The challenge for HE leaders – wellbeing and inclusion in the age of blended learning

It’s self-evident that the pandemic facilitated – or accelerated – changes to learning and teaching. But what type of changes, and on what scale? – Writes Wonkhe’s Debbie McVitty in a landmark research piece published today.

In the autumn, supported by our partners Kortext, we set out to capture the views of leaders of learning and teaching – specifically, deputy and pro vice chancellors, deans of faculty and heads and directors of learning and teaching at institutions across the UK – those who could be counted on to have an institutional insight that spanned the breadth of disciplines and the different facets of learning and teaching strategy.

Our research suggests that for leaders the pandemic raised or intensified serious strategic questions – on wellbeing, on digital infrastructure, on pedagogy – but offered few conclusive answers. Leaders are in a process of working through their thinking; indeed the very idea of “strategy” as a fixed, time-bound set of objectives was frequently challenged in our discussions as being inappropriate to the current moment.

The leaders we engaged with expect a significant degree of change in learning and teaching in the next five to ten years, with changes anticipated to staffing, technology, the physical estate, administrative infrastructure, culture, and resourcing. Four in five (80 per cent) agree that post-pandemic most institutions will aim to adopt a more blended approach to learning.

The pandemic has in some ways disrupted established practice and made visible what might be possible – unleashing student (and staff) expectations of greater choice and flexibility in how learning and teaching happens, but raising clear challenges about how to build a more integrated student learning experience that can support inclusion, wellbeing, and student engagement.

While university leaders are keen to take advantage of the opportunity to innovate, there are cultural and structural barriers to change, and tensions between a drive towards flexibility and choice, and protecting the quality and overall coherence of the student experience. Learning from the impact of the “quick fixes” of the pandemic needs now to be applied to reshaping student learning experiences for the longer term, and this will take time.

It is clear that the learning and teaching leaders who engaged with our research are highly attentive to the lives and experiences of the students their institution is teaching. “Student expectations” was cited as a key influencer of change by nearly all participants, and leaders’ strategic thinking is informed by efforts to make sense of qualitative and quantitative student feedback to understand those expectations in depth.

Discussion revealed that most leaders are wrestling with the tensions between their aspiration for every student to experience their learning as personally enriching, within a supportive learning environment, and the challenge of building cross-institutional systems that can achieve this at the scale required, with the resource available.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that four fifths would like to see more support from government and regulators to help them meet expectations for a high quality student experience – though only eight per cent agree that the policies of the government and regulator in their nation are closely aligned with their institutional aims for learning and teaching.

While it is reasonable for arm’s length regulators and policymakers to expect autonomous universities to manage their own affairs, there may be space for a deeper and better informed analysis that recognises some of these cross-cutting sectoral challenges in the wake of the pandemic and seeks to co-produce coordination and insight on solutions rather than merely setting a performance bar. After all, how the sector responds to the challenges it is facing will affect the achievement of the policy priorities that policymakers and universities fundamentally share.

The Westminster government, in particular, rather than demanding that universities return to face to face teaching at all costs, might serve students’ interests more effectively by working with the regulator and universities to ensure the policy environment is favourable to universities building the kind of integrated, digitally-enabled, inclusive student learning environment that can support a diversity of students and that can scale to future student demand.

Research methodology

We distributed a very short survey to capture something of the scale and nature of planned strategic changes to learning and teaching, and followed up with three focus groups in January 2022 on the themes we felt were emerging.

We received 66 responses to the survey, representing insight from at least 55 different institutions of which all but one were non-private providers.

Of the 66 respondents 40 were at senior/executive level, 21 were faculty or subject cluster leaders, and five had a professional leadership role. To keep the survey short we didn’t ask about other demographic characteristics as our sampling was based on role rather than personal profile.

Of the 55 universities represented, 18 were research-intensive, 31 modern, four specialist and one private/independent, with one not specified. 44 were located in England, six in Scotland, two in Northern Ireland, and one in Wales. One further institution was active across the UK.

Once we had closed the survey we contacted those who indicated an interest in taking part in a follow-up conversation to join one or more of three focus groups held in January 2022 to explore themes arising from the survey in more depth. Twelve individuals from eleven universities took part in the focus groups.

