David Kenkel, TEU member and senior lecturer in social practice at Unitec, recently spoke at the QPEC Education Forum 2020 on teaching and learning post-COVID 19. Here, David discusses the importance protecting face-to-face learning and the need for full consultation in the development of a standardised approach to online delivery.

As much of the tertiary education sector opens back up following an extended and unprecedented break from the norm, and as we look ahead to the future of NZIST, we, as TEU members, educators, academics and leaders within the sector need to look toward the post-COVID 19 world in which the sector will operate.

As educators, many of us will have experienced the added pressures and challenges of teaching in an online environment. The capacity to teach and provide guidance and support online has been vital for the continuation of learning over the lockdown period. Many educators and students will have adapted easily to the new reliance on online delivery, but most will know the online environment has not been without its pitfalls and shortcomings.

Across the entire education sector, we’ve seen educators and professional staff well and truly going the extra mile. A 50 hour working week is not unusual, with staff working under difficult circumstances, and many staff teaching and preparing classes out of living rooms.

The hard work and dedication of our tertiary education staff in continuing to provide high quality education to students across Aotearoa during such trying times should be celebrated, but the ‘crisis workload’ must not become the new expectation.

While there are great benefits to online learning during a crisis, there is also a lot of added work involved in preparing a class online. Delivery via a platform like Zoom has seen a continuation of teaching and learning, but the two-dimensional nature of this mode makes it near impossible to gauge the virtual classroom’s response to the material being presented. Within the online environment, there is a real risk of acclimatising to a new norm which is not sustainable for either staff or students, and which loses all the benefits of learning in a physical space.

Even as lockdown restrictions lift, and we return more fully to our campuses and the physical learning environment, there will still be some who are unable to attend classes for health reasons, because they are vulnerable, or are caring for sick whānau. There will therefore be those for whom we will need to retain the option of online learning.

We need to insist that institutions provide appropriate technology so that material can be easily taught in class while allowing for the full participation of those who will be unable to attend class for the foreseeable future

As a sector, and in full consultation with staff and TEU, we should aspire to see a standardisation of online technology across the education sector to improve both teaching and learning in online spaces, and to ensure that where online learning is used, both teachers and learners are adequately supported. A more standardised system of online delivery would, for instance, see two devices in the classroom to allow for greater interaction between teacher and student, and the class more fully.

With all the benefits we have seen in the use of online learning over this period, we have also seen what stands to be lost if we move away from a focus on more traditional face-to-face modes of delivery. Without technology that allows students to be involved in and to hear discussions within the classroom, and without the ability to truly create a dialogue between educator and learners, the virtual classroom is a poor substitute for the real thing.

In a post-COVID-19 world, we need to guard face-to-face teaching. We know this face-to-face interaction is vital for people who are new to learning, for first year students, and for many of our Māori and Pasifika students who really value kanohi kit e kanohi, face to face connection. If the tertiary education sector moves further into the virtual environment, the sector runs the risk of losing many of these students.

We must also guard face-to-face learning against any marketisation of the current pandemic that would look to introduce a plethora of new devices and shiny new toys as a response to the ‘new reality’ of teaching and learning. The sector does not need the newest technology off the shelf. What the sector needs is reliable and robust tools to aid in teaching and learning that are well tested and have been shown through consultation with staff to be useful in improving the teaching and learning experience.

This is not the time for rolling out unpiloted new technologies and modes of delivery without consultation with the experts: the teachers and professional staff working on the frontline.

With the establishment of NZIST, embedding and protecting the principle of subsidiarity, and ensuring the continued capacity for people to make decisions as close as possible to where things are happening will be crucial to the success of our vocational education and training institutions under the new structure. While we hope the new Institution will make the competitive model a thing of the past, we should remain wary of the risk of a slip back towards the managerialism that saw change implemented in our institutions from the top-down, with little or no consultation with staff and students.

The new structure of NZIST will be difficult to reverse, but there is nothing to prevent the reintroduction of managerialism, particularly with a change in government. The slip back towards managerialism must be fiercely resisted. Embedding subsidiarity as a core principle can help the sector guard against these old habits.

Ultimately, as a sector we need to address the ongoing tensions between the commodification of education and the role our tertiary education insitutions play in increasing peoples’ capacity to take a critical and thoughful stance about the society we live in.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a lesson in solidarity, and its a lesson that did not end with the lifiting of 7 weeks of lockdown. It’s a lesson we must all continue, and I’m not sure the online teaching and learning environment can replace the solidarity that can be achieved through a physical, face-to-face environment.