Digital resilience in the time of pandemic

Gastateer host Tom Farrelly

I took part in a very fun session last week, hosted by Tom Farrelly. It was an online version of the successful Gasta he runs at ILTA and ALT-C conferences which consists of a series of 5 minute talks with Tom acting as compere, getting the audience to count to 5 in Gaelic and cutting you off if you dare go over. The tone of all the talks was just right – playful, fun but also very informative and engaging. Congrats to Tom and all the team for a great evening. You can watch all of them here: http://gasta.me/

I built up my post on the robustness of distance ed for my talk. I argued that the pandemic had revealed inherent weaknesses in the higher education system, including:

  • It’s based on bringing people (staff, students) to one main location
  • There are time crucial points without which the system fails, most noticeably exams
  • All aspects of education are co-located, including content (lectures), resources (library), support, socialisation, accommodation
  • There is a reliance on other fragile systems such as entry exams

I argued that the internet was built as a robust system, designed to withstand elements of it being destroyed and still continuing. In order to realise this it had three key design principles:

  • Openness – any appropriate device could be added to the network, it did not require special approval, and was thus not reliant on other systems
  • Decentralisation – it does not focus around a central hub, and so there is no central point of weakness
  • Distributed – it is geographically and technologically distributed.

This is what I argued in the previous post, that distance education replicates many of these characteristics. Post-Covid, when higher education reflects there is likely to be a desire to construct a more robust system, and so some of these aspects will be implemented in future higher ed systems.

I then revisited a paper I wrote a while ago with Terry Anderson, entitled “Digital resilience in higher education“. Before the term ‘resilience’ was co-opted by awful lifestyle gurus and Ayn Rand devotees and associated with even worse terms such as ‘grit’, it had a useful meaning from ecology. Holling described it as “a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables.” Other’s then expanded it to apply to climate change in particular.

We then used Walker’s four aspects of resilience:

  1. Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover.
  2. Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how ‘resistant’ it is to being changed.
  3. Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or ‘threshold’.
  4. Panarchy: the influences of external forces at scales above and below. For example, external oppressive politics, invasions, market shifts, etc

In our paper we used a scoring approach to examine these four aspects for a higher ed institutions resilience to a digital change:

This analysis can be summarised in a subjective scoring, allocating a score of 1 (weak resilience) to 10 (strong resilience) for each of the four factors. A score of 20 or lower would indicate an overall susceptibility to this particular digital factor,

But it could be an effective model for thinking about an HEI or HE in general’s ability to cope with pandemic. Consider your own institution if you are at one. How would they score in terms of conducting the online pivot:

  • Latitude – can the institution change how it teaches and still operate?
  • Resistance – is there a history of adapting to change?
  • Precariousness – what state are finances, resources and staffing currently in?
  • Panarchy – the virus is a panarchic effect in itself, but it brings with it many others, such as research funding, political shifts, travel, etc. Different institutions will have different susceptibilities here

As a strategic exercise this framework is worth using to consider how ready an institution is to cope with the pandemic and where its weaknesses lie. It is at least useful in a group session to frame the discussion I’ve found.

Here is a video of my gasta talk:

One Comment

  1. […] Second, the social distancing regulations put in place in many institutions hit cross-disciplinary study hard. It was easier to maintain bubbles and track infections if students were within one discipline. Multidisciplinary study is like a little virus spreader around campus, so many such programmes were restricted or closed. Online and asynchronous study of course removes these restrictions, so the impact on multidisciplinary study is another example of the fragility of the existing higher education model. […]

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