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Academics share experiences of navigating the 'new normal' in Higher Education


Working from home and switching to a digital world has become the ‘new normal’ for many people in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and for professionals in Higher Education (HE), doing their job online presented a series of both opportunities and hurdles.

To learn from the experience, researchers at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) have collated a series of stories from their colleagues in the Faculty of Business and Law (BAL) to highlight the different ways in which academics have coped and what they learned.

Dr Swati Virmani, a senior lecturer in Economics at DMU, is one of the lead academics on the project.

“The importance of online working within HE has become apparent during the COVID-19 outbreak,” she said. “It is one thing to change to an online interface instantaneously and another to learn to teach online. The latter requires careful consideration of pedagogy and design as well as technological skills.

“Gathering the staff reflections together, our aim was to understand and reflect on ‘lived experiences’ and subsequently provide a reference point to help in building activities around CPLD (Continuing Professional and Learning Development) at both individual and institutional level.

“The current situation has given us an opportunity to change the way we deliver teaching, conduct research and develop staff capabilities. Use of technology and innovative teaching has the potential to optimise students’ experience and if the challenges are addressed clearly then lessons we learn now can transform the classroom of the future.”

Swati Virmani
Dr Swati Virmani

The DMU BAL staff testimonies have been categorised into five key themes to help identify the different approaches taken – these include the ‘veteran expert’, ‘firm resilient’, ‘transitional scramble identifier’, ‘swift preparer’ and ‘challenge spotter’. Each theme highlights the diversity in colleagues’ approaches and displays how essential every aspect of work and day-to-day life is.

The veteran expert refers to those who are more experienced in their approaches, and have prior understanding of designing, evaluating and planning innovative curriculum and teaching, while the firm resilient category identifies those who have gone beyond the realms of necessary teaching delivery and have adopted innovative ways to build community and engagement.

Transitional scramble identifiers are those who speak about some of the struggles that might otherwise get ignored in the broader spectrum of teaching and learning, bringing out essential day-to-day aspects that often go unnoticed in strategic planning.

The swift preparer refers to the staff who displayed remarkable achievement through self-made strategies, while the challenge spotters are those who reveal key challenges and how to address staff and students’ needs.

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“It’s really important to remember that not every member of staff is in the same situation – some feel as though they have been really resilient throughout whereas others have been in more of a transitional process,” continued Dr Virmani.

“By putting a collection of testimonies, we embrace the importance of interactions, capabilities, aptitudes and potentials of our staff, all leading to success even during crisis. Those who took part have really opened up about their successes, experiences and even struggles – and not just the struggles of teaching online, but also things like conducting research, working from home, and looking after and home-schooling their children.

“While each theme identifies key differences, there are no definite boundaries to these themes, they are not completely distinct, and rather grow into each other.”

A monograph (co-edited with Professor Edward Cartwright and Dr Thomas Allen) featuring the shared experiences from DMU BAL colleagues, along with insights from two of the university’s research centres –  the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity and the Institute for Applied Economics and Social Value, who took part in the research – has now been published. 

Hugh Aston exterior
DMU's Hugh Aston building, home to the Faculty of Business and Law

Not-for-profit organisation Jisc – which supports HE institutions in the UK to perform at the forefront of international practice by exploiting possibilities of modern digital empowerment, content and connectivity – has also featured an article by Dr Virmani, highlighting the project and shining a light on the importance of staff continuous professional development.

“Our aim is to support education leaders as they research and assess different ways to continue educating students during the forthcoming academic year and beyond,” added Dr Virmani.

“We want to benefit institutional leaders and experts who are looking at staff learning development and designing related programmes and policies. Forthcoming strategies should appreciate differences in staff experiences and enhance intrinsic motivation.

“Our stories are exemplars for HE institutions to focus on a changed, context-specific future professional development; perhaps something that also incorporates a positive work-life balance and wellbeing.”

Posted on Friday 6th November 2020

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