Just as everyone else organising a conference in 2020, we too had to make a decision about the fate of our annual Learning, Teaching and Research Conference (https://ltr.uws.ac.uk).  Cancel, postpone or move it online? We decided to go with the online option in a slightly altered format and we changed the format from two days face-to-face to a half-day virtual conference with a focus on the impact of Covid-19 at UWS and the wider Higher Education sector. 

The UWS Conference organising committee and UWS Academy, together with Education Futures did a great job moving the conference online. Even if it caused some members of staff extra anxiety around the new format. As it turns out all worries were unfounded, and the event was delivered in an engaging way and I would say a great success. I was on Twitter duty trying to share as much as possible in real time, so people who couldn’t attend parts or all of the conference could follow and engage. 

Here is a summary of my view of the conference and what I took from it:

Dr Lucy Meredith, Interim Vice-Principal Learning, Teaching & Students opened the conference and reflected on her time in post. She joined UWS earlier this year and was part of the amazing effort to move learning online and accommodate remote teaching on short notice. 

A hand holding a light up globe.

The conference keynote was given by UWS Principal and Vice-Chancellor Prof Craig Mahoney, who also used the opportunity to thank all staff for their efforts to adapt to Covid-19 learning and teaching and are continuing to work effortlessly. His topic was Post-pandemic education: Access to the world.  He reflected on the last 3 months and questioned how we will now see the world as the pandemic will impact us and our view of the world in some form. What will a new educational paradigm look like and are universities ready to embrace new technologies and creative and innovative ways to properly adapt to this new world? Not everything can be fixed by Higher Education, he gives examples of digital poverty and access to the internet or free WIFI are outside the universities control. However, that doesn’t mean we can ignore this reality some of our students face and have to find ways to adapt our teaching approach to ensure equity of learning and access to a nurturing learning environment. Prof Mahoney left us with some tasks:

  • Get impatient: challenge traditions and try to embrace creative solutions
  • Embrace the gap-year: Value what this experience can bring to the skill set an development of future and existing students rather than mourn lost time in the class room
  • Get over Zoom: Online learning is more than giving a lecture via video camera. Use your creativity to design an exciting online or hybrid learning environment

Rebuild, rethink and engage with these new challenges and be open to the new pathways of learning they might provide.

His talk was followed by a Q&A session. You can find the questions and answers on Twitter in this thread: https://twitter.com/UWSAcademy/status/1275768903487160320?s=20

Twitter chat poster.

After a short break to rest the eyes and reflect on the keynote the delegates where divided into smaller groups to discuss their and their students’ learning and teaching experience since lockdown. Three questions helped to shape the discussion which was then explored in more detail during the plenary session hosted by Dr Sandro Carnicelli, Senior Lecturer in Events and Tourism at UWS. You can add your responses to the questions by following the links to our Tweetchat version.

What do you think your students are most concerned about in the current context?

A big concern for students is the ability to attend experiential or practice-based learning, especially where this forms part of the accreditation and how this can be facilitated in future Higher Education settings. Some students might worry about the quality of learning in a hybrid or online model and how can we mitigate and challenge these perceptions? And we need to take into account that these worries are different for continuing and new students. 

Students also shared that they are aware of the extra pressures put onto staff and that they don’t want to add to this and therefore might not be open about some of their challenges. So, how can mitigate this and bring an open-door policy into an online environment, while ensuring we account for our diverse student body, in particular students with caring responsibilities.

What are you most concerned about in terms of learning and teaching in the current context?

Staff shared their concerns about creating online learning in a very short time frame and how going forward we ensure these learning environments are engaging for all students. Some staff also shared their concerns regarding their own equipment and access to the internet to be able to facilitate online learning and create an engaging learning experience. The other concerns were around staff community and how we can recreate the accidental encounters in cafes or hallways? And how can we support staff in separating work from home life while everything happens in the same space. Someone added that we are no longer trying to work from home but rather life at work. Which as accompanied by a concern regarding health & safety of staff while working at home and if their set-ups are appropriate and sustainable. 

What things have you learned from working remotely that you would like to share?

