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Blog post Part of special issue: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Editorial: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Gabriella F. Buttarazzi, Senior Educational Developer at University of East London

For higher education, Covid-19 has presented a particular challenge: having had to convert our classrooms to online platforms, higher education practitioners have faced the task of teaching and supporting learning in a way that is worthy of this historical moment. Challenges and opportunities have been posed, while both shortcomings and opportunities have been exposed. Being of service to our students, colleagues and higher education institutions in these times of profound uncertainty coupled with continuing demands is a challenge. Being better prepared should lockdowns and other comparable seismic changes to personal and public life return is a primary concern moving forward.

Many of us, including our students, have been deeply unnerved by Covid-19. Beyond the immediate ways that online learning and social distancing has been changing the way we teach and learn in higher education, Covid-19 serves as a reminder that uncertainty exists as a natural phenomenon as complexity increases in societies and cultures.

This historical moment will have consequences on academia and the future of teaching, learning and research in higher education. Commonplace concepts such as productivity, outcomes and learning objectives have begun to carry new meanings as immediate, day-to-day concerns such as childcare, healthcare, and one’s own psychological wellbeing and physical health have become more demanding. Might these times offer opportunities for shifting and re-evaluating priorities within academic life? There is a spiritual dimension to understanding the uncertainty that the pandemic has laid bare that many are exploring. Educators, institutions and policymakers continue to develop constructive ways to come together to support each other, our students and the wider public.

Notwithstanding the upskilling and adapting that has by default taken place, in the aftermath we will have undoubtedly gained valuable insight for shaping the future of teaching and learning in higher education. Some questions we must now consider:

  • How can we engage meaningfully with our students in the shadows of such uncertainty?
  • What can certain educational practices offer personally and pedagogically at this time and others like it that may follow?
  • What do higher education pedagogies and curricula look like when underpinned by teaching and learning for uncertainty? 

Within this blog series, this collection is a means of exploring alternative pathways that adopt responsive and creative approaches to teaching, learning and research in higher education for times of uncertainty. Although Covid-19 has been a dominant theme in our lives and has certainly brought uncertainty home to us, the authors in this series broaden our attention beyond the global pandemic, to pressing matters that are not only not going away, but rather have been accentuated in recent months. From the need for greater digital equity to an integrated environmental education to an invigorated fight against the injustice that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students continue to face, this series’ authors tackle the most prominent issues that they are learning about from their very own students.

In her blog, Deirdre McKenna reflects upon her responses to emergency teaching during the lockdown and how student engagement and a sense of belonging and connection can be reconciled in online spaces, given that they already provided reflective practitioners sufficient food for thought in face-to-face spaces. She adopts the reflection-in/on-action to evaluate approaches she took to build rapport with her students online.

Joshua Jodoin argues for sustainable development to become in-built within the very inner workings of language classroom teaching in universities, offering a much-overdue renovation to standard language programme curricula. Acknowledging that this integration takes additional preparation and planning time, the assertion made is one of recognising that renewal in materials development is needed.

Rebecca Page-Tickell invites us to consider the important role of reflection on the sources of effectiveness that are key to building on future capability in using responsive improvisation. This, she suggests, is the balancing act of a number of elements of practice, action and responsiveness of stakeholders. In her insightful discussions on the various types of improvisation from the perspective of organisational management, she ultimately asks us to question how we can build on the lessons learnt in order to fulfil the core purpose of higher education institutions in extending and applying knowledge.

In the next blog, Elizabeth Aylott and Andrew Veasey zoom in on the reality that many university students with autism and other disabilities face during times that have forced them to self-isolate and adapt to studying their degrees online. The authors’ first-person experiences and expertise offer insight in considering the ways in which barriers to learning in higher education sometimes remain invisible, in digital spaces in particular. This is a matter, they assert, of ‘digital equity’.

Ausma Bernotaite writes frankly of the need for educators to come to the realisation that digital engagement within their university courses is not going away. Recognising that this is a learning curve for many higher education institutions and that educators have been ill-prepared to respond to this paradigm shift, she remains optimistic that the key research-based principles of engagement in the context of learning and curriculum design are not only interrelated elements but that they also apply to all types of learning (face-to-face, blended and purely online). The challenge then, she argues, is not only for educators to prioritise student engagement over the learning tools, but also the immense but exciting new paradigm that digital engagement necessitates of educators to develop parallel online teaching philosophies.

Simon Thomas urges us to reposition values before goals in our framing of teaching and learning endeavours in higher education. In this refreshing blog, he argues that this provides a means of getting out of the-serving-outcomes-set-by-distant-others education trap. Essentially, in repositioning values before goals, students are taught to focus on the process of learning rather than on hoped-for results, which in turn offer students a more humane, resilient and autonomous learning experience.

In the following blog, Lisa Giampalma and I unapologetically introduce the physical body into discussions on teaching and learning. We argue that although the role of the physical body is hardly new across a number of fields of study, the field of education has yet to catch up. The overall take-home message is simple: the role of the physical body in teaching and learning is multi-faceted and covers vast terrain, from the crudest level in supporting overall physical fitness, to the finest level of the body being the literal space from which learning is felt as well as thought and then embodied in real life.

Tracy Part connects identity work with the pressing matter of flattening the awarding gap in the UK among BAME university students. Engaging students in identity work, as she argues based on her primary research with initial teacher training (ITT) students, is an oft-overlooked means of getting to the heart of some of the barriers to learning that many of our students continue to face to this today.

Tony Rice asks adult educators to consider promoting the value of ‘the year out’ in ultimately cultivating a self-regulating and self-aware society. By adopting a metaphorical or literal understanding of ‘the year out’, he invites us to learn to listen to our emerging adult students as well as listen and learn from our mature students. He argues that we need to value the nurturing of individuals who are too often under pressure to strive and succeed without the time and reflective space necessarily built-into their transitions from further education college to university study.

In his blog, Godwin Ioratim-Uba is concerned with maintaining a sense of connection with the students in the online space. He offers three tried-and-tested learning delivery options for maintaining a sense of closeness despite the literal distance of teaching and learning on his current online modules. He by no means proposes that the future of higher education is entirely online, but rather offers tangible methods for incorporating authentic voice in the online space to support empathy and engagement.

Finally, to bring this collection to a close, I offer a hopeful critique that Covid-19 has highlighted that what is missing in higher education is not in production, technicism and technological skills but in the authentic formation of being of our students against the backdrop of what are, undoubtedly, no longer just complex times but, rather, super-complex times.