We need to talk about “normal”

Six months after we went into full lockdown in the UK, Covid-19 infection rates are rising, we are under restrictions again, and there is a horrible sense of deja-vu in the air. It’s the same but different. The disease seems closer as halls of residence very close to me are shut and students are told to self isolate as hundreds test positive for the virus.  Questions are being raised as to why the halls of residence were allowed to open in the first place, why did universities open when as one student I have just heard on the radio said “we are just getting everything online”  

Meanwhile I’m still watching Battlestar Galactica. I knew there would be more analogies in it! In the opening mini-series, there are a couple of scenes where the new President of the Colonies meets the military leadership of the battleship. Both are hellbent on “getting back into the battle”.  Laura (the President) says ( a bit of paraphrase here)  I don’t know why I have to keep pointing this out to you, but we have lost the war. ( for those of you not familiar with BSG – all 12 planets of “the colonies” have just been well and truly  nuked by the Cylons, and less than 50,000 humans remain alive.  Bare with me there is a point to this!  

As I watch, read and listen to the news, many commentators are pointing out that COVID-19 and halls of residence were a match made in rapid community spread infection heaven so why did unis open them without testing? Why were they hell bent on getting back into battle or “normal” so to speak? I think it’s time to have some serious discussions about what normal actually is in (higher) education.  

I have had a quote above my desk since lock down start, it says “it the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to”.  After some conversations last week I think that perhaps we have rushed back to our formal curriculum (aka normal) without really considering the wider context in which universities are now operating.  

I can see why, the curriculum is a key focal point to getting teaching back on track. After rush of  the great online pivot, the harsh reality of the transitions is suddenly upon. Getting teaching back to as close to normal delivery of the curriculum as possible is an obvious goal, as is getting as many students as safely as possible back in halls and maybe on campus.

I can’t comment with any authority on the situation in halls of residences just now. I’m sure lots of people have worked really hard to make sure that they were as safe as possible for students. Of course universities wanted them to open again – for one thing they need the money as well as start to “get back to normal”. But things aren’t normal just now and they won’t be for quite a while yet. I suspect we will  have at least a year of various levels of lockdown. Even with a decent testing system in place, everyone is liable to be in and out of work/study for the foreseeable future.  

I don’t think our formal curriculum represented this “new normal”.   We need to start planning for now for no exams next year, making provision for alternative assessment method, taking online learning really seriously and exploiting the benefits and flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

In couple of keynotes over the lockdown period, I put forward the notion of rethinking the first year experience to allow students and staff to adapt to our new context. To have a focus on well being, developing digital research skills and capabilities and adjusting and sharing how we can adapt and “be” at university in  our new context, the ever changing “new normal”.  

The experience of university for staff and students is different now.   We need to recognise and develop ways to understand and support a whole new set of seemingly smaller (or micro) transitions we are all making now. For example, the transition from you laptop/phone/tablet on the kitchen table when you are “at uni”, followed the transition from your laptop to your laptop/phone/tablet for catching up with friends and family. Same space and device, completely different context.

Where are the spaces where people switch off, socialise. Where are the “leaky” space and places of the formal and informal curriculum? You know the places where you have those serendipitous discussions about one thing that lead you on a completely different direction for your study/teaching/work.  How open are/can we going to be about what we are doing, what we are learning, what we are really struggling with if we hide behind a drive to deliver the “normal ” formal curriculum.

I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously not working a university just now I fully acknowledge I am removed from the reality on the ground. But I do think that not being obsessed with getting things as close to possible as they were ( but just online!!) isn’t doing anyone any favours. We need to be creating the new narrative about what the university experience is now, not what it used to be.  

We need to be discussing the digital university in a different context now. And dear reader, with my colleagues Bill Johnson and Keith Smyth I am doing exactly that just now so look out for a new publication in the not too distant future

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