The Participation Pivot

In this post I’m going to try and encapsulate some of my thoughts around what is happening just now in terms of tertiary education, the impact of #lockdown and the apparently all consuming online pivot. This post will hopefully augment and complement a webinar keynote I gave on 6th May for GMIT and their DigitalEd Discovery Series. Many thanks to Carina McGinty for inviting me and allowing me to share a virtual platform with the wonderful Sue Beckingham.

Some of these ideas come from conversations I’ve been having with colleagues across the sector and special thanks to Simon Horrocks, Kerr Gardiner and Louise Drumm for the conversations we’ve had recently.

When I hear or read the words online pivot, I can’t help but think of the Friends episode where “the gang’ are trying to move a sofa up a flight of stairs. Of course, all sorts of hilarity ensues as they try and turn a corner, leading to Ross yelling “pivot”, and  no-one actually knowing where they have to pivot to.  I think it ends with most of the gang walking away and leaving Ross and the sofa. I don’t think we ever really find out just how the sofa actually ends up in Ross’s apartment -but as this is just a TV show it doesn’t really matter. If it were real life, the sofa would either have got damaged/broken or Ross would have maybe hired some professional movers to get the job done.

But back to our current online pivot. I think that this episode or meme does help us think through some of the big questions around the so call online pivot in education.  Crucially in terms of these questions: what is it that is being pivoted? Is it the curriculum, the institution? Our learning environments, our approaches to teaching and assessment? Our learning spaces?  And,  who is being pivoted? Our teaching staff?  Our support staff? Our senior management? our students? Our communities? And does everyone know what their role is in this pivot? Or are they just hearing (seeing) someone constantly yelling “PIVOT” and not being actually sure of where they  (or how) they are supposed to be pivoting they just end up walking away or in our cases not applying to uni/college this year or ever.

If all of the above are being pivoted then there needs to be some really consistent, clearly understood, accessible, inclusive, instructions for the start of the new “old” academic year for all students and staff. Although “the pivot” got the sector through the initial chaos of #lockdown,  that just in time approach isn’t sustainable.

There a number of models out there. This article in Inside Higher Ed presents 15. These are very much based on the American model so a couple of them aren’t really that viable in Ireland and the UK. This article from Laura Czerniewicz also provides an very thoughtful, accessible overview of some of the wider pressures on the sector right now.

I’ve also been discussing various options with colleagues that I’m working with, as well as keeping half an eye on other things that people are sharing but it does seem to me that there is something missing, or perhaps just a bit too hidden, in the current discourse, particularly around our students. The pivot does seem to have been done to them and not with them. This is where why I think we need to start thinking more the about “the pivot” in terms of students.

Already we have 10s of thousands of our current students whose “student experience” has been totally disrupted. Exams in some cases have been cancelled, changed to perhaps open book exams which could be a very different experience, particularly when all submission is online. Access to stable wifi, labs, laptops,  quiet and collaborative spaces on-campus has been abruptly ended, with no clear indication of when or if that will resume. 

Whilst the vast majority of students do have some kind of mobile phone, they don’t all have access to their own laptops at home and with the wider context of lockdown they may very well be negotiating use of a family computer with multiple others – all of whom will have their own priorities. The what and how of student engagement is fundamentally changing and any model we adopt for future delivery has to be cognisant of that.

This week in the UK there has been raft of commentary in the media around the injustice of students in England being charged full fees, but not getting an “real” aka face to face teaching. Of course this highlights a general lack of understanding of what online learning is and the very real role of the teacher and wider development teams in successful online learning.  That urban myth of online being second best is something that needs to busted – that conception that “good” tertiary education is exemplified by the lecture at the front of a large lecture theatre really does need to change, and we all have a role to play in doing that.

So I am  proposing that one way to do that would be to develop some extended discourse around participation. Let’s talk stop talking about the as much about the online pivot and start talking about the participation pivot.

Let’s look at participation and what that means for our students and staff and see if we can use what is happening just now to gain back some time and breathing space for everyone. To do this, I think we really need to be starting by revisiting the notion of the student experience. It’s not going to be what it was for quite some time. The social aspect of college/university is gone for at least the rest of this year if not longer.

This is my starter for 10 on developing a model that allows us to work with students and allows our current context to be a key driver for our curriculum development.

revisiting the student experience

For a starting point I’m suggesting we need to really look at the 1st year experience.  We have a large group of young adults whose lives have been turned upside down. I’m sure many of you are living with that right now. Their exams have been cancelled, they’re dealing with “unusual” marking of class work to get their grades, the whole end of school rites of passage things have been cancelled – not trips away, no house parties, no opportunities to really become yourself, which is key aspect of growing up.

