The shift to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the experience of blended provision during the staggered ‘return to normal’, has led to enhanced staff competence and confidence with technology, opens a world of options. We are entering a pedagogic future where it is likely to be much more common for on-campus courses to feature substantive remote elements, and where the synchronous elements of a programme may be split between in person and online learning. A range of digital tools became part of the lecturers’ toolkit and the interaction between these and institutional or VLE resources has provided myriad opportunities for engaging learners. In a sense, this is the uncharted territory that was predicted for learning back when web2.0 was a thing. This blog examines how the QA processes of HEIs might be pertinent to evaluating these new possibilities and assuring accessible, equitable, and engaging learning for all.
While there are some, including some in Government, who feel the Ding an sich of University is the in-person, face-to-face experience, much of the HE sector was doing lots of tech-enabled learning, in remote delivery and on campus, before COVID, and remains on that trajectory.
Teaching and Learning Conference 2022
With keynote speakers Shakira Martin, Jeff Grabill and Molly Purcell, this year’s Teaching and Learning Conference (5-7 July, Northumbria University) will focus on teaching in a global context, exploring transitions, curriculum design, enterprise and employability and more to enhance the success of future HE students. Find out more.
Who cares about Quality Assurance anyway?
Why should we turn a QA lens onto remote teaching – as resource and provision – when synchronous face-to-face isn’t subject to scrutiny in this way? The sector has developmental, internal, peer-observation-of-teaching schemes with varying levels of compliance and reporting – but this isn’t always a huge QA focus. The schemes may be looked at during a QAA audit, but the main concern will be elsewhere on the protocols, processes and systems.
‘Protocols, processes and systems’ may sound dull – but actually are at the core of a more equitable and accessible HE experience for students. I have become ever more convinced that what I used to conceive of as a bureaucratic invasion of my creative pedagogic autonomy and spontaneity is actually vital to ensure students have a consistent, fair experience, and that staff have some form of bonded clarity as to the expectations on them and their colleagues.
The UK Quality Code doesn’t say much about what quality teaching looks like, and during a QAA audit, no one watches anyone teach. So, if the live face-to-face remains as an unregulated wild-west of pedagogic liberty (I know this isn’t really true! Custom and practice help deliver a normative experience and even the furniture largely dictates the pedagogy, but you get my point) – why should we worry about QA in relation to what we provide online? In developing or signposting students to online resources there are several potential pitfalls that need to be addressed, either by the individual tutor or by the institution.
Let’s pause and think – what might go on the VLE? This is not just its core tools like quizzes and forums, but much can be signposted via it too: links to videos, either from YouTube or tutor-generated/led video, annotated-with-audio text content, and a whole range of 3rd party tools. What risks to quality and student well-being does this raise? Do students have to give their personal information to 3rd party, non-approved, tool providers, and are students exposed to adverts because a tutor wants to use a ‘free’ service that isn’t part of the University suite of approved e-learning products?
In remote delivery we don’t have all the performance queues we have in person. When teaching live, often without it registering consciously, I am using subtle body-language and other feedback from my audience to regulate and adapt my delivery. I reiterate things, or speed up, speak up, pause to trigger attention, and deploy a variety of rhetorical techniques that teachers learn as core to their craft. In a recorded lecture, for example, I am cut adrift. No one laughs at my hilarious asides (they don’t anyway, but that’s another story) – so how do I cope without the subtle and less subtle feedback loops that inform my in-person practice? The full answer is longer than the ambitions of this post – but this is an area where HEIs can offer guidance (even a how-to guide) that instructs its tutors on how to use chunking, structure, repetition points, and links to other documents, to make sure remote lectures are engaging, efficacious and, most importantly of all, used by students.
Is there equivalence between what one tutor is asking students to do in their independent learning time and what others are asking? Taking a holistic approach across programme teams allows us to understand programmes or courses from the experiential standpoint of those taking them, and highlights the need for a certain level of consistency to pervade the provision.
What QA can’t do is to solve all these issues. It cannot fix the broken thing that is the internet. But there is much that QA can do: HEIs can and should develop guidance on the matters I have raised here. This/these documents then form part of the quality regime of the HEI, and can be shown to auditors, and compared between HE providers. They should also form part of the offer to students, so they know what to expect – and what the expectation is from them as independent learners. So, what questions might such policy documents consider?
- Where/how recordings are made: from virtual/actual background to length, to how many per CATs point. Should recordings be made in a bespoke on-line location? What limits/leeway is granted in these choices?
- What processes and checks should apply when using tools beyond HEI-approved/sourced ones – or should they not be used at all?
- What information are students asked to provide in using/registering for online tools- is there some data they shouldn’t be asked or expected to share?
- Is there a limit on students’ re-use/sharing of content – where students might download content and then share it beyond the institution (rules about these are often implicit but not always in lecture capture policies which may need updating)
- What is expected of staff – and where to stop (equity/workload between colleagues)
- What if a student doesn’t want to interact? What are the HEI’s digital engagement policies?
We will be offering more modes of learning and more choice in how students interact with their discipline, their peers and their tutors. The norms of remote delivery are not yet established, although the technologies we deploy are almost as old as our first year students – YouTube is 17 years old, Twitter is 16, and MOOCs began their ‘disruption’ of Higher Education over a decade ago. We have a closing window of opportunity to establish some good practice, take a moment to consider the what, how, and why of our work.
Writing policies might not sound innovative – but in this area, there is a genuine need to ponder our practice, safeguard the student experience, and ensure planned and equitable staff expectations and development. This is not a limiting of innovation, but providing a frame for it, to mitigate the risks outlined here, while allowing us as a sector, and as individual practitioners, to make the most of all the opportunities face-to-face and remote delivery offer us as educators.
David Webster can be found on his website, www.davidwebster.org, and on his Twitter page, @davidwebster.
Flexible and Hybrid Leadership Programme
Supporting those leading large teams or departments in providing connected leadership in a more challenging, flexible or hybrid workplace. Starting 8 November 2022 with three half-day virtual modules. Find out more.