Digital tools and recognition key for higher education workforce

Digital tools and recognition key for higher education workforce

by Tony Maguire

Faculty design and teach courses, mentor and coach students and grade assignments and exams. They conduct and write unique research, support their peers and seek professional development. They undoubtedly wear many hats, work long hours and are often committed to various responsibilities, passion projects as well as the demands of their own personal lives.

Before the pandemic, many educators had little experience in course development and teaching for fully online and remote learner cohorts. They had to make a very quick transition, with varying levels of support and training. The quick pivot was stressful for teaching staff without the requisite digital skills or tools to independently curate resources, create content and activities and to then teach and support students in live and asynchronous modes.

Faculty stress is on the rise

Faculty burnout is an ever-present malaise in most higher education institutions and the data and research describes a workplace under enormous pressure.

Research done by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Fidelity Investments found that in 2019, fewer than a third of over 1,000 higher education professors surveyed felt extremely or very stressed. In 2020, that amount more than doubled, as over two-thirds of respondents reported feelings of high stress.

The American Council on Education runs Pulse Point Surveys that examine the response of college and university presidents to COVID-19. In the April 2020 survey, faculty and staff mental health of the staff ranked ninth out of 14 options for the biggest issues presidents faced. In the autumn of 2020, mental health of faculty and staff jumped to being the third most pressing issue. In the most recent spring 2021 data, it is second only to the mental health of students.

Three ways to support faculty

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach but focusing on these three areas can help address and prevent faculty burnout.

1.            Focus on wellbeing: Embracing staff agency and a broader understanding of wellbeing is fundamental to if we are to support staff to build resilience and help close the gap in emotional and mental health support. While addressing issues related to precarious work and fair compensation are vital, more flexible arrangements, recognised reward for upskilling and better support are needed.

2.            Build a community: Building and nurturing a practice and support community among academic and professional staff is a clear path away from burnout. If culture eats strategy then community nourishes teams.

3.            Digital tools and enablement: Clear expectations, and faculty/institutional ownership of systems and tools means more than platform training and support services. It means co-creating the teaching environment and enablement capabilities to engage, motivate, share and reward great practice.

Supporting Faculty Wellness

The past three years have made us more aware of the importance of wellness and proactive programmes to support mental health. While much is done to research and support mental health initiatives students and unfortunately, faculty often left out of the support loop.

If we acknowledge that a personalised, student-first experiences is a given then we must equally acknowledge and resource the resilience, teaching and developmental skills needs of academic and professional staff as non-negotiables. To be clear, not addressing burnout is the surest way to negatively impact student success and satisfaction.

Professional development and support

Where traditional in-person learning and a set learning path was once the staple mode of higher education, hybrid learning experiences and flexible pathways are the bridge to the future. Navigating rapid and ongoing change is a significant stressor exacerbating faculty burnout so it is important to provide the right support and professional development resources. This positive change can help educators grow in new ways and connect with students on a different level.

While building a future looking digital skills set and additional focus must be on leveraging the affordances of teaching technologies and exploring the efficiencies learning management systems can deliver to alleviate faculty workload and improve the student’s learning experience.

How can a learning platform contribute to avoiding burnout?

As Victoria University has proven over many years, one of the simplest ways to alleviate stress and improve staff resilience is to better utilise the workflow automation and intelligent agents sitting dormant many LMS’s. Like any evolving practice, some training and change management is in needed but the flow-on benefits to students, staff and faculty leadership is enormous.

If the burnout issue is not addressed with the timely support, recognised professional development and better leveraged technology solutions, the passion and innovation found in great teaching will be smothered. Most importantly, the promise of success in a future world of work will be inaccessible for our students.

Tony Maguire is the Regional Director, Australia & New Zealand at D2L.