Not Going Back

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Thank you for coming on this journey with us, friends. As you have gleaned from all the materials, this journey never ends and it will be different for each of us. One experience we will all have in common, though, is that along the way you can’t help but be changed. Maybe you consider something differently — you spend more time worrying about the unintended consequences of your design decision, your policies, your words, your critiques. Or maybe you spend more time with your family, asking them about humanizing learning. In both cases, you’re doing the “work” of being tuned in and being aware of everything around you. And so, changed people — we are never going back to the ways things used to be — we can’t unsee the opportunities for us all when we embrace our common humanity and lead with compassion, wonder, and curiosity.

We are all a part of this journey, and no, we will not go back to the way things used to be. We can’t. We’ve changed and we vow to continue to do so.

The Things We Found Poignant

Community, community, community. Find support, find common ground, and then also find the tough aspects of communities: How do they grow? How do they remain inclusive? How do they remain democratic? Community for whom? How can we disagree productively? Hw can we nurture a culture where we can disagree and be respectful?

A core part of humanizing learning is a mindset (or mindsets). There are foundations and there are methods, but mindset is core. Part of that mindset is being open to learning something new, to unlearning something old, and to embracing uncertainty.

Importance of Meaningful listening. Listening to those with lived experience, listening to those with different opinions, listening to the quiet voices, listening so we hear the voices that usually don’t say a word — this is humanizing learning.

Moving beyond a “seat at the table” to “co-creating the table” — it might be the only way we impact and change systemic barriers in Education.

Going through this process — meaningful humanizing — changes people. We all will need time to process and absorb and practice these new revelations we have about ourselves and others.

Reflection Opportunity: What Did We Learn? How Can We Prepare for Change?

There is no simple “how-to” list and there never will be. There is no end, no completion, no final_final_final_exam/paper/assessment.doc

Importance of slowing down. And by slowing down we don’t mean do less with more time; quite the opposite, we mean make time for reflection, thinking, pondering, making interesting connections — doing more with time.

Importance of relationships — relationships that are non-hierarchical and genuine, that carry a foundation of curiosity and learning.

Importance of connections. Importance of breaking down silos (all silos).

Returning to “normal” — we should ask, “Normal for whom?” and “Who benefited from that ‘normal’?” Please do not uncritically go back to “normal.”

Did COVID Kill the Traditional Lecture, or Was It Already Endangered and COVID Just Accelerated the Process?

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare many of the significant issues that exist in higher education today: inequality, inaccessibility, poor pedagogical practices, lack of disaster preparedness, and in many ways, a lack of imagination and willingness to iterate. Many of the practices that persist in higher education, such as large passive lectures and one-way transmission models of teaching, do so despite a century of evidence that these approaches are not effective. In institutions that are meant to be hubs of innovation, creativity, knowledge creation, and evidence-based practice, we find that all too often we default to tradition and mythology, rather than confronting some of the complex challenges we face as twenty-first-century institutions. Some may point to the lack of significant systemic change in higher education for centuries as evidence of remarkable resilience of these ancient structures. Another way to view it is as a tendency towards incredible inertia, afforded by massive privilege held by a few that has remained largely unchallenged until recently. The reality is, of course, more complex than either of these views, but we are starting to see challenges to the role of traditional higher education that institutions should take note of, before they go the way of Blockbuster and Blackberry, with little understanding of how they ended up there.

To some extent, these issues stem from an obsession with the cult of academic freedom, which was and is necessary to ensure that controversial research could be conducted without fear of reprisal or interference. Unfortunately, it has been weaponized to support hyper-individualization, where the primacy of individual preference can override the collective good, which is a critical challenge to the work of humanizing education. The difficult work of designing humanized learning experiences is only possible when educators work together at broader levels (program, faculty, institution) and commit to shared values and goals. This is not to say that individual educators and their courses can’t make a difference to the lives of learners if they are designed humanely, but we need to recognize the limits of this influence, that while individuals may be a shining light in a learner’s experience, the overarching experience may be poor in programs that are not designed with a coherent set of values that support a transformational experience.

Equally as important as individual commitment to these goals is the visible commitment from leaders to challenge the status quo and to take on issues that may be unpopular or controversial if they will ultimately lead to better outcomes for everyone. Higher education leaders trying to effect significant change will inevitably be met with resistance and criticism that can be incredibly tiring and disheartening. Navigating the politics of change in a large and complex organization requires a vision of a future state that is made better by the necessary changes, but equally it requires adept storytelling — the ability to share that vision in a way that is compelling and opens space for all stakeholders to see themselves in this new and better place.

