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The future of university teaching: opinion

The COVID-19 pandemic led to higher education being moved en masse to remote and online learning in a compressed timeline. Limited returns to on-campus learning are evident depending on disease outbreak levels and health advice in local areas, but the bulk of current university learning continues via digital means for now.

This shift has challenged universities and educators to think about how best to facilitate digitally-mediated learning. I’d suggest we also have an opportunity to re-consider university education a little more broadly.

The pandemic is occurring in the context of increasing global political tensions; shifting economic powers; prevailing societal inequalities; significantly changing social norms; and climate change and environmental and ecological damage that puts our very existence as human beings at risk. Higher education is occurring in the same context.

Having a keen eye on the grand challenges and wicked problems of our times, and on our global context is – or should be – central to the purpose of a university and to its core activity of education.

We’re probably all too busy and exhausted from the demands of coping with the pandemic to think this through carefully right now but I have begun to wonder whether we should at least try to make a start.

Questions in my mind include: Why do universities exist? Do our purposes need to be tweaked or redefined? What should we be doing while we wait for things to return to ‘normal’? Do we want things to return to ‘normal’? If not, what are we doing about changing the course of history?

In 2016, Schleicher suggested we needed to prepare graduates for jobs that have not been created, to use technologies not yet invented and to solve new social problems that have not yet arisen. The potency of ideas like these seems to have been heightened as we watch global movements of various kinds take place and we choose which ones to support and which to resist.

The rapid and ongoing development of new knowledge drives our knowledge-based world. Since it is no longer possible to offer students everything they need to know for the future, some innovative educators have conceived new pedagogies, which leverage modern technologies to engage and interact with current and emerging knowledge.

These new pedagogies help students to find, analyse, evaluate and apply what is relevant to them at the time and for the task or question at hand. These new ways of educating have at their core an increased sharing of power between educator and student. Methods and approaches deployed include discussion groups, peer assessments, using social media and feedback opportunities including students supporting students. Not a lecture in sight. Or if so, it’s pre-recorded and offered as optional background material.

These future-focused pedagogies are a lot about educators becoming innovative and entrepreneurial in the face of our collective large-scale, complex problems as a globally connected set of societies and economies. They are about developing in students the spirit of risk-taking, creative problem-solving and learning from failure so that learners can: be prepared for a complex world; purposefully make judgements and decisions based on changing situations, evolving, incomplete evidence and unpredictable situations; manage their own learning throughout life; and contribute to creating their own futures.

And now all of the above needs to be done online, at least for the moment.

In 2018, the UK Joint Information Systems Committee outlined the required digital capability of educators as incorporating: ICT proficiency; information, data and media literacies; creation, problem solving and innovation ability; the ability to communicate, collaborate and participate, a commitment to learning and development; and an understanding of identity and wellbeing in the digital space.

Simple? Hardly.

And impossible for even the most outstanding educator to undertake and achieve on their own, even with the plethora of existing and new resources on offer to help improve online teaching and learning.

To do all that is required, for the future that is so much more uncertain than it was even a few short months ago, university educators will increasingly need to collaborate. Collaboration with peers in team-teaching, with external associates who bring up-to-date industry, workplace and professional understanding and with librarians, educational designers, digital systems experts, students and work integrated learning specialists will be increasingly necessary to effectively design, build, teach and assess useful university courses.

As the pandemic effects paradoxically appear to shrink and expand time concurrently and many of us begin to think deeply about why we are all here, I’d suggest the fundamental purpose of higher education needs an airing and some re-consideration. We have the necessary resources, incentives and best minds to do this work – it’s a matter or turning our attention to it now.

Marcia Devlin is a former university senior vice-president and senior deputy vice-chancellor.

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