Everyone will be aware of the rapid and remarkably successful transformation of teaching support that happened during 2020, as the magnitude of the pandemic became clear. Universities the world over managed to shift teaching, course materials and even assessment online in response to the restrictions around face-to-face contact. But what’s less clear, and more than just interesting to consider (given how little likelihood there is of this shift being temporary or a one-off) is whether universities with certain levels of capacity or types of capability have been better placed to achieve the shift than others.
In particular: are universities with a higher than average number of teaching academics best placed to pivot to an online teaching and learner engagement world? Or is the institution with a highly ‘professionalised’ teaching support workforce able to more quickly and effectively cope with transformed circumstances and needs?
There’s currently no objective means to measure whether a university has had ‘a good crisis’ in terms of the way it has adapted teaching, learning and student engagement support in response to COVID, and (certainly in global comparative terms) there may never be. But what’s clear from UniForum data and experience of member universities is that the institutions that had thought carefully about the best teaching support service model before the crisis were better placed to respond quickly and effectively during it.
Several characteristics of being well-prepared for this unforeseen episode stand out, including:
Making careful and considered decisions around how teaching support staff are deployed
Being innovative and adventurous around the design of administrative support staff roles
Focusing on what matters most to academics
Taking a broad view of available capacity, including actively involving students
What’s equally interesting is what doesn’t seem to be the key determining factor: the number of teaching-active academics or the proportion of academics to professional staff providing this kind of support. Across the global UniForum group there are examples of universities achieving great things during the crisis with a high number of academics relative to peers (in the UK, for example) and with far fewer (in ANZ). And the ratio of academics to professional staff is remarkably stable. Conscious investment and planned service design appear to have a far bigger impact.
Innovating around teaching support staff role design
Universities have to make delicate decisions around how support staff are deployed when it comes to teaching support, for example in the case of a service like course advising. One important choice to be made is between ‘programme-aligned’ vs. ‘task aligned’ roles: a programme-orientation, where support staff provide more of an end-to-end administrative service focusing on the needs of a set of teaching programmes, can lead to more fragmentation and risks staff never becoming expert at any specific set of processes, but allows for deep programme knowledge. Task-aligned roles, on the other hand, have the potential to allow staff to deepen their capability around specific systems, processes and (arguably) recurring student needs. There’s no obvious ‘right answer’ here – the important thing is to make a conscious, considered choice in light of the needs of each university – but it does appear that programme-aligned roles suit institutions with many courses that span across schools and faculties.
Thinking carefully about how to deploy teaching support
Some universities have looked to improve the consistency of student experience by implementing a centralised model of student support services, however this can lead to other issues. A crucial part of a ‘positive’ student experience involves a sense of belonging, which requires a level of local ownership to be maintained. This can be overcome through the use of a personal tutor or equivalent academic figure, as students form a strong relationship with these staff who are relevant to their course programme and able to be a first port-of-call for specialised advice before the student goes onto a broader teaching office. The more ‘transactional’ activities e.g. enrolments and credit transfers can be centralised, but other activities which require more personalised and situational support e.g. course advising should allow students to feel a sense of belonging with local advice. The trade-off between access to local expertise and consolidated, consistent support has been tackled by centrally-budgeted, locally-deployed models that balance these two approaches.
Focusing on what matters most to teaching support service users
Evidence from the UniForum service effectiveness dataset shows that support to develop digital learning and other teaching capabilities, such as blended learning, are seen at the most important teaching support services by academics, as opposed to reviewing existing courses and developing learning analytics / evaluating course quality. System and process attributes matter most to users of the teaching support services: for example accessible and easy to use systems as well as clear processes that are well defined. Analysis of qualitative feedback shows how important it is for professional service support to simplify the complex process academics have to navigate around e.g. for course development. Focusing on improvements and investments in these aspects of these services will have the greatest impact on satisfaction for academics.
Actively involving students in service design and delivery
During the pandemic institutions have seen a shift in emphasis when it comes to course content and blended learning. What had previously been a predominantly academic-led endeavour has become a team effort with professional staff providing crucial support. It would be a terrible waste if universities reverted back to old models rather than building on innovation achieved – and all the signs are that the majority of institutions recognise this, even if they haven’t yet worked out what ‘the new normal’ should look like. But why stop there? Amidst a remarkable period of ‘pulling together’ a number of universities have successfully involved students themselves, whether current students or recent graduates, as ‘experts by experience’, in the work of shifting teaching, learning and assessment online. For the bravest and most ambitious this model of collaboration surely points the way forward.
Phil leads Cubane’s business in the UK and Europe.
Before joining Cubane he was a senior member of the higher education practice at PA Consulting, with wide-ranging experience of supporting universities across the UK and internationally. He worked with a large number of institutions to develop and implement major transformation programmes to improve efficiency and service standards, and also aided several universities in developing and stress-testing global expansion and other investment plans. Phil specialises in strategy development and execution, preparing robust business cases to aid good decision making, and designing new customer-centred service delivery models.
To contact Phil please email [email protected]