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      Organising the labour of teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canadian universities



            During the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian university responses reflected governing practices related to teaching and learning in university systems. This study aims to interrogate responses from three Canadian universities related to discourses formed around the labour of teaching and learning. Using a post-structural approach to policy analysis that assumes that realities emerge in practices, our research question asks: how do the policy responses about teaching and learning represent academic labour during the pandemic? In this article, we argue that labour became constituted through two main discourses of ‘safety/security’ and ‘the return to normal’. We conclude that the importance of these two different representations lies in how they influence the constitutions of faculty and students as different policy subjects.

            Main article text


            In this article, we consider university responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in two ways. First, we examine how these responses related to academic teaching and learning; and, second, we consider how these policy responses constructed problem representations of the pandemic by constituting academic labour and, consequently, students and faculty as policy subjects in different ways. We argue that responses from universities are governing practices that discursively organised teaching and learning 1 across rapid transitions from on-campus and in-person learning to remote alternatives of either hybrid or online learning. However, thinking about these transitions as seamless, uncomplicated options for teaching and learning masks their impact on academic labour during the pandemic. Rather, in this article, we examine how the labour of teaching and learning became constituted through two main discourses – of ‘safety/security’ and ‘the return to normal’. Furthermore, we draw attention to the importance of these two different representations as they influence how faculty and students are constituted as different policy subjects who are produced through these university responses. Drawing on Carol Bacchi’s (2016) post-structural approach to policy analysis that assumes that realities emerge in practices (Bacchi, 2016:8), we ask: how do the policy responses about teaching and learning represent academic labour during the pandemic? This article contributes to developing a deeper understanding of the organising of the labour of teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

            In examining resistance during the pandemic, we draw attention to the ways in which Bacchi’s policy analysis, which is used in this study, is based on Foucauldian notions of power. Foucault (1978) insisted on a relationship between power and resistance, stating ‘where there is power, there is resistance’ (Foucault, 1978:95). Bacchi’s analysis of policy is concerned with how policies constitute subjectivities, of those over whom it governs, through practices of dominance. Consequently, we understand policies as involving techniques of power as they shape practices, and if power and resistance exist in relation to each other, any practices of power involve practices of resistance that ‘play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle’ (Foucault, 1978:95). For policy to be productive, as subjectivities are produced, we may look at policy as always engaged with resistances to subjectification, as well. That is, subjectivities are not deterministic; they are constituted through contestation, negotiation and oppression of policy governance. Our concern here is how the discourses of teaching and learning in the pandemic are part of these governing practices. We begin this article by defining online learning as a form of distance education, and the appearance of emergency remote learning during the pandemic. We then review online learning in the context of pre- and post-pandemic effects on academic labour. Next, we outline our application of Carol Bacchi’s (2009) ‘What’s the problem represented to be’ (WPR) post-structural approach as a research method to critically analyse policy. In our findings, we discuss how teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic represented two contrasting problems: the problem of ‘securitisation’ and the problem of ‘the return to normal’. We identified two predominant shifts in the universities’ responses. First, the universities’ discourse represented the problem as unsafe teaching and learning environments, given that the solution was moving online. Then, after vaccination became the new solution, the universities’ responses represented the problem as unhealthy campus communities in the ‘return to normal’ discourse. We consider that these shifts in discourse impacted the labour of the academic community. Our research adds to the growing body of critical research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education (HE) policy and governance.

            Pandemic shifts to higher education learning environments

            Pre-pandemic discourse situated on-campus and in-person learning as normative spaces for teaching and learning, complemented by increasing online options enabled by advancements in digital technologies. Zawacki-Richter (2017) defines online learning as being one modality of distance education in which teachers and learners are geographically separated from one another, and teaching and learning is enabled through various forms of electronic media. Furthermore, ‘depending on the flow and direction of information (one-way or two-way media) and the temporal dimension of the interaction (asynchronous or synchronous media), educational technologies can be described as a function of interaction and independence that they afford’ (Zawacki-Richter, 2017:616). Because online learning is closely associated with other terms, such as ‘eLearning’, ‘virtual learning’ and ‘remote learning’, the definition can be expanded by drawing on Singh and Thurman (2019) who define online learning as education delivered in an environment using the internet for synchronous and asynchronous learning activities that are independent of a student’s physical or virtual location.