The research from about a decade ago now around the first year experience was about keeping students in first year. Just now it is more about getting students into first year. Why would you go to uni this year when things are so unsettled, you haven’t been able to complete the exams you thought you would ,when you might have to do that “online learning” and all the additional challenges that brings.

So we really need to have a major rethink about induction.  It can’t be just one packed week of online webinars just showing how systems work, there’s not going to be a huge queue of students trying to get their library card, but we need to make sure that there getting user names and passwords is really easy and support is in place for that. 

I think the whole induction notion needs to be extended into a wider change of focus take a more integrated long thin approach rather than the short fat model we are used to. I see this a part of a wider flipping of the curriculum and rethinking of digital and physical spaces and how, when and who interacts in them. 

We need to start redefining and articulating what engagement looks like/is for between staff and students, between students and students and between staff and staff – research, teaching, support, management – everyone. For this to really happen I think there needs to be a refocus away initially for subject/discipline content to the development of digital capabilities. Of course there could a discipline focus here but really I think going back to induction the first term/semester should really be about getting students (and staff) comfortable and familiar with institutionally provided learning and teaching technology and their own “new” learning spaces.  

There is a huge co-production opportunity here to work with students and getting their active input into how and when activities are best delivered.  This could be done through a range of activities that focused on the reality of life for us all just now.

COVID 19 relates to every discipline, and every aspect of our life. We could use this time to develop critical thinking and research skills. Looking to critical pedagogy we could encourage our students (and staff)  to critically engage with the current context of our society and education right now. What about some kind of communal, inter-disciplinary digital research methods module for 1st years? Encourage the development of data literacy skills in the context of the daily government briefings, to ensure students know how to interpret data and question and critique how data is presented to the public. In this scenario, 

Library staff could be far better integrated into course/module development and delivery along with other support service staff.  Get students to develop their digital scholarship capabilities much earlier, and encourage them to develop digital stories using a range of media, and really develop more reflective approaches to learning and assessment. 

Also going back to physical spaces, there are going to be challenges in any return to campus, and use of our spaces in relation to social distancing. There may be opportunities for sharing of space between universities, but I think that there might be an opportunity for universities/colleges to work with the community a bit more here too and students should have a role in this too.

Our campuses are technology rich spaces with wifi (and a superfast network that isn’t being used to capacity right now). Given the inequalities that are being so clearly highlighted just now and the ever increasing reliance on digital interactions for every type of service, would it be possible to open some of our spaces to the community (with safe social distancing measures of course). I ca see some great student project opportunities here . . .working across disciplines, across years . . .

What about some of the huge ethical challenges we are facing around contact tracing and the using mobile apps or fast tracking vaccination research and human testing? I know I feel a sense of powerlessness around these issues and to be honest at times  I feel just  too overwhelmed,  tired and scared to explore and critique more. But that’s what education is for. We need to be providing opportunities for our students to gain a sense of agency around these issues and the world we are all living in right now. To investigate, research, perhaps be part of research teams, to question to critique to develop alternative approaches,  that kind of “real world” learning that in anytime is crucial.  Let’s explore and develop our design approaches with our students and really learn together about what does and doesn’t work in terms of meaningful participation and engagement.

In terms of evaluation, our current module evaluation questions could now be next to useless. So why don’t we use students to actively evaluate the tech we are using? Work out together the affordances of each and combine with data/analytics, think about time online – how long do students want to be in live lecture? The balance of sync/async activities. We’re all experiencing zoom fatigue now so lets ensure the education sector is leading in developing and sharing best practice for new ways of working. Let our students go to employers with really effective, innovative was of working and communication effectively online and offline.

Taking this approach of course wouldn’t be comfortable or easy. But we can’t go back to business as usual – everything has fundamental changed. Why are we trying to replicate a system that is no long fit for purpose? 

However what it might do would be to give us the time to develop a more nuanced understanding of what the student experience is now.  Critique, evaluate that with our students, come to common, shared understandings  of what participation means now, and how to  ensure that we are supporting delivery relevant educational experiences to  what could very well be a lost generation. Allowing them to be as  fully equipped in terms of digital capabilities, reflective and critical thinking skills as they can be so that they can take the lead in how their society/ies develop in the (hopefully) post covid-19 world.

2 thoughts on “The Participation Pivot

  1. I enjoyed this Sheila and resonates with much of my current experience in developing UOB’s ‘pivot’.

    1. thanks Paul, hopefully recording of the presentation will be available soon,though everything that could go wrong tech wise did so not quite sure how it actually went!!

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