In an effort to extract and amplify the expansive wisdom of our Academic Advisory Board, we've been dialling in to their 'isolation stations' and asking these higher education oracles how they see the impact of COVID-19 playing out across the sector, and what advice they have for education leaders at this time.
Professor Sally Kift is one of the nation's leading experts in the first year experience for students in higher education, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA) and President of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows (ALTF). From 2012-2017, she was also Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at James Cook University.
Studiosity: What is your view on the state of the first year experience in Australia and New Zealand, both prior to and now as a result of this coronavirus pandemic?
Sally: I've done a lot of work with Australian and New Zealand institutions over the last three years working on positive first year experience for our students, and for our staff in the delivery of that. Also thinking about how we might be able to harness Transition Pedagogy to assist in that quite large and difficult piece of work. What we can see now is increasing maturity in our approaches.
TEQSA recently released a good practice note on retention, and they actually said that there was considerable evidence of, and I'm quoting, "coherent, analytics-led, third generation" - and by that they meant comprehensive, integrated and whole of institution, transition pedagogy. So the big shift that's happened in that environment, which I think sets us up well for the COVID 19 pandemic panic, is around inclusive curriculum design and not leaving student success to chance. Because when you put all of what they need to be successful, embed it in the curriculum in a contextualised, supportive way, students aren't left in any doubt what they need to do, to be successful.
There has been regulatory nudging that's got us to that position. The Higher Education Standards Framework talks in one of its very first standards about 'Orientation and Progression' (section 1.3), and they were influenced by Transition Pedagogy in developing those standards. We've also, in Australia, and New Zealand is probably a bit ahead of us on this, gone very hard on 'students as partners'. So when we're talking about how we can enhance any learning or educational conditions, talking with students about how they might best like to be engaged is always a good idea. It's been a slow idea for us to come to, and it goes to this idea about learning being a profoundly social experience.
"Because when you put all of what they need to be successful, embed it in the curriculum in a contextualised, supportive way, students aren't left in any doubt what they need to do to be successful."
TEQSA's latest good practice note released in February 2020, actually outlines twenty-nine good practice examples of how students can be supported. That's a really strong evidence base, and we shouldn't forget that we have other evidence bases as well. For example, all the work that was done by Office for Learning and Teaching, fellows grants and award recipients; we have good colleagues at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education continuing to do good work on student experience and success. In New Zealand the Ako Aotearoa Academy continually runs out great resources and we can look internationally for the Advance Higher Education. So if we can continue to get all that curriculum work done and be very clear within their learning what students need to be successful, then we're doing a good job.
Studiosity: What sorts of things should universities be focusing on now that they're all in a mad rush to move the entire academic experience online for this year?
Sally: From the First Year experience perspective, as students and universities try to engage in what are quite difficult and unusual times, managing the transition to higher education is a particular aspect that universities, their managers, the professional and academic staff can focus on to assist students, because it's a big threshold for many to overcome. They're not necessarily going to have that personalised engagement - and we can do some of that online. But students study and play through university together, and it's that joint sense of enterprise and bonding that's so important. So we've got to unpack very explicitly what 'student success' looks like, what are the mechanics of engagement, almost on a week by week basis, and how might that play out for students when they feel disconnected from their learning environment?
What I'm talking about there really is assisting students with learning how to learn. I've always been quite taken with some universities have an assignment calculator, where you feed in your assignment due date and it steps out for you in a timeline; what dates you have to hit between analysing the question, thinking about what information need to get, writing a draft, editing the draft, finally proofreading it and submitting it. Little tools like that can be so successful.
Example of an assignment calculator, from UOW's website
We know that time management and organisational skills are absolutely imperative for student success. In the 'free ranging' learning online environment, helping students to think through how they are going to manage their time, prioritise, plan their study, develops those help-seeking behaviours that we know students need. Ideally, we would push all these resources to students through the curriculum, but if they're not otherwise available, how do we inculcate that help-seeking behaviour?
When it comes to student communications, most institutions really struggle to find that balance between too much and too little information. There's a real challenge here for us, around coordinating that communication strategy piece and how we don't over-bombard students, even though we're trying to be helpful.
Lastly, assessment is where the pedagogy hits the road. In terms of online delivery, we need to rethink what we really want from our assessment strategies. There's a couple of big pieces out there in the ether at the moment. A lot of universities are talking about whether to just do 'pass/fail' during this pandemic period, which is not a bad idea. Particularly from the first year experience perspective, it was always more formative than summative, so there's a lot to be said for thinking about pass/fail assessments. The second piece is around our assessment policies and the fact that we will probably need to grant extensions and be quite flexible about applications with a special consideration, and things of that nature.
What are our assessment policies and procedures, and how might we inculcate assessment and feedback literacies in our first year students, because we're not necessarily going to have the opportunity to talk with students about what assessment in higher education looks like, what the expectations are. These students may not be as able to develop, as Dave Boud and Dave Carless talk about in terms of feedback literacy, the capability to appreciate the feedback they get, make judgments about it, manage the affect of feedback. Have those conversations quite early on, in the in the push to delivering, again with the best of intentions, a great deal of content and interactive learning experiences. But think about what students really need.
Studiosity: What advice would you give to university leaders at this time?
Sally: My first point would be to approach this whole endeavour with an ethic of care and compassion. This is a tough and testing time for students, for staff, and for their managers, and the professional staff that are trying to support students and academics in getting the learning environments online. It's a great time to be alive if you're a technology-enabled learning advisor, it would seem.
There has been a lot of exemplary leadership demonstrated by individual institutional leaders, but also by whole higher education providers around engaging with students and staff, in outreach and for wellbeing check-ins. But the online challenge is as global as COVID19 itself, and we can take some comfort from that.
