How it started
It was 5pm on Monday 16th March. I was at a staff meeting at Ravensbourne University London when the PM announced the start of lock-down which would mean a fast shift to digital learning. As I left the building, one question kept going through my mind: ‘As an Educational Developer, what is my role now?’
My new role
I almost immediately decided that the purpose of my role for the foreseeable future should be that of providing on-demand, indeed just-in-time CPD for the job at hand: suddenly our previous staff development provision (for instance the PGCert) did not seem that relevant.
As a university, we responded to the quick change in a few different ways, which all represent just-in-time CPD. One of the first things we did internally was to set up a VLE space to share T&L ideas and resources. Our VLE is Aula, which looks and works very much like a social media platform, with a central ‘feed’ where everyone can post, ask and answer queries. Using this as a staff forum worked very well. Many engaged with the platform, posted suggestions, asked for help and there was much meaningful peer-to-peer support among teachers. This platform is still very much alive and owned by all staff (at the time of writing).
In order to provide suitable just-in-time CPD, I needed to find out: what exactly do colleagues need and want support with at this time? The very day after the lock-down announcement I set up a shared Google Doc and shared it with all staff, asking for anyone to offer ‘hot’ questions to do with teaching and learning for the fast switch to digital learning. I analysed the questions offered and found common threads.
How would I address those questions? Although I could have organised online meetings, written blogs or even created one-pagers, I was looking for a more personal way to reach all staff without forcing them to connect ‘live’. I also wanted to show my face, and share a smile. So, on the basis of the suggested questions, I set out to very quickly produce a series of 5 minute videos called ‘Fast switch to e-learning’ (I think I would use ‘digital learning’ now). The videos had to be short and to the point. I wanted to talk about practice more than theory but at the same time use the outcome of research-informed current best practice(s). To supplement the short asynchronous videos, I also organised a few longer, collaborative live webinars, which were received very well.
Everything on fire
The first week of lock-down everything was on fire. Children were suddenly at home, some families were separated due to increased health risks, we all had to suddenly set ourselves up for remote working, food shopping became very time consuming, and we all shared the anxiety of watching the stats of the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths soar very quickly. It was a very emotional time, not just in the UK, but for the whole world, very literally.
Everything was on fire professionally speaking as well. As I adjusted to home-working, with two small kids, I knew that many of our teachers would likely struggle to adjust to the new teaching reality. Many of them had little experience in online learning. I was aware there would be issues of access and accessibility, both for staff and students. And in our case, our very identity as a ‘making’ Art and Design University was at stake. I also thought about our most vulnerable students: those far from their families, who had lost their job, those with mental health conditions, feeling scared and lost. I started thinking that the only thing that would make sense at that time was to implement the ‘pedagogy of care’: putting emotional needs ahead of academic priorities. So, I knew that one of my early videos would be about student emotional wellbeing – this was video 3, and it was watched over 1000 times within the first month of releasing it.
In order to produce something which would resonate, reassure and inspire teachers, I decided that at a time when many were hailing ‘technocracy’ to sort out the new challenges of remote education, I was going to use a low-tech approach. Using my kids’ felt tips, I drew mind maps which I discussed in the short screencast videos. I was trying to make the point that what really matters is the ideas, rather than the technological tool or solution to present them. One colleague wrote that she found the videos not only relevant and supportive, but also reassuring because of the way the ideas were presented: she felt there was a human touch due to the talking head over a hand-drawn diagram. My use of low-tech made her feel that she could also do it, at that difficult time.
Rewarding but challenging
Indeed making the videos, running the webinars and contributing to the T&L VLE space for staff were incredibly rewarding activities: in order to be very concise and for the resources to be of real use, I had to think very deeply about the essential points, the key message. The mind-maps and videos needed to be uncluttered and welcoming. This forced me to reflect deeply on the questions, to be focused and intentional in my practice and to network intensely both internally and externally. I am forever indebted to the SEDA list and Twitter colleagues for the direct and indirect support they provided me. Though steep, the learning curve was rewarding.
On the other hand, it was incredibly challenging to make the videos, both practically and cognitively. From a practical viewpoint: my kids’ felt tips were of the wrong hue and started fading; I had to set up a corner of the living room as my recording corner but had no curtains to reduce glare; at times I had to video myself 3 or 4 times as I was talking too much and the video was too long; I remember I recorded one of the videos at 2am, as I was determined to release it that day. And of course I was living through the pandemic as well. From a cognitive viewpoint: I had to ensure I was updated on current best practice(s) for each question I was addressing so I spent hours of reading and researching for each 5-minute video. I also felt under time-pressure to produce the videos quickly so they could be used in time for the last term of the year.
Of course, the intensity at which many of us worked (and overworked) at the start of the lock-down is not healthy and cannot (indeed should not) be sustained long-term. However, my own professional resilience did not happen in a vacuum, but within our collective professional resilience. Particularly at the start of the pandemic, there was an outpouring of professional support and collaboration both internally and externally that many of us had never experienced before. We are still reaping the benefits of this ‘enhanced’ sharing culture that the pandemic started.
In hindsight and on balance I feel I have grown tremendously professionally because the challenge pushed me beyond my comfort zone as I had to adapt my own practice to a totally new set up and I had to sharpen my synthesising skills at a whole new level than ever before. I experienced a remarkable professional growth spurt. And I suspect this has been the case for many colleagues.
In conclusion, just-in-time CPD can be very effective at addressing the very real needs of colleagues, as they set the agenda. On the other hand, it needs commitment and human resources as it is demanding. For it to be sustained it needs to be a distributed, team effort.
PGCert Course Leader – Ravensbourne University London
Twitter handle: @VirnaRossi