Today is Friday, 19 June, 2020, and it’s coming to 4 pm as I sit down to start on this blog. What have I been up to today: I spent the first hour of my working day reviewing and signing off the exam marks of the second year Mathematical Modelling and Analysis module that I coordinate. This is a team taught course module, and 16 academics have been marking the scripts for the past two weeks. The exam was done online, all the marking took place online, and all the pertinent discussions pertaining to the marking process were conducted online. Up until the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent disruption of all “normal” academic work processes, not one person on the teaching team could have anticipated such a scenario.
At 10:00 I had a choice to make – attend a University of Edinburgh course on STACK, an online assessment tool for mathematics, or attend a university-wide meeting on race at my institution, University College London (UCL). I chose the latter, but the fact that I was faced with this particular choice is significant. The two universities are 395 miles apart, and I am seated in my home, 414 miles from Edinburgh, and 159 miles from UCL. The point is this – our collective shift to an online environment has removed the barriers to communication imposed by distance. In fact, since the closure of in-person tuition in mid March, I have attended several conferences and seminars on Engineering Education in the USA, in Australia, and in Europe – all from my study in my own home. In these conferences, I have participated in breakout rooms with colleagues from Ahmedabad, Ho Chi Minh City, Johannesburg, Lagos, New York, Tulsa, and Adelaide – all from my study-room. This certainly points to a new future.
And my weekly timetable is beginning to be as full as ever – I have meetings with students, with departmental and faculty members, and with other colleagues from across the university. Over and above this, I am attending various other meetings hosted by all the other external bodies that I participate in – engineering institutions, engineering education organisations, and various learning and teaching organisations. My life, my networks and my academic communities have all migrated online.
The meeting on institutional race relations lasted 2 hours, and over 900 colleagues attended. This includes the Provost, academics, and professional service staff. As the Provost acknowledged – this is unprecedented – 900 people attending a university meeting. Clearly, this is an issue that resonates across all ethnicities, and across all generations at UCL. What used to be a marginal ethnic issue in a bygone era has now become a mainstream ethical issue, and as events clearly indicate, not only at UCL, but all over the world. There has been a global awakening, and whilst the spark that set it off was the untimely death of George Floyd, it is an idea whose time has come. Historic prejudices, it appears, no longer have anywhere to hide in this emergent world of the 21st century.
Not only that, this particular meeting upended conventional norms. To begin with, the Provost was not the main person, neither did he drive the agenda, and neither was he the idea behind the meeting. The meeting was convened by one of our black female academics, a rank-and-file academic. The key resource persons were drawn from across the UCL community, and included academics, professional services staff, and a PhD student. Unlike our traditional, 20th century meetings, this meeting was highly interactive, and sought to arrive at binding, implementable resolutions. Comments from meeting participants were summarised in real time and fed back into the discussion. At every turn, polls were used to confirm and ratify decisions, and at the end of the meeting, senior management were presented with the meeting resolutions. This is the closest I have ever come to experiencing the Athenian ideal of democracy, and this has only been made possible through leveraging the full power of online communication. Is this a taste of the future?
Aldert Kamp writes in the foreword to his book “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World“:
When drafting the first issue of this document it sometimes felt like I was manoeuvring a small canoe through a highly viscous fluid of conservatism and complacency, with everybody bogged down by today’s thinking, preparing next Tuesday’s nine o’clock lecture, aiming for the best learning experience by optimising teaching and assessment.
That was my life until Friday, 13 March 2020, the day that UCL announced all face-to-face teaching had been cancelled and that all classes would be moving online henceforth. Then, I was as busy as ever, buried in the day to day minutiae that make up most of our academic lives. That has since disappeared, and we are now learning to live in an entirely new universe. Surely, in time we will be as busy as ever, but will we ever go back to before? I doubt it. COVID-19 is proving to be the change that futuristic educators have been preaching about – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, a VUCA world, as Aldert Kamp puts it in his book. Yet, despite their preaching and prophecy, we were so completely unprepared, and we have so much to learn.