Higher education innovation in a time of crisis

New Zealand has just been placed back into Level Four lockdown 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 routes through stores. We are all confined to our household ‘bubbles’.

It has suddenly become time to find out whether all the innovations and ideas that came out of the April 2020 lockdown have stuck.

The past 18 months have seen us shift to something called ‘dual-mode’ teaching. Students may attend online or face-to-face and teachers must be prepared to run both options at the same time. There are no invigilated exams except in special circumstances. For some, dual-mode has been an opportunity for innovation but, for others, it has been a step too far.

Last year, the Centre for Academic Development (CAD) at our university was central in all plans for moving a traditional, face-to-face institution to an online one in the space of a couple of weeks. The process for preparing staff and students for this change was entitled the ‘Teaching Continuity Project’.

Department-based volunteers (often teaching fellows and members of professional staff) from across the university were provided with support and training to allow them to work within each department, helping course coordinators and lecturers transfer their teaching online.

Hurried upskilling in use of Zoom™ and Panopto™ meant that, by the time students returned to classes after the mid-term break, most courses were able to run in one form or another.

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

In January 2020, my colleagues and I published a paper entitled “Innovative Teaching in Higher Education: Teachers’ perceptions of support and constraint” in which we discussed the experiences of innovative teachers and their perceptions of the barriers and enablers of innovation within the university environment. We identified several themes that played a part in innovation: the institution, teachers and colleagues, the physical environment, and students.

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

Institutional support

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

The beginning of the COVID-19 response saw dramatic changes in the kinds of support offered to staff and some hurried alterations of expectations. Many of the rules around delivery and assessment became more flexible as teachers tried to deal with the challenges of moving from campus-based to online teaching.

CAD and other service units around the university abandoned their ongoing projects in favour of supporting teachers and courses. However, institutional support in the form of other resourcing was more limited.

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

As time has gone on and we have moved from online to dual-mode teaching, time and support are at a premium and staff are struggling to manage. CAD’s focus has now shifted to helping staff to maintain sustainable teaching and building resilience.


One noticeable outcome of the Teaching Continuity Project has been the development of teaching teams, incorporating academic and professional staff working together and in collaboration with central services such as CAD and the library.

There are many debates still to have: how to assess students fairly and reliably and how changes in workload calculations can account for preparation and course quality improvement instead of simply counting contact hours.

Physical environment

Our research suggested that the physical environment, particularly class size, was important in enabling or hampering innovation. The online environment also presented challenges: how to run group discussions, for example, or knowing the level of engagement of the students from a sea of blank screens.


Students have generally been enthusiastic about anything that staff can do to support them. As one of our participants in the original study said: “… if students feel that they’re being treated decently by people who care, then they’re open to a whole lot of stuff”.

For many, the move to online and then dual-mode teaching has made things easier and is more accessible. However, the nature of learning is changing, and some students have struggled while others have thrived. Blanket extensions on assessments and the lure of watching video lectures on double speed risk students making detrimental decisions.

Sustaining innovation

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

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

Dr Amanda Gilbert is a lecturer in the Centre for Academic Development at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.