Online teaching: Lessons from a pandemic

Kindness and flexibility can help education innovate within difficult situations says Allen Crawford-Thomas of Jisc

In a space of only a few weeks, we have been thrown into a situation none of us were expecting. A move to completely online teaching has meant that the sector has had to review processes and working cultures almost overnight.

For some organisations, having to embark on a flash-tour of digital transformation has not been easy. Others already some way along that journey, and already agile and flexible, have perhaps found this easier than others, but rather than focusing what some have done and others have not, it’s much more helpful to focus on what positives can be gleaned from such challenging times.

Trial and error

When it comes to innovation of any kind, there is a good chance that colleges and universities will be faced with a process of trial and error in getting the solution right.

In the words of the infamous Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work

I see trial and error as two distinct things. Trial, for me, suggests a process that has been thought through, planned, and possibly  given the green light. For instance, if an organisation has a problem it feels can be addressed through technology, different products can be trialled in a controlled way before a decision is made as to which one to implement permanently.

Error, on the other hand, suggests a mistake that can be learned from. When something hasn’t worked, there’s a tendency to overly focus on the failure, rather than simply acknowledging the fact that an idea didn’t work. Focusing on the learning rather than the poor outcome is much more valuable. In the words of the infamous Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Appreciative inquiry

There are tools and techniques that teams can use to help them examine challenging situations more constructively.

One of these techniques is appreciative inquiry. It was the brainchild of David Cooperrider, a professor of social entrepreneurship at the Weatherhead School of Management, back in the early ’70s.

The idea is to take a situation and identify the factors that led to the desired outcome, rather than just on what went wrong. Learning to pinpoint what has worked and make good use of that learning is particularly important for the current situation. Right now, with an enforced shift to online teaching and learning, educators and students are being challenged to re-think how  things are done and it’s important to focus on the positives.

Appreciative inquiry encourages questions such as: What elements worked? Why did they work? What were we doing when things went well? What made those things successful?

Once these factors have been identified, it’s possible to decide which elements to amplify and which activities are getting in the way of success and can be eliminated. This is one of my favourite techniques, because it removes the element of blame when things aren’t going to plan.

Leaders should be rethinking how performance appraisals can be used to recognise innovation efforts

Allen Crawford-Thomas, specialist in digital strategy and business processes at Jisc

Fail again, fail better

It’s all well and good suggesting that we shouldn’t worry about exploring ideas that end up not working, but this kind of can-do attitude isn’t particularly easy to cultivate, especially where the working culture is tuned to get things right first time.

Mixed messages are all too common. On the one hand, people are encouraged to be innovative and creative, but many management systems, such as performance appraisals, aren’t adapted sufficiently to take account of goals which require people to try something new.

To create a culture of innovation, leaders should be rethinking how performance appraisals can be used to recognise innovation efforts – even if they don’t get the anticipated or desired result. I like to think of it as turning disappointment into a positive experience.

I liken this to sports training: Athletes don’t start off performing at their very best; they reach their peak by making small but significant changes to technique. Coaches help identify realistic targets, then the athlete works on a process of continual improvement.

In a similar way, this approach will work for education leaders and their teams. Setting initial targets is important, but these must be achievable and must also allow scope for progression to the next level. As the saying goes, success breeds success.

During the current coronavirus crisis combining coaching and management techniques such as goal-setting can help individuals and teams to be more adaptable and fast-moving than ever before. It’s a nerve-wracking time for all of us, but also provides  a real opportunity to  focus on innovation and get to grips with those digital ideas we’ve been considering trialling for a long time.

Comments like ‘We tried that before and it didn’t work’ can stifle creativity

Cultural change

Changing a culture to foster innovation can be unsettling for people, especially when they’re invited to step away from the familiar. Comments like ‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’ can stifle creativity.

In recent weeks, many have said that our national culture has had to change. When we come through this, there is going to be a lot of reflection, which is a huge part of any trial and/or error process. There’s always a chance that we may not want to go back to how things were ‘before’.

Even before coronavirus hit, students were asking for more flexibility. They want more choice about when and how they engage with learning, and as we start to come through the current crisis, I hope it triggers some soul-searching and introspection about what we can do to improve the educational experience in future.

As told to Charley Rogers

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