It's not just higher education facing this, it's vocational education and secondary schooling, primary schooling. It's an international challenge as well. So there's a lot of good advice coming out and available internationally. There's a lovely phrase that colleagues at the University of Colorado, Denver have coined about this pedagogy. They call it "panic-agogy". It's that sense that yes, there is a degree of panic involved, but we're going to have to all calm down and do our best. And as I've seen a number of advice pieces say, keep it simple.
University leaders should think about this as a stress test for their own learning environments, their 'whole-of-institution' approaches. That is, academic and professional staff working agentically and with students in partnership to deliver the educational conditions of optimal learning environments, and the sense of belonging that we know is so important. A real test here will be around the efficacy of online delivery of undergraduate courses, which up until fairly recently, a couple of obvious institutions aside, has really been the preserve of equity group students.
I'm thinking, and I put everything through this lens, of a mature-age woman outside Mount Isa - because I'm from Queensland - so perhaps it's Camooweal, with internet that's not reliable. She has put the kids to bed or done the work on the property for the day, and sits down at 10 o'clock at night to study and then often feels like a second class citizen because she's asked to reference something and she doesn't know what that looks like. And she can't download the resources that we provide. So the mainstreaming of what has been an equity issue around undergraduate curriculum delivery is an interesting thing, for institutional leaders to think about.
Image: ABC: Blythe Moore
How do we ramp up support provision in the online environment? For too long we've relied on the traditional mode of on-campus, face to face 9-5 support delivery, which has instantly had to find a different way. That can be everything from academic language and learning advice, to mental health and wellbeing counselling, to disability services, the provision of peer support in the online environment. The last thing I might say to institutional leaders is to really focus on mental health and wellbeing. We know a lot about what we need to do in the curriculum and outside the curriculum, but the curriculum will be the primary focus of engagement for these students in this environment.
"The better organised and sequenced and supported and inclusive our curriculum can be, the better off our students' sense of self-efficacy and competence and ability to engage with this environment might be enabled."
The better organised and sequenced and supported and inclusive our curriculum can be, the better off our students' sense of self-efficacy and competence and ability to engage with this environment might be enabled. I saw a very good example of this with my James Cook University colleagues in the Higher Education Diploma space. Talking with students, even by way of a weekly resilience strategy, about how they are coping (because it is about coping in quite different environments), how they might build healthy relationships with other students, think about what their original motivation was, to develop this continuing motivation to keep going. Taking a break, being organised, chunking things into manageable goals - again, time management and organisational skills. Giving them a sense of being somewhat in control, when perhaps they don't otherwise feel in control.
Students have complex and complicated lives, and this has really shone a light on how complex and complicated it can be for everybody. We've got students now who are dealing with job losses and precarity around accommodation and food. Our international students, who we really need to treat well, we've got a duty of care for those students. Our equity group students. We may need to rethink previous rules and restrictions in place around the ability for students to get extensions and special considerations.
International students Elena and Sunita, at a Studiosity student meetup in January 2020.
Universities also have a role to play now in the messaging to current Year 12s, who are going to be very anxious about securing their place in higher education. Institutional leaders should think about helping current Year 12s who are thinking about what their career pathways might be, if there's any anxiety we could help settle. That goes double for equity group students who are quite uncertain about the pathways that are available to them. Again thinking of the mature age woman doing it part time online in Camooweal outside Mount Isa, how might we talk with those students?
Studiosity: In your view, will COVID-19 permanently alter the way universities think about the first year experience, or will we look back in, say, three years at this as more of a brief, extraordinary moment before a return to 'normality'?
Sally: I'd like to think that the positive outcomes will not be lost in the return to normalcy. There are a lot of positive outcomes if you look for them. I'm on Twitter, so I'm getting a real sense that there's a mind shift and this is a teachable moment, that can be leveraged, around the opportunities provided by online and the need to be most intentional about how we deliver those educational conditions and learning opportunities to students, embedded with wraparound support.
"[We] need to be most intentional about how we deliver those educational conditions and learning opportunities to students, embedded with wraparound support."
I think we've become more attuned to the diversity of students; we know that what we do for non-traditional students or students that don't necessarily come with the social and cultural capital of their better informed or agentic peers who have family at home that they can talk to about this. Whatever we do for those students pays dividends all the way around for everybody and enhances the experience for everybody. So the shift I'm seeing is a sense of community and camaraderie. There is healthy inter-sector competition about which university's got the best pets - there's University Pet Olympics on. The best virtual background. Great goodwill and a real sense of partnership, which I think would have been difficult to engender in the normal, 'business as usual' way. There's a lot we can learn from each other.
There's an opportunity when the "panic-agogy" has passed and we can sit and reflect back on what we've done, to rethink the efficacy and the applicability and the relevance of our retention strategies, student success strategies and mental health strategies, to try to refashion them in a way that wouldn't otherwise have been possible.
Another way COVID-19 might change things is looking at how institutions are better managing, in terms of alignment and complementarity, their engagements with partners. All our universities have partner relationships, third party providers; how can they coalesce in the same way that we're imagining that academic and professional staff and students can work more closely together, to craft the educational experience that we know industry 4.0 will build demand for the future?
How can we be, let's say it again, a more caring and compassionate education sector that takes account of diversity and doesn't problematise it, but tries to build - in a growth mindset - some success around those different ways that people engage? There's an opportunity here to make to remake the sector in a better way.
Thank you again so much Sally, for your time and insight, and if you'd like to you can follow Professor Sally Kift on Twitter, or read more about her and our Academic Advisory Board.