Educators today sit on the cusp of the known unknown. Creating a learning experience in the brave new world of COVID-19 requires rapid online development, never experienced before in the higher education (and indeed the wider education) sector.

Creating staff professional development that can respond has become equally rapid. As academic developers and learning designers, we often traverse the third space in the technology/pedagogy continuum, with capability development being second nature to the role – from ad hoc and at elbow to more formal professional development and training. This professional development, with the consequences of COVID-19 looming large, is now central to institutional responses to the crisis, with our roles enabling institutions to achieve this at pace and scale.

Having recently led a whole of institution approach to professional development for online learning, I reflect on lessons learnt so far.

We know professional development sessions can descend into time-constrained learning experiences that border on a transmissionist mode we often decry. Hence my “lessons learnt” relate not only to the content being currently offered but also to the design of future constructivist approaches which embed these four key dimensions.

Empathy and Compassion

Empathy and compassion are central to the work we carry out in education. From the first-time educators’ step into a (virtual) classroom, to the feedback they give and receive from students, they are part of creating learning environments that support and encourage students to learn.

If we consider this in terms of ‘Design Thinking’ – empathy becomes a necessary first step that draws educators, and us all, into the reality of the student, and draws the reality of the student into the classroom.

A recent resource provides seven steps to prioritising care and compassion in on-line learning for students. Aidre Grants considers kindness to be the most important tool in on-line education. Higher education is “pivoting” towards compassion-based approaches; can we similarly re-design professional development for educators with empathy and compassion?

Modelling compassionate practice is a first step, that has the ability to take us far beyond the crisis. We know that educators today, like the rest of humanity, are experiencing stress and uncertainty. Let’s begin capability development by acknowledging we are all human


Choosing our own flexible learning pathways has long been considered  the best way to learn. Let us create capability development pathways, where time poor educators can choose flexible pathways and multiple entry points, to engage and learn, both synchronously and asynchronously. If educators can choose variety and flexibility, it can have a direct impact on their attitude to their own teaching and ultimately the flexibility and choice offered to students.


There may be no need for me to tell you about the transforming power of narrative in education. It can be the medium for reflection on the personal, professional and practical. Educator stories are one of the most pervasive ways to represent their experiences. Let us harness this and use it to build our capability development programmes. Let us create activities that focus on understanding and reflecting on experience and on self-inquiry – particularly into constructing and reconstructing the rapid shift to online spaces that we all now inhabit. From these sharing of stories and experiences, we can build a stronger and longer lasting foundation for the next stage in our “pivot” to on-line learning.


Incorporating authenticity into teaching can be challenging, because it requires a great deal of courage. Brene Brown asks teachers to be the, “guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious and to explore the world and be who they are without suffocation”.

Can we ask educators to do the same for themselves? Making ourselves vulnerable sets us up to learn authentically. Voicing uncertainties and questions helps us learn and participate in a community of learners. Creating a space for educators to be authentic and vulnerable, without losing self-imposed credibility, is the fine balance capability development must seek and must push towards. We may find that this becomes one of the best and most uncomfortable ways for us to attain continuous improvement.

Let us begin with empathy and compassion, create flexibility for individuals to engage as needed, share their story, and learn authentically.

Dr Suneeti Rekhari, is senior manager, learning enhancement (Science, Engineering & Health) at RMIT University.

 This essay appeared on the TheEdvisor  blog. Reprinted with Dr Rekhari’s permission


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