In our view this sample is sufficient to give insight into general trends, especially where we saw high levels of consistency across responses. But we’d caution heavily against drawing specific sector-wide conclusions from our data – or assuming that the views of leaders will remain fixed for a significant period.

Student expectations are driving change

Around three quarters of survey respondents anticipate significant change to learning and teaching in their context over the next five to ten years, with a further one in six expecting radical transformation.

Though few say they are tearing up their strategy and starting again as a response to the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly a third said that they have identified some areas where they need to change their existing approach, and more than 40 per cent have brought in new objectives or activities.

When asked what the most significant influencers of learning and teaching change are in their context, 97 per cent of respondents selected “student expectations”, 80 per cent selected “pedagogic innovation”, and 76 per cent “technological innovation”.

In your view, which of the below are the most significant influencers of teaching and learning change (%)?

While other influencers are perceived as influential, none of these come close to the top three. Even government and regulator policies were seen as influential by only 42 per cent of respondents, and “developments at competitor universities” was selected by less than a quarter or respondents (23 per cent).

We convened a focus group on the theme of “student expectations” because (notwithstanding we included it in our list of options for our survey) it’s a rather nebulous concept. We wanted to understand how leaders understand the idea of “student expectations” – the range of expectations from diverse student bodies, how these expectations are expressed, and how their expression informs strategic decision-making.

In exploring the idea of student expectations influencing change, there’s a sense among leaders that in the classic innovation sense, the pandemic acted as a “disruptor” of established ways of doing things. Teaching staff adopted innovations that worked for them in the moment, and students worked to the best of their ability with what was available – creating a “mishmash of coping responses” rather than well-defined modalities, as one attendee explained.

The result is not that the established approach to teaching has permanently changed, exactly, it’s that students (and academics) have seen what is possible and expect a larger degree of choice, flexibility, and personalisation in their learning and teaching.

For example, students may want to study one module almost entirely remotely, but attend in person for another, or may expect technologies like digital simulations that were originally adopted as an alternative to established teaching and learning to remain as a supplementary feature of their post-Covid learning environment.

Before, most of our students were splitting into easy groups – now they are individualised. They want a personalised experience. Distinctions are being drawn at division and sub-faculty level. We can’t put that back in the bottle. This was happening already but once we started discussing how to do things in the pandemic it surfaced all these new possibilities and gave people permission to want them.

The problem, of course, is that not every student wants the same thing. The lack of commonality of language about “blended” “hybrid” and “remote” learning has created additional “complexity of expectation”, as one attendee put it. And leaders worry that simply trying to meet these demands could have serious pedagogical consequences, potentially changing the character of their institutions.

One attendee reported that when students were given the choice last year fewer than expected chose to return to campus, but those that chose not to discovered in the course of the year that they did not get on very well with remote learning:

There’s lots of talk about personalisation, choice – but not a lot about how we support students to make those choices and how they know what a good learning experience might be.

Leaders tended to agree that universities need to be clear about how learning and teaching is structured and why – setting limits to expectations, as well as being transparent about what may not be on offer at a particular type of institution, and not always assuming that “flexibility” is necessarily the goal.

But there was also recognition that within the broad strategic parameters there needs to be an active and ongoing conversation with students within disciplines that allowed the discussion of expectations within an ethos of care and attention to student feedback, and efforts to build a common pedagogic language with students within which expectations can be processed and made sense of.

I think an institutional position is important, but even more important is individual staff confidence in being able to respond constructively to student questions and challenges. The kiss of death in terms of student satisfaction is, I think, a lecturer telling them ‘we do it this way because that’s what the Exec has told us to do’!

The goal is a continuous feedback loop – we take the temperature of students in a variety of ways but it has to be ongoing because it changes for different cohorts and for different student experiences. The challenge is how we link up iterative understanding of student experience into our student experience strategy, which can be quite fixed.

Building a picture of strategy

Our sense of “strategy” when we created the survey was relatively simple: identify specific challenges, set priorities for change, and create the conditions for change by addressing any underpinning infrastructural or enabling areas that, if not reformed, could prevent change from happening. With that in mind we asked three questions that each related to one of these aspects of strategy.

Overall we found that the range of challenges, the number of strategic priorities, and the degree of infrastructural change anticipated corresponds to leaders’ sense that the learning and teaching landscape is likely to change significantly over the next five to ten years.