As higher education institutions begin to emerge from the disruption of pandemic restrictions, they have some difficult decisions to make. Do they prioritize returning everything to exactly as it was before and ignore all the learning and innovation that came out of the emergency, or do they do the hard work of self-examination and critical reflection to imagine a new state that attempts to address issues of inequality and access for learners and higher education workers alike?

Unfortunately, many institutions seem to be rushing headlong into a return to exactly how they were before, upending the playing field that had been temporarily levelled, and removing temporarily humanized policies that were arguably better for all. There are some signs that not all parts of the world are treating this moment that way though, which gives us hope that a more human, diverse, and inclusive approach to higher education globally is possible.

For example, the Australian and UK higher education sectors have long had a significant focus on evidence-based, transformative, and quality teaching practices, putting in place structures that normalize, incentivize, and reward a culture of excellence and continuous reflective improvement. There has been a strong focus from leadership in both these jurisdictions on not simply returning to the status quo (despite strong pressure from their governments to the contrary), but learning from the pandemic and making permanent changes to benefit learners and the learning environment. One significant change that many universities in Australia and the UK are planning post-COVID is to not return to large on-campus lectures. This is a trend that had started pre-pandemic, with some, such as the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), starting to remove large lecture theatres and replace them with active and collaborative learning spaces as far back as 2014, while others, such as Victoria University in Melbourne had already moved away from a traditional semester-based model to block teaching with no lectures and small cohorts.

The pandemic has accelerated the process of re-examining pedagogies, and a white paper from the Australasian Council on Distance and eLearning in 2021 noted that in a survey of universities in Australia and New Zealand, only 23 percent were planning to return to any on-campus lectures, while over 30 percent said they would definitely or probably not be returning to on-campus lectures. Probing the reasons for this, almost one quarter of institutions recognized that the primary reason for the shift was to improve pedagogy and learning for students, while others noted a variety of social, pedagogical, logistical, and economic reasons to reduce or remove lecture-based learning as we know it.

While a handful of institutions are removing lectures altogether, most are retaining them as an option in some form, but they are also having critical conversations about the diversity of teaching designs and thoughtful reasoning for using them. Most are re-examining the flexibility of their pedagogical designs and timetabling, breaking classes up into small cohorts of learners and focusing on designing physical and digital spaces to facilitate active, collaborative and informal learning. This is a recognition that the claimed transformational element of the “university experience” is rarely time spent sitting in a lecture with five hundred other students, but is in the meeting of minds that occurs in small groups who are actively engaged in the process — a process that is less place-dependent and more dependent on the pedagogical design used to spark the learning. It is also not an oversimplified question of choosing “online vs. on-campus,” but rather recognizing that learning is a complex, wonderful process that can start with a spark in a class, but that the majority of learning happens in the messy interstitial space outside our classrooms (in whatever way we have defined a classroom) where students’ lives intersect with the new knowledge they are gaining and new connections are hopefully made.

The notion of the “traditional student” who is focused solely on their studies and is able to attend class forty hours a week is no longer realistic. More students than ever before have disabilities, health issues, caring responsibilities, full-time work, and other restrictions on their time that make the traditional approach to higher education untenable for them. Pandemic changes to policies that temporarily allowed for flexibility in attendance, new and creative assessment strategies, and compassionate policy made space for so many learners who would traditionally have been excluded from our one-size-fits-all approach. Students have complex lives and are demanding both flexibility and choice in their education, which requires a shift in power dynamics to recognize students as equal partners in the enterprise of learning.

Crucially, these conversations are happening across the sector and across all levels of institutions in those places that choose to engage, rather than being led by handfuls of committed faculty swimming against the tide of tradition, constantly being buffeted by artifacts of a bygone era. That is not to say that our individual voices don’t count; quite the opposite in fact, as it is important that the voices of those who seek change are heard at all levels. The hard work of making our universities and colleges more human, and more fit for purpose in the twenty-first century, requires expanding our notion of who our stakeholders are, and having those stakeholders treated as equal partners. We must engage in a sustained conversation about the kind of inclusive community we want to be, then translate that conversation into action. Not engaging meaningfully in this conversation now will further erode the privileged position of traditional higher education providers and push our would-be students to seek learning that fits their needs elsewhere. We have a moment in time where we have a choice to rebuild better versions of our universities and colleges as critical societal institutions, or to attempt to prop up the crumbling walls of the ivory towers that will not protect us from necessary change forever. Perhaps we should see our institutions less as stone buildings to be built once and left alone and more as community gardens that need to be actively tended, watered, and evolved over time through the touch and influence of many diverse hands.


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Learning to be Human Together Copyright © 2022 by Co-designed by Students, Faculty and Staff at OCAD University, Mohawk College, Brock University, Trent University, Nipissing University, University of Windsor, University of Toronto-Mississauga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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