Lockdown is now ten weeks old. Spring has slipped into summer; evenings have lengthened and the days have warmed: last week was glorious May weather. At Sheffield Hallam, as elsewhere, our minds are increasingly turning to the next season, to Autumn and to the new academic year.
We announced last week that the university campus will be open in the Autumn, and that we will be offering students an educational experience on a safe campus supplemented by a technology-enabled remote offer. As with other universities, there is a lot to do to translate a set of detailed programme delivery principles into practice – but we demonstrated our ability to act at speed in the transition into lockdown. Across higher education, in this country and internationally, more and more thinking is going on about what the ‘next normal’ will be like right across the practices and operation of higher education.
Long before lockdown, technology played a vital role in the way undergraduates and postgraduates were taught at Sheffield Hallam. That was true in any number of ways: library materials were increasingly available online, courseware was routinely posted onto the virtual learning environment, assignments were submitted electronically, and, of course staff and students routinely communicated by email or text message. The infrastructure for remote learning was well-embedded. Technology-enhanced learning was a feature of the way we have worked for several years, and the acceleration of mobile learning was seeing a rapid growth in the use of mobile devices for learning and the exchange of information and ideas between staff and students.
COVID-19 has boosted the importance of technology in learning, but the infrastructure was already in place: by comparison, when SARS closed schools and universities in Hong Kong fifteen years ago, almost no provision for remote learning could be made. So it’s all but certain that the step-change in the role of technology which we have seen in the past three months is here to stay. In fact, that’s so obvious a truism that it’s barely worth stating. As ever, the important questions about education and technology are educational, not technological. Advanced learning at university is about much more than the acquisition of information: it’s about testing ideas, exploring difficult concepts, trying out new approaches. It is above all social. The challenge for the ‘next normal’ is to make sure that this interaction and exchange is embedded in high quality relationships. As Sheffield Hallam plans for the Autumn, we will think hard about the way we blend different approaches to shape student learning.
Since learning was already strongly underpinned by technology, it may be that the bigger effects of COVID-19 are on other aspects of the way universities work. Our own staff survey revealed a widespread, though not universal, enthusiasm for greater flexibility to work from home. The way teams operate, and the way decisions are linked up across a big organisation have shifted at speed, and we, like many other organisations are now capturing those experiences to shape future planning. At the beginning of May, I was asked by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) if I’d write a piece on the experience of leadership through lockdown: FETL published my pamphlet Learning, leadership and lockdown just over a week ago. In it I explored my own reflections on leadership, on teams, on organisations and on education systems. I know enough to recognise that few things date more quickly than predictions, so these were early thoughts. I argued that there are conflicting pressures on organisations which could push them in any number of directions, that there have been challenging downsides to remote working, but some real gains, and that the challenge for organisations and leaders will be to use a moment of change for good.
Over the next few weeks and months, as lockdown is cautiously eased, we will want to review any number of the things learnt during this extraordinary period. If you have thoughts on your own learning, do let me know.