In this blog post, Dr Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed reflects on a collaborative research project with Dr Serdar Abaci and Prof Judy Robertson, that aimed to understand the experiences of teaching staff who were involved in hybrid/blended teaching during the pandemic.
Undoubtedly, the past year and a half has been a rollercoaster. Many have experienced a new way of teaching; one where their students are not physically present. Some have faced enraging barriers, others have found a sense of community and a new appreciation for the art of teaching. What everyone agrees on is that we cannot simply brush the experience aside; we must reflect on what happened during the pandemic and establish a way forward.
Earlier this year my colleagues and I embarked on a research project aiming to do just this. Using a case study, we sought to understand the experiences of staff working at a Scottish University who contributed to the University’s hybrid teaching response and those whose role was to support academics in shifting towards this new mode of teaching. We were struck by the candour of staff in sharing their experiences. Here is what they wanted to share.
“It was building a plane as we were flying it.”
One of the biggest challenges staff faced was the speed at which they had to react to the pandemic once lockdown was initiated. This involved developing a way to continue teaching remotely without knowing how long the pandemic would last. The summer months of 2020 were spent getting acquainted with technology, digitising content, and establishing what online/hybrid teaching would look like in their context. Schools with courses that had fundamental elements of face-to-face teaching (e.g., labs, studio time) found planning logistical elements more challenging than schools that took an online only approach. Semester one was treated as somewhat of an experiment, with staff adapting their teaching to digital platforms many had little to no experience using. However, just as staff were beginning to see how they might enhance their teaching by introducing more elements of on-campus teaching for semester two, the Covid landscape changed again, impelling many to revert to original digital-only plans. Evidently, the uncertainty of the situation made planning extremely difficult.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Academic staff were not the only ones finding planning particularly difficult. Professional Services staff reported challenges around providing training in how to use central technologies, and in procurement. Staff found it difficult to pre-plan which technologies would work best with students, thus making it harder to procure them and finding the time to undergo difficult training. However, those that did, reported feeling more confident in adapting to the digital pivot.
Interestingly, many reported not realising the extent of planning required to design an online/hybrid course and developed a new appreciation for online teaching, particularly voicing the benefits in terms of accessibility and equitable education.
“The fact that Covid triggered it is irrelevant…we’ve had opportunities to work together.”
Rather positively, staff were surprised at how well they were able to adapt to the changing situation, and many viewed it as an opportunity to revamp their courses and learn new digital and teaching skills.
The vast majority of staff reported that communication among staff had increased within departments but also across schools, meaning that people were more connected across the University than ever before. Opportunities for collaboration were viewed as a positive outcome and many expressed wanting to continue using elements of hybrid teaching post-Covid, by redesigning courses to be more accessible, or designing new online courses in subjects that were previously considered too practical to offer digitally, like Chemistry for example.
“There will be benefits, but it was just traumatic for everybody…[it] is not sustainable”
Unsurprisingly, every single member of staff that participated in the study reported an overwhelming increase in workload and work-related stress or “burn-out.” Anxiety wasn’t just about workload either, but also about their students’ wellbeing and for their own safety when participating in on-campus teaching activity given the Covid risk. Despite this, staff recognised that an increase in workload was unavoidable, but a more pressing concern was that this would become the new norm. Indeed, if elements of hybridity are taken forward as many have indicated that they might be, precisely how staff workload is allocated, particularly for aspects of asynchronous teaching, require some thought.
“It’s about actually trusting people, saying, fine, you know what you’re doing.”
A more unexpected element to come through our data was around the autonomy each school had in implementing hybrid to suit their needs, including having to abide by Professional Statutory Regulatory Body requirements. Most staff recognised that this was an inevitable but useful ability to have and the crisis highlighted the need for empowering schools to adapt teaching in their own way, by offering University-wide technology support and minimal but consistent messaging about the approach.
This degree of autonomy also called to question some long standing teaching views. Many took the opportunity to reflect on their school values, learning outcomes and what they wanted students to achieve; all taken as positives.
So what now? “It can’t have all been for nothing!”
It is abundantly clear that staff have gone through a journey of resilience. Almost every staff member we interviewed expressed wanting to reflect on their experiences since the start of the pandemic and think about the future of their role.
Respondents demonstrated an increasing sense of adaptability, skills development, innovative pedagogy, community building and recognition that these improvements may not have happened as quickly, or at all, were it not for the pandemic. However, there was less certainty about whether these benefits outweighed the costs. The sheer speed at which people had to adapt meant staff were not able to reflect on whether the changes that were made were effective, this was particularly concerning for schools that redesigned curricula.
At this stage, staff are simply gasping for air, but with hope rising about a new post-Covid era, people want to pause. Reflect. Think about the sustainability of the work they do and how they can not only improve the education of their students, but do so in a way that builds collegiality and equitable access, gets to the core of what Higher Education institutions stand for, and perhaps most importantly, does not come at the cost of their wellbeing. There is opportunity here, and it might well be that a fresh start with our new bank of knowledge is needed. As one participant put it, “can we just start from scratch?”
Dr Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on conceptual learning and cognitive development around STEM subjects. She is interested in student experiences of emerging technology, multimodal learning, and widening access to education.
Dr Serdar Abaci is a Lecturer in Data and Digital Literacies at the Moray House School of Education and Sport. He is part of the Data Education in Schools project and an affiliate of the Centre for Research in Digital Education. His research spans across data and digital literacies, online learning, feedback, and educational technologies.
Professor Judy Robertson is Chair in Digital Learning at the University of Edinburgh. She has been developing educational technology with children and teachers since 1997. She is a Senior Member of the ACM, and a Senior Fellow of the HEA. She is interested in computer science education, serious games for children and gender equality. Her work focuses on how technology can help to solve thorny real world problems.