Walking into my building just prior to New Zealand’s most recent heightened alert levels, I found students and staff alike were cramming in a last bit of social contact before the one metre rule came into effect.
I passed post-grad students on the stairs popping onto campus to collect their laptop or headphones, anxiously asking each other how they were doing.
It’s not like universities haven’t been preparing for the possibility of a return to emergency remote learning, but the sudden change in alert levels still came as a shock.
As universities return for the final months of the academic year, it’s important we recognise the challenges ahead. The re-emergence of COVID-19 community transmission in Aotearoa shows how tenuous our circumstances are. It’s becoming apparent the world will be living with this for some time, so the need to be flexible and adaptable is coming into clear focus.
Aside from all the logistical demands of the new normal, we need to listen to student voices more than ever. As the OECD has noted, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected young people, and they must be adequately represented in our responses and recovery.
Can do better
The change in alert levels meant the sudden closure of Auckland’s several university campuses and no more scheduled teaching for the duration. Remote learning via online materials, recorded lectures and online classes has become the norm.
Even in the rest of New Zealand, where the alert level was lower, university life was affected.
Strategies ranged from moving lectures online (but continuing small specialist teaching), limiting numbers in lectures while encouraging online participation, or blending organised classes and remote learning.
But not everyone has appreciated these initiatives or their implementation. New Zealand Union of Students Association (NZUSA) president Isabella Lenihan-Ikin criticised universities for not consulting more with those at the sharp end of the changes – the students.
Lockdowns reinforce inequality
Te Mana Ākonga (the National Māori Tertiary Students Association) and the New Zealand Union of Students’ Association conducted rapid research on the impacts of COVID-19 on the work, personal and learning lives of students during the lockdown.
The picture that emerged indicated increased stress and anxiety, much of it caused by uncertainty over finances and the future. This won’t necessarily have abated during the 100 COVID-free days prior to the second outbreak.
Students are not a homogeneous group and online learning is not the same for everyone. So it wasn’t surprising to find issues of access and equity emerging.
The lockdown highlighted inequalities in the personal circumstances of students that affected a range of things: reliability of internet access, the ability to structure and manage their learning, and a lack of social connection and support.
When I checked with my students during a Zoom video class in the middle of lockdown, they indicated motivation, time management and routine, home life (including family responsibilities) and lack of social opportunities as key challenges.
Again, these issues won’t have changed just because we are now more experienced at the rapid pivot to online learning.
Online lectures work
The crisis has given students a glimpse into a blended and flexible teaching and learning environment and what might be possible. They are keen to explore how the successful elements from this experience might enhance the conventional on-campus environment.
For example, in a recent poll run by the University of Canterbury Student Association (UCSA) 98% said they wanted lectures to continue to be available online.
With that kind of majority saying online lectures support their learning and well-being, universities simply can’t afford to return to business as usual. Academics, too, will need support to achieve the right blend of teaching options.
Listen to the students
If COVID-19 restrictions are to be a feature of life for the foreseeable future, what will students want right now? First of all, that we talk to them to find out what their needs are. Seek quick feedback on what is working best for students and be adaptable. Consistency is also important, given the fluid circumstances we find ourselves in.
Social learning and connection are critical elements of learning. So we need to encourage virtual spaces for student interaction, such as study groups and informal learning groups on social media.
Pastoral care is more important than ever. Learning is as much social-emotional as it is cognitive. We should set up voluntary real-time interactions that don’t focus only on academic content and requirements. We need to:
- be present
- make sure to connect with students
- be kind and flexible with those who need it
- don’t overload information
- keep a routine and set up learning structures – e.g. weekly objectives and tasks with suggested ways to achieve results.
If you are a New Zealand tertiary student you can share your experiences of online learning here. This is part of a cross-institutional research project exploring the challenges and opportunities experienced by students during lockdown.
This sudden move to online wasn’t a choice. But the crisis gives us an opportunity to shift our practices, focus on what we really value, and use disruption for positive and lasting change.
Thanks to the many colleagues and students who shared their insights and experiences of online learning with me during the lockdown.