By Hilary Collins
Back in January I published research on the academic experience of teaching and working online. Right now it feels rather timely.
In our paper we discussed the precarity of a digital academic life, and examined how this digital sphere tended to be populated by staff on precarious contracts – concluding that we may be heading for a fundamental questioning in the sector of how teaching is valued and what it means to teach. We explored multi-faceted teaching cultures – finding discourses of alienation, liminality, and attempts to achieve institutional belonging from within marginalised groups.
In March we saw the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with universities closing their doors and teaching staff moving to teaching completely online, with all faculty required to work from home. This, in itself, was not a shift for associate lecturers who by the nature of their contracts were home workers, but it did result in different ways of working and communication with the university, their students, and juggling their working day with family care responsibilities.
What we heard
We reached out to teaching faculty to ask them about their experience during this time. They responded with candid narrative accounts of their experience in the ‘front line’ supporting students in their learning. From their accounts we found that there were some key learning points to take away for the university that may help support their teaching faculty more effectively during this pandemic. More fundamentally issues arose of how the value of teaching and teachers was perceived.
From the narrative accounts we received we found a need for leaders to communicate with staff far more often than they seem to think is necessary.
Frequent communication reduces fear and uncertainty and ensures that employees have heard the message. There is a need to realise that teaching faculty who are at a physical distance from colleagues need to hear these messages multiple times. Different people may need to hear messages in different ways and through different channels. Organisational leaders must be clear about the channels available to staff to offer feedback and should emphasise how much they care about hearing from employees at all levels and must be clear about the way this can be achieved.
Teaching faculty are sandwiched between the student interface and management and admin systems. One told us:
“Back to the issue of reaching out, the connectedness with Mission Kontrol has become even more tenuous. I really had no idea when central staff vacated their offices, and how many did, and what the impacts were. Maybe we were emailing various people, not knowing they too are struggling. So, again, management need to switch on the emotional leadership tap and crack on. Can you hear me Major Tom?”
Being in an out of an office situation should not mean being out of contact or communication and we need to keep conversations going and support and assure teaching staff when they are doing a good job. As one respondent put it:
“From mid-April, the volume of emails primarily from students increased three-fold, with pleas for help, emotional outpourings, stories of having Covid, or stories of family members being very ill. Face-to-face tutorials were cancelled, final assessments were cancelled. Many students were totally understanding of the reasons why this was happening, but some were angry, frustrated or rude (even blaming me). I had to run some tutorials even though final assessments were cancelled and attendance at some was very low, or even no attendance’ Was this the right thing to do?”
Anxiety levels rose and at this time with some teaching staff feeling the effects of less social contact but with more high level instructions coming from above.
“So, yes, great that teaching could continue without a massive panic, but I do feel somewhat ignored. Far too many missives from on high, Covid-updates, which are too general, and really about fixing things in assessments, but almost no sense of management caring about my wellbeing. Yes, great we can talk to various “support” people, but the reach out at an individual level, “how’s it going?” (and my asking them “and how are you too?”) just was not there.”
“Communications has been poor and the support non-existent. Some nice noises from the VC recently but several weeks too late. I have valued the comradeship of colleagues. The students have been great as they usually are. This has been the ultimate stress test and lessons should be learned Sadly I doubt that will be the case and we will continue as before.”
The narratives we collected demonstrated academic concern for students – how they received messages about the developing pandemic and how it would affect their learning.
“I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t say I was angry at the time the email went out. 5pm on a Friday! Who else was going to be there for the students but teaching staff. Also – the word of the email. I understand that the news that went out was by its very nature technical – but it caused so much confusion. With the best will in the world ask the average student if their final assessment is a final A or E and I would put money on them not knowing.”
The issue of time, how it is used and where it has disappeared to, is an important one. It is becoming clear that during these times of change and uncertainty many of us may need help adjusting meeting time expectations based on specific family and child care situations.
“My concept of time has changed during lockdown. I used to get up around 5am and do marking early, but my sleep has been more disturbed so I established my new university time from 3am to 9am from April, when no one else was up. I found this quiet time helped enormously as I could concentrate better. I am still adopting this pattern of marking and working as a tutor in June.”
Time management and the reality of the constrict of time has become an issue for many.
“Before I knew it, I was staying up later than normal with an approach that assumed I had lots of time to kill. After all, I was achieving everything needed so why not sit back and relax a little? By the middle of May, I realised that time was running away from me and suddenly I didn’t complete everything on my daily ‘to-do’ list. Where was time going? The emotional response to this was heightened and anxiety fuelled.”
We have all experienced ‘online fatigue’ – managers may, for instance, want to go back to audio-only or telephone calls rather than video meetings when connecting for one-on-one or small group discussions with people who know each other already.
“Our virtual learning platform continues to be a market lead and it required a minimum amount of adjustment in order to persevere and continue with ‘business as usual’ during Covid. … However I did need to try to move away from the computer to get back to real life.”
Many teaching staff have become understandably concerned about the future of their employment.
Keeping this in mind, organisational leaders should reassure staff that their employment is secure when this is indeed the case. When it is not, employees appreciate knowing all they can as soon as possible so they can plan accordingly.
“By Monday I felt completed drained. It didn’t and shouldn’t have occurred to the students that I had worries about my future. There were all sorts of questions being asked on the tutor forum, about income, jobs – I looked once but just couldn’t face looking a second time – just all too overwhelming.”
Given the extraordinary crisis this is hardly surprising. Staff also have concerns about their own organisation’s future – and look to managers and leaders for cues. Therefore, when communicating, leaders also need to emphasise what is going well for the organisation and share as much as possible about strategy and planning for the future.
The news isn’t all bad. Overall teaching staff are beginning to be more positive and have found ways to increase their resilience and adapt their way of working to juggle with work commitments and family responsibilities.
“The ones starting had probably got used to some kind of Covid rhythm. But deep down, I knew, and still know that many students are struggling. I think we only know about the ones who say they are struggling (maybe that’s 10% of the ones struggling?), so I have tended to be more patient and generous, and just wait. Late joining students, may simply have had all these extra pressures from Covid-19? I say pressure, when this means anything from being at death’s door, grieving…through to mild inconvenience.”
Perhaps we are learning to have a more human-centred approach to life and learning.
“The future now looks positive and a ‘new normal’ has been established. I work earlier in the day. I encourage students to call me if they want to discuss assessment. My emails and forum posts are professional but much friendlier and chattier, as are my comments on student work. My tutorials are also much friendlier – I go online an hour before they start and tell students to pop along for a chat – and so far this is proving very popular, so much so that more people, are talking on mics at sessions than ever before. Time now seems more sensible and I no longer feel any aspects of ‘surreal’ or locked in a time-warp or coronavirus bubble. I feel (and am) more tolerant and kinder in my dealings with everyone.”
By capturing the beginning of this human-centred approach, demonstrated through the narratives of the teaching faculty’s experience during the pandemic, we work to provide a platform for the organisation and its communities which could to bring a creative and agile approach to helping people understand which problems need to be solved and when.
We can use what we have all lived through as an opportunity to co-create solutions that matter and empower those of us affected by bringing them into the creation and innovation process, and by genuinely listening and seeking participation – allowing all staff to contribute freely and equally to the conversation.
First Published on Wonkhe on 6th October 2020
Hilary Collins is Senior Lecturer at the Open University. She has a PhD in Strategic Design Management from the University of Strathclyde.
This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.