Panic in the disco(urse)

The Higher Education (HE) world and the associated academic discourse would appear to be in a state of panic right now – at least in the British and American HE sectors.

We have open rebellion at Durham against online learning and COVID-19 gutting finances whilst (going by job boards, LinkedIn, etc) an apparent rush to hire instructional designers and learning technologists is underway.

I’ve commented previously that the race to online learning due to COVID feels like a hollow ‘victory’ for those of us who have been advocating for this for a long time as the news remains grim.  Rationalisation and innovation seems to be finally happening in HE but at the risk of institutions that, for all their faults, are often major employers and bring inward investment to our towns and cities.  For someone who went to (physical) university in Hull and Sheffield I have plenty of personal experience of seeing how university campuses have a part to play in urban regeneration and our post-industrial landscapes!

It is at least 15 years ago now that online learning has been in place and ready to transform the HE sector – I don’t think I have my slides any more but I was (in part jovially) booed on stage at the University of Leeds in 2012 during an Articulate event.  Whilst it is scary to say it that is 8 years ago we have not really seen any major change to the UK HE sector from the privatisation, and push to online, that I was booed about.  Now, finally, COVID seems to be asking some of the big questions expected back then – for example, should there be shared resources versus reinventing the wheel at different universities:

This alludes to the problem of unis adding little value from one another in core curriculum across many subjects.  This is familiar to L&D teams when we think about pumping out ever more content on, say, leadership – rather than curating or adding value through, for example, original research.  It also alludes to the failure (in my eyes) of the HE library profession in they have been pushed down a collection management route – with reading lists often the limit of their eLearning ambitions.

That universities are struggling, even a decade+ after many introduced blended learning, is partly surprising.  Durham, for example, have had some excellent learning technologists in that time and I am glad to say I have bounced ideas of a number of them at their Blackboard eLearning conferences (albeit that I haven’t been for a number of years!).  This is in part anti-online snobbery but also in-part based on truth – for example, actually doing physical activity may be needed for some degrees and be difficult to replicate online – science experiments, underwater archaeology or electrical engineering to name a few examples.

That so many schools have moved online easily also shows the weakness of HE – for many staff “teaching” is a chore beyond the core driver (namely research) thus to be forced to put effort into teaching becomes a further challenge.  This is in part why learning technologists have emerged in the UK – to manage the time consuming setup and admin of online learning for the lecturers.  Schools for younger, <18, age groupss, in the last few weeks, have succeed thanks to the primary driver of teachers (or at least good ones) being the students interests and they have made use of their control over their class/subject to do things quickly ‘their way’.  This again alludes to waste, compared to shared resources (or full OER) but also should allow teachers to continue to support their students – which might be more difficult if using centralised resources.  Schools and universities share a focus on knowledge development for assessment (lets be honest) so have no real difference in ‘goal’ but seem to be experiencing things differently through the crisis due to their cultures.  Is this in part due to schools tending toward 100% contracts, with cultures where many teachers work outside of their scheduled hours?  Meanwhile HE has become too messy with labour costs and thus are looking to pass on to ‘cheaper’ learning techs and other teams, see, for example the very debatable argument in the Tweet below and through partnering with private online providers:

Fascinating times and lets hope that not too many jobs are lost in the end but money is better spent and blended learning used in more programmes and in better ways.

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