As we find ourselves in lockdown, with a pivot online on the horizon, what really matters is not the mastery of technology, but a focus on the development of skills and understanding, avers Erik Blair
Higher education had been on the threshold of technological change for decades. Then suddenly, overnight, the revolution happened. Or more correctly, the revolution was thrust upon us, as the COVID-19 lockdown threw a spanner in something that had been relatively steady for hundreds of years. Overnight, teaching and learning went online (and some companies’ stock went through the roof). What had once been in the background was now cast into the light, and the age of online teaching and learning had arrived. For a while there was a feeling that online teaching would be the new normal, but then universities started to shift back to face-to-face teaching. We had learned to flip, now we are beginning to flip back!
With the start of the new academic year, universities set out social distancing measures to allow students safely back on campus; hand-washing stations were introduced; one-way systems were set out; and campuses were sanitised, screened, and bubbled. But back on campus, we are now in the midst of a second lockdown, and the likelihood of another flip back online in December. How can higher education (HE) maintain quality and rigour in teaching and learning if we are constantly on the verge of lockdown and quarantine? The answer is to shift our thinking from worrying about the tools of teaching to focussing on the processes of learning.
If we continue to see online teaching and face-to-face teaching as two opposing forces, then we run the risk of focussing on the adjectives rather than the verbs – and both ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are definitely ‘doing’ words. Two recent literature reviews on the issues with online versus face-to-face education support the argument that we should focus on the activities of teaching and learning rather than the place where this activity occurs. A systematic literature review of online educational tools found six key issues that influenced academics’ adoption: faculty member’s interactions with technology, academic workload, institutional environment, interactions with students, the instructor’s beliefs about teaching, and opportunities for professional development. Apart from the first of these issues, the remaining five will be familiar gripes for anyone who has spent time in HE and are certainly not unique to the online world. Likewise, a review of literature on issues with online education highlighted that the biggest barrier for students was participation, and for teachers it was finding an effective teaching style. Interestingly, the solutions they find in the literature are described as being “long-standing face-to-face principles… [where]… interaction must be on a human level.” According to the literature, the key to maintaining quality and rigour in teaching and learning on the verge of lockdown is not to create new mechanisms but to focus on the underlying principles of teaching and learning.
this is the moment to reflect on the fundamental underpinnings of teaching rather than the tools of delivery
Shifting our thinking
Teaching on the verge of future lockdowns means that we need to learn to switch between online and face-to-face modalities. So perhaps, this is the moment to reflect on the fundamental underpinnings of teaching rather than the tools of delivery. Face-to-face and online teaching are simply conduits; they, themselves are not what really matters. Instead of over-examining the modes of teaching, there needs to be greater emphasis on how HE can best support the three pillars of successful teaching and learning: knowledge, skills and understanding.
Knowledge is always in the higher education spotlight, but it needs to share this spotlight. Knowledge is created in HE; it is recorded, codified, and distributed. It is what HE institutions are good at. But students also need the analytical skills to pick apart this knowledge – to challenge existing norms and create new ways of knowing the world around us. In supporting our students to be critical thinkers – sharing with them the skills of analysis and critique – we support our students to develop an understanding of the world they live in. Successful pedagogy involves worrying less about the tools we might use in our teaching and focussing more on the skills that students are expected to demonstrate and the depth of their understanding.
Skills and understanding
Shining the spotlight on skills and understanding may make future flips more purposeful for students and more enjoyable for staff. Skills and understanding can be developed through getting students to ask questions, work with others, listen with purpose, give individual and group presentation, feedback on each other’s work, and critically examine materials. These techniques are broadly constructivist and are rooted in the human need to make sense of the world around us. Through engagement, interaction, and questioning, we can support students to develop their meaning-making skills in any environment.
What I am suggesting is the opposite of spoon-feeding. Spoon-feeding is knowledge-focussed, and it robs our students of the gift of enquiry. Instead, we should consider under-helping students – leaving knowledge just out of reach, so that students need to develop the means to access it. Giving them support, but also giving them a challenge. In addressing this challenge, they will become more critically engaged.
we should consider under-helping students – leaving knowledge just out of reach, so that students need to develop the means to access it
Here are three easy wins that will work face-to-face and online and focus on the use of questions to develop critical thinking:
- Start class with a few tricky questions. Many colleagues might use closed questions at the start of a seminar to ‘warm students up’. But starting with closed questions gives the implicit message that the session will be focussed on getting the ‘right’ answer rather than exploring possibilities. Starting with more abstract questions suggests that, “Today we will be thinking!”
- Ask questions that develop critical thinking rather than knowledge retention. Avoid questions that focus on ‘what?’ and introduce more questions that focus on ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ Try starting your questions with phrases such as “How does…?”, “Why might…?” or “How could…?”
- End sessions by drawing together knowledge, skills and, understanding. Plan time for student reflection and self-analysis – closing each session with three questions for students to reflect on: What did I learn today? How will I use this learning in the future? How does this link to previous sessions?
Ready to go either way
Focussing on the development of skills and understanding – rather than on the modes of teaching – gives academic teaching staff a sense of constancy as we teach on the verge of lockdown. Placing the critical agency of students at the heart of teaching and learning means that academic teaching staff can focus on developing active learning no matter the mode of teaching. Where, beforehand the emphasis may have been on passing on knowledge, we now need to ask more fundamental questions: What skills do I hope to develop in my students? How will I support student understanding?
Reflection on the underpinnings of learning is the secret to successful teaching in HE. What really matters in online and face-to-face teaching is not the mastery of specific teaching tools, but gaining an understanding of the student experience. A focus on developing skills and understanding in all environments will bring steadiness. Which is just what you need when you stand on the verge.
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
Image credit: LSE/Nigel Stead