We asked what particular challenges leaders are facing in their context that could affect learning and teaching strategy. Student academic engagement and performance (including awarding gaps) was selected by two thirds (64 per cent) of respondents. Teaching quality was also popular, selected by 58 per cent. Student progression into graduate level employment was chosen by just over half (52 per cent), and half also cited student financial struggles as being a concern. Fewer than a quarter cited cultural debates, such as clashes over freedom of speech, or industrial relations.

Next we asked respondents about what they consider to be an essential strategic focus for them in the current year. Here the picture was more consistent, with “advancing or embedding quality, diversity, and inclusion” and “student wellbeing and mental health” selected by 82 per cent and 80 per cent of respondents respectively. Curriculum development was selected by nearly three quarters (74 per cent).

Leaders appear to have a lot of different priorities on their plates – in addition to inclusion, wellbeing, and curriculum more than half of respondents selected pedagogy, assessment, flexible learning engagement, improving students’ “customer journey”, building a more integrated digital learning environment, use and application of student learning engagement data, access and widening participation, and student academic voice.

Which of the following do you consider to be essential strategic focus for you this year as a leader of learning and teaching (%)?

Lastly, we asked what degree of change leaders anticipate in various enabling areas that create the conditions for moving forward with their strategic priorities, on a scale of one to five. Again, of seven defined areas, more than half of respondents selected four or five in each case, suggesting a significant amount of change is anticipated across the board.

Using the numbers of those who selected four or five as an indicator, technology emerged as the area where the greatest degree of change is expected, followed by resource, and then culture.

Thinking about the conditions for moving forward with your strategic priorities, what scale of change do you think will be needed in each of the following enabling areas?
Thinking about the conditions for moving forward with your strategic priorities, what scale of change do you think will be needed in each of the following enabling areas?

We can’t say whether these findings represent a post-pandemic shift in strategic approach but there is strong resonance with some of the key issues that have emerged during the pandemic, particularly the pressures the pandemic put on student wellbeing, inclusion, and academic engagement, and the sense of a shift towards a wider use of digital technology as an enabler for learning.

To explore these themes further we convened two further focus groups: one on student wellbeing and inclusion; and one on building an integrated and seamless learning journey.

Wellbeing and inclusion

On wellbeing and inclusion – acknowledging that these are not the same issue, but that there is a degree of overlap in how institutions might think about and address them in a learning and teaching context – we wanted to understand the link between efforts on wellbeing and inclusion, and learning and teaching, the approach to integration and embedding of these cross-cutting themes into curriculum and pedagogy, and explore whether leaders considered technology an enabler in this particular area.

Leaders agreed that wellbeing and inclusion are vitally important, affecting all aspects of student experience, with “belonging” a useful linking concept. Attendees were positive about the range of initiatives, networks, and activities emerging from subject areas such as disabled staff networks or efforts to diversify curricula – and they felt that positive small changes such as ensuring EDI is addressed as a substantive item in university committees rather than consistently appearing at the bottom of the agenda were making a difference to overall awareness of the issues.

Several were taking steps to reconfigure specialist staff roles around students’ needs, coordinate action around cross-cutting issues like access and participation, and building additional professional wellbeing support into academic departments. However, there was also a sense that it is difficult to turn positive initiatives into significant culture change.

Several had sobering stories to tell about reading NSS open comments from the 2020-21 academic year, that increased their sense of a need for a culture shift:

We really missed the relational and we’d got that wrong in terms of how we spoke to students, what we allowed. We hadn’t found ways of working with them – like all of us they don’t want to just be listened to, they want to feel heard and valued.

Our NSS results were very patchy on whether students are feeling part of a community. Where people are getting higher scores there are clear synergies – it’s about involving students, not just doing stuff to them. We’re now doing some things looking at the practical and cultural application of this insight.

In the course of the conversation the idea of a need to increase “literacy” in discussions of belonging, wellbeing, and inclusion emerged. Attendees suggested that there is a gap between disciplines and professional areas in terms of their levels of sophistication and confidence to address wellbeing and inclusion.

In the case of module or course leaders who are earlier in their EDI journey “being hit with a moral and ethical responsibility could be overwhelming” and could prompt “reaching for overly simple solutions.” And in the case of those whose disciplinary expertise has bred a more complex and sophisticated analysis of social injustice, a highly theory-informed approach risks leaving all but the most engaged students behind and excluding them from the conversation.

