Monday, April 26, 2021

Working toward a fault tolerant university system

In "Working toward generous scholarship – during and after COVID-19" Professor Andrea MacLeod at the University of Alberta, suggests changes to reduce the impact of the pandemic on careers. I suggest going further and building in permanent changes to the university system to be ready for future shocks and improve conditions for all students and staff.

Like Professor MacLeod, I was in a good position to cope with the pandemic. As an "honorary lecturer", I don't depend on a university income (rather I donate money to the institution). Also I am trained to design and deliver courses online. My focus in recent years has been on how Australia's research intensive universities could deliver a quality experience to to students not on campus. However, for academics dependent on a precarious income and who have been told by their supervisors for years that working and teaching online was not worth worrying about, these are difficult times.

Professor MacLeod suggests using the shared experience of reduced productivity to build a more generous academic community. Rather I suggest we need to train our academics in new ways of working which are at least as productive, if not more so. We can first educate ourselves on how to do this and then teach our students. 

There is a need, as Professor MacLeod proposes, to extended deadlines for doctoral students with extended funding. However, funding providers are unlikely to look favorably on this unless universities also put in place long term changes. One area would be improved metrics to measure research output. More real world impact measures, rather than grants got, papers papers published and citations received, can be developed. These new metrics will reduce the discrimination in the current system against those who have interrupted career paths.

The pandemic did not bring about a radical change in the way I worked. In 1994 I went on a trip to Europe with a pocket computer, a modem and an Internet account. While away I collaborated on a policy paper with a colleague in Australia. Internet access was patchy, and I had to beg, borrow, or steal access at places like the Oxford Computer Center. I applied this experience to help the Department of Defence to work online. In 2018 I gave my last lecture and moved my teaching online for ten years, then developed a flipped, blended approach with optional face to face teaching, a year before COVID-19 stuck. This was not easy, taking years of training. Such techniques are now better developed, but it will take effort and money for academics to adopt them.

Individual academics, universities and policy makers need to get past the mindset that sees the current pandemic as an abbreviation. Disasters happen, and there are changes occurring in how education is delivered and research is conducted, with new competition for traditional institutions. There will be reasons in the future why students and staff suddenly can't get to campus, but most will not need to be there anyway. Technology has for decades provided a way for people to work and study at a distance. National and state systems, universities and individual academics, need to learn to use the tools and techniques, if they wish themselves, their students, their institutions, and their community, to prosper.

ps: As it happens I studied open, digital and distance education at Athabasca University, in Alberta in Canada, the same province as Professor MacLeod, not far away but a very different institution. I have never been to Athabasca, having studied entirely online. I was able to complete graduate studies, and design a course which is still offered at Athabasca, without ever setting foot on campus. I have a productive relationship with the staff, but have only ever met two face to face, at conferences in Hong Kong and Sydney.

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