A reflection on TLC 2020

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Its been almost a month since the 11th edition of Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) Europe came to a close. The online event delivered record attendance as the higher education sector came together to wrestle with the effects of the coronavirus. The discussions reflected on the widespread feeling that the pandemic is a pivotal moment and that online learning has been catapulted to the forefront of education.  

As Giuliano Pozza, from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy, said, “Orange is the new Blackboard”, a number of critical themes emerged during the programme of events. Still, the most powerful were the issues of inclusion and accessibility. 

Rules of inclusion bound universities, but it’s no longer enough to tick regulatory boxes. Institutions that simply pay lip service to accessibility do so at their peril. In the first client-led session on “Continuity of Education in Disruptive Times”, Piers Wilkinson, the National Union of Students Disabled Students’ Officer, explained how coronavirus has disproportionately impacted disabled students. Before the virus struck, physical help and technology were always available on campus. But for many disabled students, it’s much harder to access the software and hardware they need to study from home. The universities that have responded well to their calls for help have not only benefited their disabled students but also gained a lasting commercial edge.  

The theme of accessibility also dominated presentations for the second client-led session on “Fostering Inclusive Education and Accessibility”, which considered the need to update pedagogical approaches. It’s important to understand that “accessibility” issues are not unique to disabled students. Many students and teachers have faced a shortage of hardware and struggled to access IT support. One Scottish university explained how it sent out hundreds of well-equipped laptops during the crisis. 

The third session looked at “Implementing Innovation and Change”. Presentations included upgrading to SaaS, transitioning to Learn Ultra, and using webinars effectively. The presenters demonstrated a high level of expertise, but TLC discussions also highlighted the massive skills shortages at many universities. One suggestion for addressing this shortfall is to emulate the legal sector by making it compulsory to attend continual professional development training (CPD) every year.  

The session “Enhancing the Teaching and Learning Journey” considered innovative approaches using digital storytelling, mobile apps, and multi-modal approaches. There were suggestions for assisting anyone struggling with the virtual learning environment (VLE), including ongoing support to lecturers. Despite many students living large parts of their lives online, there is a surprisingly wide divergence in skill levels and the need to address these to ensure the best learning experience.  

The penultimate session looked at the critical issue of “Effective and Efficient Assessment Practices”. The crisis struck during exam season, and universities had to find alternative ways of grading online. Although it’s technically possible to take a traditional approach to exams online, students resent the use of cameras that spy on them in their homes. They understand that it’s necessary to prevent cheating, but this approach felt like an invasion of privacy. The session proposed alternative methods of assessment using Blackboard tools and redesigning assessment procedures in collaboration with students.   

In the final session — “Using Data and Analytics to Drive Learner Success” we saw how Blackboard Analytics allows lecturers to analyse student engagement with the VLE. Lecturers used to take a Darwinian approach of survival of the fittest, but this is no longer acceptable in a sector that values “inclusivity”. It’s tough for busy academics to monitor all students carefully, but the Analytics data makes it much easier. Analytics enables them to personalize the student experience by being able to monitor and push high fliers to even greater heights, but it’s just as vital for identifying students who are lagging behind. 

Lessons learnt from TLC 2020 

One overriding theme to emerge from TLC was the need to collaborate to find the best solutions. This not only means working closely with private sector partners, but also using the insights of students themselves. One of the main lessons of the crisis is that students are well-placed to act as co-creators of content.  

Another lesson from TLC was the need to continually assess risk when staff and students return to campus next semester. Universities that develop flexible models of blended learning will be ready for every eventuality and will prove the most resilient should further shutdowns be necessary. 

Want to join in or continue the conversation? 

If you didn’t have the chance to attend TLC, or simply want to revisit some of the amazing online content, you could still access or sign up to join the online course here.

The passionate debates over the future of higher education will also continue at BbWorld2020, which takes place online between July 21-22. Visit bbworld.com to register.