Around the country, children have returned to school and students are returning – or starting – university. The pandemic may not be over, but many semblances of normality are returning. It’s been a long time for all of us, but if you are a young person, the last eighteen months has been a huge proportion of your life. It’s been time that you’ve not been able to enjoy the company of your friends, to explore your world, to learn in company – to do any of the things which, as we all know, make for your childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. There’s nothing any of us can do to give the young the last eighteen months back. The recognition that Covid cases might spike, that difficulties might lie ahead, is never far from any of our minds – even if the stunning success of the vaccination programme has made an enormous difference and has made so many more things possible for us all.
What we can do, however, is to recognise young people’s understandable desire for some of the things they have missed: the opportunity to get out and explore, perhaps to push the boundaries, the opportunity to learn, work, and, yes, play with their peers. And perhaps above all, the enormous desire for community. There’s a wide range of survey data which tells us that it’s this last which young people want above all: to feel a valued part of a community.
There’s been a good deal of coverage in the press recently about what university teaching might look like as we emerge from the pandemic. Some universities have attracted widespread negative headlines because they are reported to be planning to “keep lectures online”. To almost anyone who works in a university, these headlines are extra-ordinarily irritating. They are irritating because of the implications that “lectures” are the only, or even the main way students learn at university. They are irritating because they ignore the enormous progress universities have made in deploying technology imaginatively to support teaching — usually in close discussion with student representatives.
Universities, as I’ve written before, are exceptional places partly because they are capable of brilliant teaching at the forefront of knowledge, partly because they undertake ground-breaking research, partly because they provide young people with horizon-widening opportunities to work with others, undertake challenging placements and to integrate travel with learning, partly because they are embedded in their communities with volunteering, sports and cultural programmes. But what makes universities special is the way they combine these things. Of course we teach through lectures – but we also teach through seminars and workshops, in labs, studios and editing suites, through volunteering and placement activities – and so on and so on. It’s the way these things combine which makes universities what they are.
Earlier this year, when we began to work closely with our academics on planning for the new academic year, we realised that any planning which focused just on “lectures”, or on the balance between in-person and technology-supported teaching was unhelpful. So, in the Spring, we undertook a wide-ranging piece of work to develop a “common language” for teaching and learning at Hallam. It tries to describe in simple language what makes up the learning experience for our students, whether in nursing or cyber-security, engineering or history, social work or art, design or mathematics, performance or bioscience – that is, right across the full range of our portfolio. We identified five elements to the way students learn. At the core is in-person teaching, in face-to-face seminars, tutorials, lectures, demonstrations and practical teaching sessions, taught and led by an academic member of staff, technical or industry expert. Secondly, students learn through applied learning in our specialist spaces using technical equipment. This includes workshops, editing suites, labs, studios, fieldtrips and so on, normally with or alongside peers. This learning is supported or supervised by academic or our amazing technical staff. It is learning which includes practicing skills and equipment use, developing clinical skills, creating and building artefacts, fieldwork and visits. Thirdly, students learn through work-related learning including real and simulated placements, because work-related learning is embedded in all our first-degree programmes. Fourthly, students learn independently in libraries and other private study settings, individually or in groups building growing resilience and autonomy in learning. And, yes, finally, and importantly, students learn through remote learning using technology. This learning can be at a distance to the classroom and may use remotely provided learning materials: it is learning for the smartphone generation – anytime, anywhere.
This is a rich learning environment, and a long way from the crude idea of “lectures staying online”. I’ve always been passionate about learning, about improving and enhancing learning, and we owe it to this generation of learners to make their experience of learning as lively, engaging, rewarding, exciting and challenging as it can possibly be.