The loss of the familiar

My colleague Phil recently wrote about how many tutors in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are dealing with a form of bereavement.

The shift to online teaching during 2020 has forced tutors to leave behind many of the reasons why they got into teaching. Just as importantly, it has caused many tutors to feel ‘exposed’ as they feel under-confident in facilitating effective online learning.

This sense of loss is not simply stemming from the loss of the physical classroom. It is also arising from the disappearance of familiar ways of working, communicating and maintaining relationships.


Teaching shapes your identity

A higher education course can be viewed as a community of practice. From this perspective, learning (and teaching) cultivates a sense of belonging.

If you’re a tutor, you probably invest a considerable amount of yourself in your teaching. Your approach to teaching reflects who you are, and it forms an aspect of your identity. Similarly a higher education course will have its own culture informed largely by the beliefs and attitudes of its tutors (and hopefully its students too).

When you teach on this kind of course, you’re involved in a relationship with other tutors and students. The course is largely an imagined construct consisting of a network of relationships. This is why a university course is a complex construct – it is bound up with the emotions and values of its members.

And relationships require effective interaction to remain healthy.


What universities could learn from employee experience

It’s absolutely right that universities should be focusing on the student experience during this difficult time. Whether you consider students as customers or not, they pay a lot of money for their studies and they deserve an excellent experience.

But this should not be to the detriment of university tutors. More than ever before, HEIs should also be focusing on supporting tutors as they grapple with the demands of an unfamiliar teaching environment.

In many other sectors, 2020 witnessed a fundamental shift towards valuing the employee experience. Businesses across the world are increasingly realising that their employees are also their customers, and that they contain a wealth of experience that can be harnessed to improve business performance. And many businesses also recognised that focusing on employee experience is more important than ever during the pandemic.

But as yet, the Higher Education sector is failing to acknowledge this value. This is worrying, because if a university course is to function as an effective community it requires tutors to feel confident and valued. Simply telling tutors they have to adapt to teaching online without acknowledging their emotional loss is not only unhelpful, it is likely to increase the danger of burnout as staff feel unsupported and unable to continue working at such intensity.

It also means that universities aren’t benefiting from tutors’ front-line knowledge of process-related issues that are adversely affecting the university’s ability to satisfy the needs of its core customers.


Opportunities for the sector

While the large scale shift to online teaching has understandably been traumatic for tutors, students and senior managers. But it has also enabled a clearer focus on the factors that contribute to an effective learning experience.

By removing expensive campuses and flashy facilities, the dynamics of an effective course culture have been laid bare. Teaching effectively online requires an increased focus on students’ individual learning needs, and an ability to engage them using meaningful activities. It also requires tutors to have adequate time to support and listen to students, and to have sufficient opportunities to develop their expertise in facilitating online learning.

Even once the intensity of the Covid pandemic has subsided, it is likely that blended learning will constitute a greater part of a student’s learning experience. This should be welcomed, as many universities were behind the curve at offering flexible learning.

But above all, focusing on the tutor experience is essential if universities are to prevent large-scale employee burnout.


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Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

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