By Professor Kit Wise
For all the storm clouds of 2020, there was also silver to be found. Many schools around the country commented on the incredible ingenuity of teaching staff, adapting to the online delivery of programs and courses in ways never before imagined. For RMIT School of Art, we achieved a three-year plan of blended learning development in around three weeks, forging new collaborations between academic and professional staff, university and industry along the way. With great success: students responded with amongst our best teaching evaluation scores, even if their overall program satisfaction declined in some areas and many chose to defer their studies (which has in turn led to higher than expected returning student load). Capturing and sharing examples of best practice as well as innovation is our priority in 2021, deepening our engagement with the scholarship of learning & teaching. I note many of the greatest successes were using technologies “off the books”, outside of approved, enterprise-wide software.
However this was not without cost, in terms of the impact on academic and casual staff. Learning new tools and pedagogies alongside home schooling children and grappling with what in Victoria was a traumatic and extended series of lockdowns was exhausting. While I have been never more impressed by the dedication and collegiality of my colleagues, this has had, and will continue to have a significant impact on wellbeing. We have revised our workload modelling tools to better account for this but will need to continue to monitor closely. 2021 will very much focus on care.
As a school, decreases in student load directly impacted casual staff numbers in the first instance, although we also lost cherished colleagues (8% of ongoing staff) through a voluntary redundancy scheme, including the exceptional Dr Rhett D’Costa and Dr Robin Kingston. Change processes resulted in long-term professional staff exiting the university – for example, the entire school finance team was removed and replaced with a new, centralised support. Our galleries and exhibition spaces were also restructured, in part due to the inability to function as normal during COVID-19, although we hope they will be restored to full capacity in due course. At the time of writing, 2021 load is unclear but we hope to meet our targets (broadly a 10% decrease in domestic enrolments and 25% decrease in international). Of course, this in itself is not enough to off-set the budgetary challenges facing our institution as a whole.
At the same time, new partnerships have formed and new connections been made. Our industry partners have turned to us for advice on how to develop for example online education programs, as well as other, shared COVID-responses. Online gallery openings were joined by distant overseas industry and academic partners for the first time, with genuine and valuable dialogue occurring via live virtual platforms such as Kunstmatrix. Post-COVID research agendas are front of mind, especially health and wellbeing. Most of all, our implicit sense of community has become an explicit need, now central to our thinking: peer to peer, student to student, academy and industry. Combining the best of online interaction with in-person engagement is the “gold” we are now seeking, as we enter a blended reality for at least the near future.
Professor Kit Wise is Dean, School of Art and Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor Learning & Teaching (DSC) at RMIT University.