Innovation in higher education in times of crisis


New Zealand has just been placed in level four containment for a few days. For us that means pretty much everything is closed. You can order some things online, and supermarkets are open but with significant limitations – individual shoppers only, fixed store routes. We are all confined to our domestic “bubbles”.

Suddenly it’s time to find out if all the innovations and ideas that came out of the April 2020 lockdown have remained true.

The past 18 months have seen us shift to something called “dual mode” teaching. Students can participate online or in person, and teachers should be prepared to perform both options at the same time. There are no proctored exams except in special circumstances. For some, dual mode has been an opportunity for innovation, but for others, it is a step too far.

Last year, our university’s Center for Academic Development (CAD) played a central role in any plans to move a traditional face-to-face institution to an online institution within a matter of weeks. The process of preparing staff and students for this change has been called the “Continuity of Education Project”.

Volunteers based in departments (often professors and professional staff) across the university received support and training to enable them to work within each department, helping course coordinators and lecturers transfer their online education.

The rapid improvement in skills in using Zoom ™ and Panopto ™ meant that by the time students returned to class after the midterm break, most lessons could take place in one form or another.

CAD has developed a Blackboard ™ course named Toiere who modeled a good course design and staff were encouraged to use it as a template for their own courses. Toiere is the word for the paddling songs sung by the crew of a waka (Maori canoe). The songs allow the crew to paddle in unison, so Toiere is a metaphor for working together in the same direction.

In January 2020, my colleagues and I published an article titled “Innovative teaching in higher education: teachers’ perceptions of support and coercion”In which we discussed the experiences of innovative teachers and their perceptions of obstacles and catalysts for innovation within the university environment. We identified several themes that played a role in the innovation: the institution, teachers and colleagues, the physical environment and students.

Reflecting now on this model, it seems useful to comment on how the different themes that we have identified have affected the innovations resulting from the Educational Continuity Project.

Institutional support

In our article, we noted that institutional support was present for some but not for others and innovative teachers identified institutional policies, support and resources as barriers to educational innovation.

The onset of the COVID-19 response saw dramatic changes in the types of support offered to staff and precipitous changes in expectations. Many of the rules around delivery and assessment became more flexible as teachers grappled with the challenges of making the transition from teaching on campus to teaching online.

The CAD and other service units around the university have abandoned their current projects in favor of support for teachers and courses. However, institutional support in the form of other resources was more limited.

Many staff, especially those who aspired to provide good learning experiences for students, found themselves spending an enormous amount of time on recordings and other learning materials. Home offices became mini studios, and document cameras were built from desk lamps and cell phones.

As time has passed and we have moved from online teaching to dual mode teaching, time and support are limited and staff are struggling to cope. CAD’s focus has now shifted to helping staff maintain sustainable education and build resilience.


One of the notable results of the Continuity of Education project has been the development of teaching teams, incorporating academic and professional staff working together and in collaboration with central services such as the CAD and the library.

There are still many debates to be had: how to assess students fairly and reliably and how changes in workload calculations can account for preparation and improvement in the quality of lessons instead of simply count the contact hours.

Physical environment

Our research suggested that the physical environment, especially class size, was important in enabling or hindering innovation. The online environment also presented challenges: how to organize group discussions, for example, or know the level of student engagement from a sea of ​​empty screens.


Students were generally enthusiastic about anything the staff can do to support them. As one of our original study participants put it: “… if students feel like they are being treated decently by caring people, then they are open to a whole lot of things”.

For many, the shift to online education and then dual mode has made things easier and more accessible. However, the nature of learning is changing and some students have struggled while others have thrived. General extensions on assessments and the attractiveness of watching video lectures about double-speed students who are at risk of making damaging decisions.

Support innovation

For our university, COVID-19 has been a huge driver of innovation. Our research has shown that innovative teachers are able to identify a need and use reflection and evidence to inform their actions. There was a willingness to get involved and a motivation for action.

The pandemic has made many of our teachers innovators, the need is so great. Our challenge now is to maintain this level of engagement, to collect evidence and to innovate further so that we can provide students with a quality education in the post-COVID era.

Dr Amanda Gilbert is a Lecturer at the Center for Academic Development at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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