, growing to international audience too from work rooted in local policies. Mission has global reach, diversity and inclusion is key driver for equality too. Policing, for example, shows it is important to demonstrate professional development works. F2F does not and will not stop – learning is hard, structure and community makes it easier. Covid has shown this. Online will supplement F2F, unless online is only viable model. Premium will be on F2F and will always be wanted. Need to put in place a structure that supports both models for all students, local vs international. Develop a portfolio of skills-based courses. Exploit benefits of learning opportunities of digital with benefits of F2F structure and community. Massive transformation in digital. Admissions, enrolment, grades, certification, etc will all need to change to accommodate the changes. 

Professor Carl Gombrich, London Interdisciplinary School – Focus on student perspective. How to integrate the best of online learning with the historical F2F and classroom approach(es)? A no brainer – best taught through the best platforms. HEIs have a walled garden around the technology and now can/should integrate themselves into the real-world experience students expect. Concerns about protecting their brand? Why not, when students can find them and their learning from anywhere? The best intelligent and integrated online-to-campus support is through dual learning journeys. Student expectations are managed, as moving systems can create the best UG experiences. 

“Community building in the post-pandemic learning experience”

Aula is a “community-first learning experience”, where learners can have meaningful connections of trust and feel a sense of belonging. This is challenging to achieve … how can we foster this? 

Dr Steve Buckingham, Queen Mary Academy – Community. Look back over your own student experience and then question what students will remember of their studies and time studying? Teachers? Subject? Or experiences,? Will they remember the lesson of what inspired them? Community matters to us when we feel we have invested in it. There is a genuine need to share with and learn from the community. We already do this and understand this, but do we do it well enough? Happy students are still not engaged students – do we build a community of students that stays with them after they leave? Why is it difficult to create this community among students? Education is a stressful process – take the assessment(s) out, what is education all about? People are left, the community is left. Students don’t like being asked to do group work but like it, or at least value, it once done. Students have a 3-4yrs experience with their HEI, the community is of limited time but still valuable! WhatsApp and other platforms are used voluntarily and with hunger, but the platforms we impose aren’t. Community centres on genuine need; task-based or group-based (what is the need). Common goal requiring genuine interaction. What’s the value to the community? Mutual dependence: allow the students to place themselves in groups, for more than just your module, where there is the duration for the personal development outside the module/topic/learning. it will work 

Daniele D’Hayer, London Metropolitan University[poor audio] Interpreting with students into 8 languages as the Aula event progresses. The word ‘community has been mentioned 60 times so far today! A sense of community is felt when it works. We switch off when the community has served its purpose. Or is ‘community’ something we HAVE to do, institutional requirement as part of learning? A disconnect between engagement in teaching and the idea a university might have what it means by the community. Community is social, a community of practice/learning/network/etc – ingredients for the community = time (cultivated or organic) to build trust + leader (“social artists”) + space (a safe space) + solidarity. A community must be sustainable; don’t start from scratch every year, cycles of participation (students, graduates, professionals, leaders, etc). Design for horizontal participation. The community must be seen as an ongoing process, it has no end as does learning: learning never ends. “The education of becoming.” 

Avanelle Ogundipe, London Southbank University – Can you describe what a community looks like or what it means? Students can support and are supported in their learning. We are looking for communication, sharing of ideas, sharing of perspectives – this is the community. How can we help the students? We can give them safe spaces, give them encouragement, etc, but HOW?? Not just students, are course team(s) involved in this ‘student’ community? If not, why not? Creative and sustainable communities have everyone in it, from all aspects of the course or wider institutional community. A community should flow beyond the learning session/lesson. Conversations outside the lesson will soon filter back INTO the lesson, conversations will continue to happen, the community can and will encourage learning. Technology can and will enhance this, we need to understand the tools and which ones to use, and when. We need to be clear about which tool we need and why, when, and where to use it. 

Dr Tracey Cockerton, Middlesex University, London – The pandemic has reminded us all that we are social/emotional beings. Learning is not just a cognitive process. Being isolated, we have missed this important social and emotional contact. We have missed spontaneous connections – tt is important to wellbeing. We must not neglect or ignore this impact, the loss of connection/community. Learning is a holistic experience, bolstered by communities. Different types of communities at different levels – within modules, across years, across faculties, niche sport, etc. The sense of belonging is a strong feeling. Trust and reliable spaces, containing and safe, honest or anxious experiences. Learning should be a less anxiety-provoking experience to be really meaningful and we can get the best out of it. We must recognise that education must be welcoming. 

Whilst this is not everything from the event, and my notes do not cover everything that everyone said. They are at least a reminder, reading them again after a few days, that my thoughts are well aligned to that of these notable leaders in their fields. The community we create and encourage others to create is key, as is the communication with colleagues and our students (past, present, and future). If we are to weather the storm that is facing education now and in the next 5-10 years, we must all reflect on what we used to do before the pandemic, what we’ve learned from our efforts during the pandemic, and what we can take forward to make the future ‘better’.

In terms of the the ‘back to what normal’ question it was pretty clear al the presenters were reluctant to return to the ways we used do things in March 2020, before everything changed. We can and should take the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic and apply them appropriately and conserately across the whole spectrum of educational establishments. Some things we used to do before lockdown we can and should keep, other things we had to drop because we couldn’t deliver it can stay dropped, but we must replace it with something meaningful and approprite. Staff and student wellbeing is firmly front and centre the stage and cannot be ignored any more.

Photo by Andrei Stratu on Unsplash