As one attendee commented: “Academic language and language around programmes and courses can be very excluding to students. If we think about university as a big community of practice we immediately exclude a lot of people from participating in that.” Another attendee observed that universities could consider thinking more about students’ personal skills on entry, as well as their prior academic achievements, and building support for personal skills development into transition.

Technology was thought to be helpful both in offering a diversity of “entry points” for students to engage and seek support, and in generating data that could help build a picture of patterns of student engagement.

Rather than an imagined hybrid-by-default learning environment for all students, there was greater emphasis on the value of remote learning engagement for particular groups of students, for example, students engaged in work-based learning, or students studying internationally.

Attendees also emphasised that technology would not offer straightforward solutions to, for example, the challenge of working out the role of personal tutors in supporting student wellbeing – it could only ever be part of the puzzle.

A seamless and integrated learning journey

The idea of a seamless and integrated student learning journey brings together some of the different priorities survey respondents identified that seem to resonate with each other: building a more integrated digital learning environment, improving students’ “customer journey”, use and application of data on student learning engagement, and flexible learning engagement. Rather than discussing the whole basket, or getting bogged down in questions of flexibility and choice, we decided to focus on seamlessness and integration as features of a high quality learning environment.

It also acknowledges that, as one attendee explained, given that belonging cannot be manufactured, and some students will inevitably face serious challenges in the course of their learning journey – removing structural barriers to student engagement and catching issues where they arise is the other side of the coin of proactive culture change, and essential for student wellbeing.

Where they can’t forgive us is where the support is not there when they need it. We need to not bounce them around or pass them from team to team for different functions.

Another observed:

When students need seamlessness it’s normally when they are in a vulnerable place.

While in theory digital technologies that facilitate interaction with students and collate information about them should create efficiencies, the reality is that it is highly challenging to connect one thing to another and build the processes around them that creates the effect of seamlessness.

Attendees had multiple instances of failures to connect that created disjunctions in the systems: students studying combined honours degrees falling between two schools; assessment and feedback processes bypassing personal tutors who could in theory help the student make sense of their feedback; and gaps in provision of services for specific issues such as students experiencing poor mental health, or sexual violence or misconduct.

One attendee confessed to having run a scenario exercise in which it transpired that a hypothetical student who was having trouble would automatically receive an overwhelming number of emails in a short space of time. Another reported the words of a head of department colleague who spoke nostalgically about their old hard copy filing system – because you could be confident that all the information you needed about a student would be gathered in one place.

Clearly the issue is not the technology per se – though some attendees acknowledged from bitter experience that rolling out new systems tends to require much more resource, thinking, and staff development than might have been optimistically hoped at the start of the process.

But the complexity and scale of many contemporary institutions – especially those that have expanded in the last few years – combined with poor quality or out of date legacy systems, a lack of clarity about what future needs are likely to be, the sheer lack of time and headspace to give these questions the attention they deserve, and even the increased vulnerability of universities to cyber attack, can make universities’ engagement with technology a fraught affair.

As one attendee summed up:

There’s never a time to do the updates you want to do – and there’s no single silver bullet. If we thought that existed we’d probably take the risk and go for it, but the reality is you end up getting a consultant in and fixing a few things till the next problem comes up.

While a broad takeaway from the conversation was that university leaders are still very much on a learning journey of their own when it comes to creating the sort of seamless student experience they aspire to, another was the value of, as one attendee put it, “walking a day in students’ shoes” to experience the real impact of some of these disjunctions.

This insight was grounded, in the words of one attendee, in the understanding that “the learner or user experience is a relational one” – student communication is not only about the transfer of information but about “how we value them, how we make them feel.”

As one attendee, whose area of academic expertise has resonance with the topic, explained:

My background is to try to understand what things look like for the user – and as universities we are nowhere near as good at doing that as we should be – or at trying to understand why we have things or things have ended up a certain way. At the end of the day students don’t really care how we do things as long as they feel looked after.

In other words, even in a more blended future, the centrality of community and care to learning and teaching strategy will be the big takeaway from learning and teaching leaders’ pandemic experience.

This article was written by Debbie McVitty and is published in association with Wonkhe.
Download the full survey demographics and responses.
Find out more about how Kortext can support you in building a seamless learning experience.

 

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