Forget Rigor, Educators Need to Foster Trust and Flexibility

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Now is the time in higher education’s evolution to foster trust and flexibility, not rigor and technology oversight. This was the main message from Rajiv Jhangiani, Associate Vice President, Teaching and Learning, at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada during the keynote presentation at the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) Accelerate 2021 virtual conference.

Jhangiani asked the audience to explore higher education’s Pedagogical Odyssey brought on by COVID-19. Referencing Homer’s epic poem, he described the journey over the past 18 months, as marked by “trauma, anxiety, mistrust, kindness, generosity, care, learning, unlearning, and relearning,” said Jhangiani. And though it was not the easiest path, he believes that students and faculty will benefit from the much-needed changes, especially with a diverse population like Kwantlen Polytechnic.

Kwantlen Polytechnic is an open access university: 72% of students are multilingual, 35% of students are first generation, 29% of students have a have a disability or ongoing condition, and 24% of students. do not identify as heterosexual. Similar to all colleges when the pandemic hit, the faculty and staff became overwhelmed with being thrown into online teaching. Plus, thousands of staff and students were suddenly in need of technical assistance. So, Jhangiani’s team at the Teaching & Learning Commons (TLC) became “first responders,” offering resources, technological assistance and emotional support.

Jhangiani referred to this early stage of the pandemic as both “exhilarating and exhausting.”  “The pivot was never going to be graceful, but it was about keeping students afloat.” It became the job of his department, TLC, to swoop in and empower faculty.

What Jhangiani found is that trust and a relationship between student and teacher became paramount to the success of online teaching and learning. He found that faculty had to “design with intention,” making relationships part of the course work in order for online learning to create a substitute for face-to-face banter in the classroom hallways.

In addition, Jhangiani noted that much of the student and faculty focus shifted toward managing anxieties and expectations. Staff needed to let students put jobs and personal obligations in front of course work, while still managing their own mental and physical health.

And he wanted the audience to know that prioritizing health was okay. In fact, he encouraged faculty to not require synchronous work, not to fuss about pre-recorded videos, and to be flexible with deadlines.

In addition, Jhangiani urged staff to stop putting an emphasis on course rigor and to instead be available for students’ needs.

“Rigor is a mask for trauma, tradition, insecurity, fear, anger and, most often, inflexibility.”  While these pressures have always driven inaccessibility and inequity in higher education, the pandemic just brought them to the forefront.

Especially with the rising introduction of new technologies, the education system continues to introduce more inequity and mistrust among student populations. For example, Jhangiani noted the surge in popularity early on in the pandemic for Web-cam proctoring by professors. He said this security measure sent a message of mistrust to students, while also requiring them to pay for and acquire expensive equipment. 

“This is a conversation we need to have. Technology will not solve pedagogy,” Jhangiani said. “I’m not pointing finger at faculty. But why are we all seduced by its convenience?”

Jhangiani sees the past year and a half as an opportunity to openly share of ideas and practices – an opportunity not to be wasted. Now that we have seen the humans behind the technology, he encourages higher education to continue what it’s started and not revert back to the old ways of teaching.

“We need to let this moment be an opportunity for reform. Students, faculty and staff will remember the benefits of these changes,” Jahangiani said. “It’s time to support humans and foster humanity.”