Higher education beyond COVID - reflecting on the challenges and opportunities.

by Jodie Young, Nadya Ahmed


Higher education beyond COVID - reflecting on the challenges and opportunities.

~ Higher Education ~

JUNE 3rd 2021
Jodie Young
Nadya Ahmed


Arguably the word of the year, 2020, for anyone involved in designing or delivering learning in Higher Education was ‘pivot’. The advent of COVID, and the necessity to rapidly shift learning for everyone to a modality previously undertaken - by choice or necessity - by a relatively small number of students, saw university educators adapt, adopt and even embrace new approaches to online learning with breath-taking speed and - some might say, surprising - grace.

With the sense of immediate urgency gone, and having had some time to begin to evaluate the lessons already learned, the realisation that things will not revert to the way they were pre-COVID is acting as the catalyst for thought-provoking discussion across the sector as to the possibilities moving forward. Over the past fortnight, two online conferences held in the UK and Australia have been looking at some of the big questions, challenges and opportunities ahead. Here are the key takeaways from the discussions we attended.

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UK - THE Digital Universities Week

At a time of radical change, universities, are being encouraged to commit to blended, hybrid and personalised teaching strategies in order to keep pace with the digital revolution, while still maintaining the positive aspects of on-campus learning. A huge topic, and the central theme for the THE Digital Universities Week UK 2021.  The week-long conference examined ways that institutions can harness the power of digital technologies to make higher education accessible, flexible and inclusive, while also using it to enhance the quality of experiences for those on-campus. 

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AUS – Needed Now in Teaching and Learning Conference

Meanwhile, in Australia, eleven sessions held over the course of five days in the Needed Now in Teaching and Learning conference covered similar ground to the UK event but while the digital and online learning experience was a major concern, this conference also took a broader perspective. Transition into and beyond university and student pathways, student equity, employability, student wellbeing, and the future of work were key topics of discussion and mostly addressed through a COVID lens, although with universities in most states having resumed on-campus learning the focus was more on the possibilities opened up by exploring new options with regards to both the digital and physical campus.

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The pandemic effect 

While Covid first appears to have flipped everything we know about learning on its head, what it’s actually done is accelerate a shift toward digital that had already begun, albeit at different speeds in different institutions.  Speaking in the THE opening session on day two, DVC of Digital Transformation at The University of Leeds, Professor Neil Morris accurately compared driving the change to digital, pre-Covid, to pushing a boulder up a mountain. Our CEO Shane Sutherland, said something very similar back in 2017. What’s important now, is that institutions use the experiences of the past year to maintain that momentum toward digital enhancement. With shifts to digital happening everywhere, not just within education, it’s important that students also have a transferrable framework that builds a digital capability that will enable them to thrive in an increasingly digital world. 

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We have introduced a new level 4 module that all undergraduate students take, on digital transformation. We use this as an opportunity to build awareness with students of their engagement with technology

Professor Neil Morris, University of Leeds 

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However, the conversation should also consider how we retain the sense of people and places that do make the campus experience unique. In both conferences, focus on the learner experience – what do they want and what do they need? – was (thankfully) a central concern. The theme of connectedness has always been an important one to us, both in our work with universities and their students, and learning as a social activity has always been central to the PebblePad ethos and platform design. While learning may be taking place remotely, it needn’t – and shouldn’t – be invisible, and being able to stay connected with students, view and provide timely feedback on work in progress and to have visibility in order to provide support and intervention when needed, all go a long way to ensuring students have every chance of success.

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All signs point to employers increasingly looking for evidence of entrepreneurship and creativity

Competencies, capabilities, aptitudes and skills are crucially important and being able to demonstrate, and provide evidence of, them substantially affects the chances of successful employment for university graduates. Problem solving, critical thinking, active learning and flexibility featured heavily in discussions around employability at THE’s event with references to entrepreneurship becoming more popular as a desired skill for employers. This involves some level of creativity. How can we encourage students to be more creative with their own reflective and learning processes? Ensuring they have the means of recording, reflecting on and being able to provide a coherent narrative of their achievements and attributes is a good start, and having a private and secure digital place in which to do so facilitates the process.

