The way learning is understood in universities around the world has changed fundamentally in the last 15-20 years. Ideas and practices such as student engagement, the co-creation of knowledge, undergraduate research, interactive learning, peer evaluation, and others that are now commonplace in our institutional culture, were either unheard of, were in their infancy, or existed in highly specialized niches. Now, in universities in locations across the world from North America, to Australia, to China, to continental Europe, and the UK, significant resources are invested in student-focused pedagogies. I would argue that this shift represents a revolution in our approach to learning in higher education – albeit, as so often with change in universities, the revolution has been slow and has thus not appeared particularly dramatic.
It is still to some extent fragile as there remains a deep-seated response in most of us, in moments of crisis, to revert to well-practiced behaviors and approaches with which we feel safe and that offer us comfort as the chaos rages. This is certainly how it has felt at times for me during the COVID`19 crisis: just do what you know, batten down the hatches, wait for the storm to pass, get by. This can mean in the demands and stresses of the moment we use the online and virtual environments to which we have become increasingly accustomed as vectors of counter-revolution. In the sense that in our trepidation around technology, our fear of the new, and our determination to ensure our students at least ‘get the basics,’ we revert to practices that do not have as their principal motivation the desire to engage our students and make them, thus, more efficient learners.
It is no secret that the research shows students learn and remember more in interactive learning environments than they do in those where they receive information passively. The strong research foundation for this and similar assertions is widely accepted, and I don’t hear much pushback from faculty colleagues these days except, maybe, when it comes to proctored exams where I hear arguments that go something like, ‘my pre-med student needs to show that they know anatomy. There won’t be open books in the operating theater.’ Well, true, but wouldn’t it be better to assess their powers of understanding and recall in ways that might at least hint at the environment in which these powers will be required: with supportive colleagues present, in a shared endeavor, in a simulation of at least some of the complexity of the ‘real world’? Authentic assessment in other words. The more we move in this direction, the better we’ll be serving our students.
Crisis and unfamiliarity, however, can cause us to fall back into habits of teaching that were engineered into us just as they were engineered into the configurations of our teaching spaces – classrooms designed to accommodate a lectern at the front, and desks and tables in rows. How, then, in the new world in which we find ourselves, can we avoid the impulse to revert? For me it’s about interrogating my choices. Why have I decided to record a lecture rather than create an activity that requires students to participate? Is it because I don’t understand the mechanics of the online processes I’m working with? Am I worried about something not working? Is the process confusing? Does it feel unsafe to me? My plea is that we refuse the option to position our students as receivers of information, poised to receive uploads from their instructors. The new arrangements do not mean we have to withdraw, we can keep our teaching and learning spaces open and interactive. We can continue to be cooperative, creative, and compassionate. We can let the strong among our students support the weaker, as we help them realize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. More than ever before, this is the time to experiment in teaching and learning. A time to fail in forgiveness and succeed in humility.