There was a common sense of “We can do this”, “We are managing the best we can” and going forward we might not always have to be on campus to be considered productive. Try and plan for a worst-case scenario and scale back if possible. Re-imagine the place and role of the campus and the other physical spaces and they fit into a post-pandemic learning environment. Tray and add social time to your meetings by allowing people to chat for before or after the meeting. This also provides a chance to check-in and keep a social and community aspect to our work. Try and set boundaries between work and home life, for example go for a walk after work and embrace the fake commute. The most common and shared response was the level of empathy and kindness people experienced during this time and how this is helping everyone to cope a little better. 

A lot of different coloured dots aligned in a grid. The middle on is a heart with a smiley face and the caption reads: Your kindness is contagious.

The conference was then completed with a workshop on Neuroscience of Learning: Evidence-informed teachinghosted by Prof Mays Imad (Professor at Pima Community College and Coordinator of the Teaching and Learning Centre) and Dr Michael Reder (Director of the Joy Shechtmann Mankoff Centre for Teaching and Learning at Connecticut College). They started by asking us about common misconceptions about the brain and its roles in learning. By understanding the brain, its functions and its role better we can support our students’ learning better. Our brain controls everything: thought, feeling and emotion and we need to challenge some of these misconceptions. Mays pointed to a recent international report by the online learning consortium: Neuromyths and Evidence-based practices in Higher Education (https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/international-report-neuromyths-and-evidence-based-practices-in-higher-education/). Keeping these myths alive impacts how we structure learning and our teaching approach. So what are some of these myths? (Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/UWSAcademy/status/1275805883960713216?s=20

People only use 10% of their brain – False! We just don’t know enough about the brain and its structure or how it communicates to give a percentage

Language and Spatial abilities are associated with left and right part of the brain – False! Language for example sits in both parts of the brain

Some people are “right-brained” are some are “left-brained” – False! This is one of the most common misconceptions. The brain functions best when multiple areas of the brain are stimulated. 

Learners taught in their “correct” learning style learn faster – False! Another big misconception that hinders effective learning. Again, multiple stimulations bring the best out of the brain. 

Making decision with a “cool head” and without emotions helps you think better – False! It is impossible to separate emotion from your decisions making and actually emotions play a critical part in decision making. 

Stress impacts learning – True! But there is good stress and bad stress. The Yerkes-Dodson Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law) shows how anxiety affects performance and a little can actually boost attention span and interest. 

Even before Covid-19 and the lockdown, research shows that students are dealing with increasing mental health issues and anxiety and depression have the biggest impact on academic performance. Loneliness was stated as a main underlying cause. Feeling lonely can have a similar impact to physical pain. The impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown can be seen in more recent surveys as other uncertainties and worries impact the students. Some of these experiences can be related to grief and trauma and understanding the intersectionality of these during a crisis is important (https://www.journalofhospitalmedicine.com/jhospmed/article/223342/hospital-medicine/when-grief-and-crises-intersect-perspectives-black). 

Trauma and its manifestations are so individual that we need to this into account when thinking about the impact on the brain and its role in thought, emotions and decisions making. But we can learn from trauma-informed approaches in care and think about adapting some of the key principles into our learning environment (https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/infographics/6_principles_trauma_info.htm). 

Infographic showing the 6 guiding principles of a trauma-informed approach.

Safety: ensure your students’ emotional, intellectual, physical and interpersonal safety by using inviting and engaging language and check how students want to engage and show that you welcome the whole student

Trust & Transparency: Connect and communicate with your students. Show your own vulnerability and believe your students and their lived experiences. 

Peer-support: Facilitate peer-support and mutual self-help in your course and help students build relationships with other students and encourage engagement. Acknowledge and normalise the current situation.

Collaboration & mutuality: Share power and decisions making with students; e.g. ask what matters to students at the moment and think about co-creating some aspect your course at the start. 

Empowerment Voice & choice: Help students identify and build upon their strengths. Validate and normalise students concerns and acknowledge their lived experiences as part of their skillset. Reflect and interrogate your own notion of “rigour” and how you assess learning. More is not always better. 

Cultural, historical & gender issues: Pay attention to historical, race and gender issues and understand how they impact your default framework and your biases. Learn about excluded information and disregarded practices. Commit to creating an accessible and equitable learning environment. 

The overall encouragement from the speakers and delegates was overwhelming and the willingness to get something positive out of this current situation and strive for something better has been inspiring. I really enjoyed live tweeting this event on behalf of UWS Academy and I will share what I learned from that in another post.