I had the somewhat daunting but delightful task of providing the final ‘Wrap-up’ few words at the end of this engaging webinar on learning and teaching beyond COVID. The Webinar engaged with some 140 participants including students and staff from across the Icelandic higher education landscape. Presentations and discussion allowed us to reflect on the experience of staff and students during COVID in all seven of the Icelandic universities as well as sharing insights from across the European Higher Education Area and from the University of Southern New Hampshire, an institution with a well-established comprehensive approach to distance learning. What were my main take-away messages from the Webinar?
Throughout the Webinar it was very clear that the real focus of attention during the pandemic was primarily on sustaining, and, indeed, enhancing, the quality of teaching and learning in Icelandic higher education. Technology in its various forms was seen as only a means to this end. The necessity of relying on technology had clearly led to some very fundamental re-thinking about the nature of effective teaching, learning and assessment in all of the universities. This was well illustrated by all the case studies presented as well as in the rich dialogue with the representatives of Student Associations. Underneath all the presentations and discussion was the evident centrality of staff commitment to reflecting on the fundamental nature of effective student learning and how that might be supported through technology. Approaches to assessment had been re-examined to look at how assessment tools might be re-designed in order to more effectively support effective learning as opposed to rewarding routinised regurgitation. It was also clear that staff development support was an important element in supporting many initiatives.
I was also struck by the wonderful variety of ways in which technology was being adapted and applied in very different institutional contexts and across a very diverse range of disciplines. Excellent examples were given from the visual arts that allowed learning and assessment to move beyond what might have been conventional practice in a face-to-face setting. Equally rich examples were provided across a wide range of subject areas including for example aquatic studies and various arts and social science subjects. A fascinating example of new practice in assessment in Macroeconomics was given where the use of technology facilitated assessment exercises to more effectively link theory and policy – a key intended learning outcome in many aspects of macroeconomics.
A third highlight for me was the emphasis placed, not only on the roles of students and staff, but also the importance of a third dimension - the institutional context. It was argued that individual initiatives by individual staff members or even individual courses were likely to be very fragile. Institutional strategy and support was vital – and would continue to be fundamental in supporting future wider and deeper developments in this area. One aspect of institutional support clearly demonstrated during the webinar was the key strategic role being played by staff responsible for staff support and development in each of the institutions. Such matters as continuing staff support and development, student support mechanisms, data management, management of quality and standards and resource planning all need to accommodate the potential flexibility of more individual student pathways of learning that could be opened up through the increased application of technology. Institutional systems and strategy has to be able to adapt to, and support, individual student flexibility.
My final thoughts flowed from reflecting on the whole afternoon. I discovered a whole range of truly exciting and innovative developments in Iceland. I wonder how much is known nationally about these initiatives. Largely because of the pressures brought about by the pandemic, there has been little opportunity for sharing. Much might therefore be gained by undertaking some systematic work in now scoping the ‘distance learning’ landscape in Iceland. This could yield enormous dividends in informing institutional and national policy and be of great interest and value also to staff and students. Also, through sharing experience it may become clear where there may be considerable benefits and economies of scale to be obtained from doing some things collectively. This could, for example, include, the more ready sharing courses, shared approaches to aspects of quality management, shared staff development, and, of course, shared investment in technology. Such sector-wide developments might further support the great strides already made and further support a thriving shared community of practice in Iceland.
My final thought in looking forward is the value to be gained by engaging with higher education colleagues internationally on this topic. The Webinar demonstrated the riches that Iceland has to offer internationally, as well as raising an awareness of the potential gains to be derived from the experience of others.
Prof. Norman Sharp
Quality Board for Icelandic Higher Education
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