In so many contexts and conversations we hear about educational innovations or academic wins that are born out of pandemic and battling its limits. Examples include holding a class with students and guest speakers around the world and recording it so more students can watch it later; or using more authentic activities for assessment of student learning, which in turn promotes academic integrity. Without getting into a lengthy discussion on terms such as “innovation” and what it may or may not constitute, here I share my 2 cents on what I think is the main silver lining of pandemic for higher education at this time – December 2021 to be exact.
COVID-19 has forced a critical mass of practitioners (in this case learners, educators, and institutional leaders) to imagine ways that were outside their comfort zones. Further, they had to enact and enable what they began to, or were told to, imagine. Looking to the future, as uncertain as it is, they do not want to lose all that they have invested in, refined, and gained.
Speaking from my understanding of Canadian higher education, long before pandemic, we knew that authentic assessments are better than exams that have no similarity to what a learners is preparing to do in a work place; however, there were limited pockets of action on this knowledge. Similarly, we have known about the power of synchronous (audio/visual/text) communication tools in collaboration, dialogue, improving access and removing geographical boundaries. Pockets of practice based on this knowledge were even smaller than the assessment example. Why was that?
I think the “we who knew” and was willing to abandon their age-old habits, adopting new practices with un-charted consequences, was a small group. They usually consisted of some (but not enough) faculty members, academic researchers, and educational developers. In fortunate situations there would be a handful of people in leadership roles among the “knowing we”. More often than not, the “knowing we” did not have support and resources required to act on the best practices they knew and believed in.
Pandemic created a fight or flight situation. Besides health, for every person in higher education a very valuable part of their being was at stake; be it their career, their livelihood, their academic life, future dreams, or survival of their institution. The air of desperation and the need for survival provided enough force to push everyone out of their comfort zones and try other ways. I use the terms other or alternative ways and don’t call them novel, because they existed long pre-March 2020. Some of these practitioners realized the alternatives were better ways; others were completely left behind. Some continue to struggle, and some are more than ever certain these alternatives don’t work for their contexts.
To enable the alternative ways, tech companies responded to the need and came up with or refined tools that are more reliable, more suited to the needs of educational environments, and more inclusive. Their iterative development process picked up the pace as they enjoyed a massive number of users and feedback loops. For an effective learning experience, technology has to follow the lead of methodology, and arguably, this seem to be happening during pandemic more than before. Educational institutions have assumed more leadership in saying what their needs are, instead of hopelessly adopting, and soon abandoning, tools that were originally designed for business environments. On the other hand, I have noticed tech companies listening better, and producing solutions to meet real educational needs.
Reflecting on health, climate and other challenges of recent years, it is safe to say we need to prepare for, and mitigate, local and global disruptions to education in the coming decades. In fact, without continuity in research and education how are we to face, alleviate, and survive such problems? I dare to push the envelope and argue that not only we need to ensure continuity of education in our country, but also need to aid our colleagues in the developing world; countries that do not have the wealth, infrastructure and leadership to fend for their own educational systems. COVID-19 has shed new light on the notion of living in the global village. We cannot live in equilibrium in our corner of the village while there is turmoil in another corner.
To conclude, we have an opportunity to cease, as a critical mass of practitioners in higher education are using a multitude of technology, creating alternative, mostly online, learning experiences. They provide a rich pool of stories and data that can be studied and used to pave the way for more effective and more accessible environments for construction of knowledge. Though I hope we do not face another catastrophe of this magnitude, if it does happen, would we be able to say we used this chance well to prepare and ensure continuity of learning for the future generations of our village?