On Friday 13th of March I wrote a blog post called What Comes Next, which marked the end of the last round of UCU strikes and looked forward to my return to work the following week. Five days later, in response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic, my university advised all staff and students to leave campus and work from home, and the following week the whole UK went into lockdown. I think it’s fair to say that at that stage none of us could possibly have imagined what came next.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, it may be a cliché, but rarely has it been so true. In the fifteen weeks since lock down began, it’s been nothing short of inspiring to see the superhuman efforts of colleagues right across all sectors of education to ensure that teaching and learning could continue, while respecting the unique stresses and anxieties that we’ve all been facing in these Unprecedented Times.
Learning technologists have become the new superhero/ines, putting the technology in place to enable teaching continuity, upskilling academic colleagues to help them transition to online teaching, figuring out the practicalities of hybrid teaching, and working out the logistics of making it a reality at scale, all while dealing with the uncertainty that, for all the planning and modeling, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in September, and beyond that, what will happen in the longer term.
And all this effort has taken place against a back drop of hot takes from ed tech gurus, CEOs and journalists, who persist in comparing “traditional” on-campus face to face education to online learning, despite decades of evidence based research that direct comparisons between the two modes are unhelpful at best and specious at worst. Every day my twitter feed is full of educators and learning techs responding with tired outrage to articles claiming that online programmes require less staff, less skill, less effort, less funding, while providing an inferior learning experience and questionable outcomes.
It’s as exhausting as it’s infuriating. Particularly when colleagues who were striking over precarity, inequality and workloads at the beginning of the year, returned from strike and immediately shouldered increased workloads without question or complaint. Meanwhile the pandemic has only exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in the system. Journal submissions from women scholars have fallen off a cliff, fixed term teaching contracts have been terminated, disproportionately affecting women, BAME colleagues and early career academics, and women are still carrying the invisible emotional burden of a system and a society under profound stress.
We’ve all had to adapt to the new normal and to do what we can to get by. But my concern is that the new normal still isn’t normal, and perhaps more importantly, it’s also not sustainable. This level of physical, mental and emotional labour can’t be sustained in the long term without it taking a considerable toll.
As lockdown begins to lift, and we all start to breathe a tentative sigh of relief, my fear is that the delayed impact of that burden of labour will make itself felt just at the point when we have to step up a gear. Lifting of lockdown isn’t an opportunity to relax and get back to normal, it’s the start of a long uphill race with no visible finishing line in sight.
Academic colleagues, and the professional services staff who support them, face an astronomical task to prepare their courses for hybrid delivery, and to open the university to new and returning students in September. The online pivot, that all out sprint to ensure teaching continuity at the beginning of lockdown, has turned into a marathon and there are serious concerns whether we have the strength, stamina and resilience for it.
At the beginning of lockdown my own institution placed the emphasis squarely on communication, care and continuity, and by and large it has responded to the unique challenges of the pandemic with compassion and sensitivity. I sincerely hope that we don’t loose sight of that ethic of care as we move out of lockdown towards a new academic year that will be unlike anything we could ever have experienced or predicted, because that’s when we’re really going to need it the most.