The COVID-19 pandemic has forced postsecondary institutions, faculty, staff and students to adapt quickly and without an instruction manual. From the emergency shift from face-to-face to remote learning, to the financial vulnerability of some institutions, to concerns about mental and physical health in the face of prolonged physical distancing, this is a moment in history unlike anything we’ve seen before.
While none of us would have chosen this scenario, we do see some silver linings for the postsecondary sector. In some ways, the pandemic has re-inspired a commitment to quality learning and teaching and has focused our attention on the key factors of ensuring a high-quality postsecondary experience.
- Learner-centred instruction: One of the challenges of remote and online learning and instruction has been finding ways to maintain student engagement while meeting the needs of all learners. Research has shown how important student-centred learning is to student engagement and, in the wake of the pandemic, there is increased discussion of the benefits of universal design (engagement, representation, action and expression) to course development and instruction. This revitalized awareness is important, as there is evidence to suggest that universal design may help foster more purposeful and motivated learners.
- Good pedagogy is essential whether instruction is online or in person: Effective, high-quality teaching has always been grounded in pedagogy. This is even more true in the case of remote learning. Whether instruction is online or face to face, it is important to ask, how, what, and why? How do you want to teach, what tool can best help students achieve the learning outcomes for the course, and why is that the best approach? The experience of teaching and learning in a pandemic has certainly reinforced the importance of intentional instruction to ensure that (digital) learning is properly implemented.
- Non-traditional pathways/credentials are important: Ontario colleges and universities are offering an increasing number of flexible, short credentials to meet the diverse needs of the learning community. Microcredentials are just one example of alternative credentials on the rise. As we navigate the influence of the pandemic on the postsecondary landscape and labour market, perhaps there is room to continue that trajectory by expanding competency-based approaches to postsecondary education. Embracing a lifelong learning model of higher education can provide opportunities for skill development and upgrading that are creative, flexible and targeted.
- Assessment matters: Questions about what online assessment should look like and how to implement it have resurfaced as a result of the emergency shift to remote learning. This instantaneous and widespread transition to virtual learning presents an opportunity to re-evaluate what assessment looks like from a 21st century learning perspective. We can think about what we collectively value and prioritize in terms of student learning in an online context and what types of assessment measures will adequately capture those skills and competencies. Instructors could consider giving students choice in how they demonstrate their learning by offering different assessment options. By diversifying the range of assessment tools, instructors can help accommodate the unique experiences and creative abilities of each of their students.
- Empathy and compassion are key: Finally, despite the turmoil, we have seen increased attention paid to the human side of education. Good teachers do more than deliver content, and the postsecondary experience for students is broader than readings and assignments. In the current climate, the educational relationship must take into account that students, faculty and staff are facing their own sets of challenges: the faculty member teaching from home while parenting, the staff member working remotely and caring for elderly relatives, or the student worrying about finances because their part-time job has disappeared. If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that a little bit of care and understanding can go a long way towards ensuring success in these unusual circumstances.
This is a difficult time with real challenges, but staying focused on these lessons will help the postsecondary sector learn, grow and continue to improve even in the face — and wake — of the pandemic.
Jessica Rizk is a Researcher and Amy Kaufman is Director of Research, Policy and System Improvement at HEQCO.