Originally Posted to LinkedIn on Thursday 2nd April.
Change is often difficult. Actors who were adored as Vaudeville artists, glamorous or heroic, sounded unconsciously like clowns on the radio or looked clumsy and inarticulate on television. Many fell by the wayside, drifting into obscurity.
Does the current global shift into supporting learners online mean the end of some academic careers? Probably. Some will decide for themselves that they do not want to perform on this new stage, they will miss the smell of musty stage curtains and the face paint, the fever of anticipation, of adulation. There are many who will miss the lack of personal presence of their students enough to think it’s a profession they no longer feel a part of. We, as leaders in tertiary education, whether as team leaders, Heads of Departments, Deans, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Proctors and others, need to understand this.
It is not just about ‘shifting your content online‘, move your weekly lecture into a recorded version of the same or set yourself up with webinar software and substitute your seminar. The change that is being asked of many of our academic colleagues is profound. Most can transition into online delivery, and some will excel at it. Others will not. Both will need support. I want to suggest I may have a tool to help leaders talk through some of the challenges of changing roles with faculty.
A learning model: visualisation
Some years ago, 2011 to be precise, I produced a poster for a conference that mapped roles against a working learning model I had developed over the previous five years. The Student-Owned Learning Engagement model, SOLE for short (with apologies to Professor Sugata Mitra), is designed for course designers to map out their courses to ensure the curriculum is balanced, well-constructed and aligned. It also represents, I believe, an accurate picture of all of the facets of learning that a student should experience for that rounded education we purport to offer. Written on the assumption that courses reflect well-crafted intended learning outcomes across multiple domains of learning, the SOLE Model comes with an open Excel toolkit to support that process. The poster was a visual mapping of the SOLE Model against online and face-to-face spaces (and associated technologies), and the different student support roles that were required.
The details of the SOLE Model are available elsewhere, so I do not think it necessary to unpack it here. Suffice it to say, there are none elements that students need to have addressed in any course design, to varying degrees depending on discipline and level, but all are required. These are illustrated here;
Different spaces, different solutions
Traditional campus-based teaching has undergone a quiet revolution in recent years. Libraries have been at the forefront of developing social spaces, community forums, shared-working clusters, study pods and any manner of imaginative configurations. These designs have been a response to the belief that students want, and expect, to learn socially. Alongside this, there has been a steady number of lecture theatre refits that see u-shaped, parliamentary style, seating configurations rather than straight theatre styles. Seminars rooms are more likely to have reconfigurable desks, chairs on wheels, and writable walls. This has been in the belief that students learn better in cooperation with others rather than being ‘lectured at’. My visualisation against the SOLE Model was about identifying the different types of spaces that support different forms of learning. It was designed to stimulate conversation at my institution about a ‘learning spaces’ strategy. Illustrated below, you can see that I used the SOLE Model to structure this classification of spaces. It is in no way presented as a ‘complete’ list of anything. It is merely a starting point.
What is significant is that in thinking about the changing nature of learning spaces in the face-to-face world and the online environment, seen through the prism of the SOLE Model, it also became apparent that the same thing could be done with respect to those that support learners. Again, the SOLE Model was used to articulate a range of ‘traditional’ academic roles in their face-to-face context, mapped against each element of the Model, and this was then extended to the online world.
I would hope that some fairly apparent conclusions can be drawn from this exercise. The first is that in many institutions, the academic role is incredibly diverse. An individual academic may be course material author, lecturer, seminar lead, supervisor, pastoral carer, coach, marker and personal tutor. In other institutions some of these roles are subdivided and delegated, academics concern themselves primarily to inform-connect-engage, leaving others to assess-feedback. Yet others have groups of staff who support students to collaborate-contextualise-personalise and reflect.
The second thing that becomes evident is that the transition from any face-to-face role into its online substitute (and I carefully avoid the word ‘equivalent’ here) requires a whole range of particular skills to be developed. Going from producing your own in-class PowerPoints with no real concern about the ownership of images grabbed from Google to being a digital curator is for most a steep learning curve. There is no direct equivalency between running a face-to-face seminar from moderating a discussion forum, or between running an in-class role-play scenario and attempting to do the same online over the course of a week.
Yes, they are both teaching. There are still learners, and there is an established curriculum. But there is no smell of the musty curtains or the face paint. There is no bustling of the audience or the adrenalin rush when the lights go up. We, as academic developers, are not just helping people to ‘get their courses online’, we are helping them to redefine what it means to be a contemporary, agile, flexible and multifaceted academic.
If I see another VC or Pro-VC demand that their faculty, ‘just adjust’ and ‘get their courses online’, heckling from above, I am likely, Lord help me, lose it and storm the Royal Box.