Building capability in a time of crisis

Educators today sit on the cusp of the known unknown. Creating a learning experience in the brave new world of Covid19 requires rapid online development, never experienced before in the Higher Education (and indeed the wider education) sector. Creating staff professional development that can respond to this need 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 Covid19 looming large, has now become 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 have reflected on lessons learnt so far. We know that professional development sessions can sometimes 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 4 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. There is a recent resource that provides 7 steps to prioritising care and compassion in online learning for students. Aidre Grants considers kindness to be the most important tool in online education. Higher Education is increasingly ‘pivoting’ towards compassion-based approaches; can we similarly redesign 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 that we are all human


Choosing our own flexible learning pathways has long been considered the best way to learn. Let’s 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 personal, professional and practical. Educator stories are one of the most pervasive ways to represent their experiences. Let’s harness this and use it to build our capability development programs. Let’s 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 online 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’s begin with empathy and compassion, create flexibility for individuals to engage as needed, share their story, and learn authentically.  In the next article, I’ll discuss my thoughts on how, even in crises like Covid19, we can take practical steps towards incorporating these dimensions in our capability development programs. From this starting point, and harnessing our strengths, we can begin the work of tomorrow.

Dr Suneeti Rekhari is the Senior Manager for Learning Enhancement (Science, Engineering & Health) at RMIT University. She has worked previously in leading whole of institution curriculum transformation projects, as a Blended Learning Coordinator and Learning Designer. She completed her PhD at UNSW and was an academic for over ten years, before happily occupying the third space for over 5 years and counting.

One response to “Building capability in a time of crisis”

  1. A nice reflection on our work and our role in this strange time that is Covid19. Congratulations Suneeti on the writing of this piece. A true representation of all the facets we face in our roles in this third space. The juggling of support, leading, innovation, technology and pedagogy.

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