Universities still faced with the challenge of how to help students make sense of disparate and diverse learning experiences

The Needed Now conference also raised the inherent problems of being able to confidently navigate and make sense of disparate learning experiences, in an environment in which – at least in Australia - there are increased micro-credential and short course offerings in addition to traditional degree programs. And even within a structured degree, learning opportunities happen in a wide variety of situations which is why enabling students to leverage collective intelligence and deepen their level of engagement in that moment through capture of, and reflection on, each and every learning experience is so vital. Having the capacity to be able to collect and make sense of these experiences independent of the course-centric VLE / LMS is going to become increasingly essential in a lifelong, life-wide learning context.

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Increasingly, the challenge for univerisites is preparing students for a future that is unknowable when it comes to potential jobs

Employability as an essential – and embedded – component of the student journey was mentioned often during the course of both conferences. Harnessing digital technologies can align a student’s learning, career and employment journeys. In the UK context, it can provide enhancement of traditional personal development and academic personal tutoring frameworks, also supporting the development of experiential learning and capturing skills developed through extra curricular activities. In turn this builds a deeper-level of connection between academic and student, between classroom and placement, and theory and experience.

One of the Needed Now sessions was titled “Job-ready for what?”, encapsulating the now-accepted realisation that universities are preparing their graduates to be agile, adaptable and prepared for an uncertain – and in many ways, even unimaginable - employment landscape. It’s one of the reasons we’ve long spoken about ‘future-readiness’ rather than employability; the concept of ensuring learners are equipped to be cognisant of and able to articulate the transferrable skills they have developed and how these are applicable to a range of contexts and roles. The point was made that employers are still saying that the job applicants they are seeing do not always have the right mix of skills, when in fact it’s often the case that graduates are simply not able to readily identify and build into their employability narrative these capabilities. We’ve seen the rise of Graduate Attributes and Employability initiatives across universities, but without an embedded, coherent and highly visible approach it can be incredibly difficult for students to shine as brightly as they could.

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Final thoughts

Both the THE Digital universities week and the Needed Now in Teaching and Learning conference showcased that the COVID-induced disruptions over the last year have not only accelerated change that was already foregrounded, but have recognised the need to shift these important conversations around learning and teaching in Higher Education more broadly, into an urgent need for action. Though there will never be a replacement for high value face-to-face encounters, through blended and flexible approaches institutions can look to the digital space to enhance and enrich the in-person experiences of the student. There were many more key ideas to come out of these sessions – around student equity, supporting transition, supporting and promoting student success, partnerships with industry – that we haven’t been able to touch on here. Do keep an eye on the blog over coming months, as we’re keen to keep the conversation going and we’ll be sharing our thoughts in a number of forthcoming posts.

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If you'd like to learn more about how PebblePad supports universities to prepare future-ready graduates, visit our Sharing And Showcasing Success And Achievement page.

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Jodie Young is Content Manager here at PebblePad. An experienced educator, talented writer, and a genius at simplifying the complicated, Jodie spends her days planning, crafting and publishing content for the PebblePad community and wider higher education audiences. Outside of work, Jodie is a published poet and can occasionally be spotted performing at open mic events around her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. To the disappointment of some of her colleagues, she avoids employing rhyme in her copy but her expert stamp is still recognisable on many of our hugely popular publications.

Nadya is PebblePad’s Growth & Demand Marketing Manager and spends her days researching, crafting and experimenting with new methods to inspire educators, academics and students to harness the power of PebblePad and help them maximise student success. An ex-journalist who found her passion in a digital world, she loves rolling her sleeves up, owning responsibilities and getting stuck in. A qualified yoga instructor and keen runner, she enjoys nothing more than being outdoors – rain or shine.