            The pandemic disrupted learning environments forcing universities worldwide to seek remote and online models that were ‘safer’ than in-person classrooms (Ali, 2020; Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020) and breaking the continuity in the use of laboratories for STEM programmes (Gamage et al., 2020). This raised issues that did not only affect students (for example, in relation to connectivity, technology, self-regulation and eLearning system support), but also faculty (in terms of competency, isolation, operational aspects and self-regulation), and university administrations that were struggling with financial support and change management (Aini, Budiarto, Putra & Rahardja, 2020). The haste with which alternative teaching and learning arrangements arose also prompted recognition of the term ‘emergency remote teaching’ (ERT). ERT contrasts with the online learning that had taken place pre-pandemic, which was traditionally well-planned and designed, and was defined as a ‘temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternative delivery mode due to crisis circumstances’ (Hodges et al., 2020). Rapanta et al. (2021) position ERT as the ‘unplanned and forced version’ of online learning and teaching (OLT) which HE institutions adopted during the pandemic (Rapanta et al., 2021:21). With the crisis of the pandemic, issues arising in relation to the transition of teaching and learning from in-person to virtual became framed and constructed through discourse. Understanding such discourse, as a way to gain a better insight into these issues, can help universities and other HE systems navigate the ‘post-pandemic’ period.

            Problematising the conditions of learning

            The pandemic was a crisis event which impacted the normal services and operations of HE globally. Our review of the literature concentrated on the changing teaching and learning landscape in HE, with a focus on the pressures which have prompted the evolution of HE teaching and learning towards expansion of distance and online education. We were interested in this line of research because large leaps, ‘tipping points’, or disruptive crisis events can provide insight into how changes in HE institutions come about. In the field of online, distance, and digital education (ODDE), Zawacki-Richter and Bozkurt (2022) have delineated four research waves over the past 40 years which they characterise as: institutional consolidation and instructional design; quality assurance and student support; virtual universities, online interaction and learning; artificial intelligence, big data and intelligent support systems, while also pointing to a growing body of literature which positions the pandemic as a ‘turning point’ (Zawacki-Richter & Bozkurt, 2022:17). In pre-pandemic times, ODDE was characterised as a disruptor to ‘normal’ education, but then became a ‘saviour’ during the COVID-19 pandemic (Xiao, 2022:2), as evidenced through its widespread use (Bond, Bedenlier, Marín & Händel, 2021; Ozdamli & Karagozlu, 2022; Zhang et al., 2022).

            We consider the impact of neoliberalism, as a governing rationality which disseminates market values and metrics into HE (Brown, 2015). This rationale is relevant in our study because both private and public policy actors participate in university governance, helping shape discourse and policy. Distance education was born on the foundational idea of being an industrialised form of education whereby the division of teacher labour correlates to an increased opportunity for economies of scale by allowing a larger number of students to participate (Zawacki-Richter, 2019). This reasoning can be used as a business rationale for expanding university operations and services to meet the needs of both national and international market demand. Wotto (2020) provides an overview of pre-pandemic distance learning in the Canadian HE landscape, arguing that it is driven by three factors including: first, market demand, as evidenced by an increasing number of registrations for online courses; second, a robust network of private technology and platform providers; and, third, internationalisation. Wotto (2020) suggests that Canada is well positioned to meet national demand through distance learning but that ‘Canadian institutions must catch up on the international stage’ (Wotto, 2020:276). Market pressures, vocalised by organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), make clear the need for HE institutions to meet workforce demands because ‘rapid labour market transformations challenge societies and individual, lifelong learning becomes the foundations of providing continuous upskilling and reskilling learning’ (Wotto, 2020:276). The premise here is that distance learning – accelerated and made more accessible through online learning – is fuelled by private sector demand for a just-in-time workforce which positions universities primarily as training skills centres. With the pandemic as a crisis event which ‘transforms societies’, the rapid and temporary use of online learning mitigations by universities may turn into more permanent services and processes in response to the transformed society.

            All three universities in our study indicated that they relied upon digital infrastructure and technologies in order to facilitate online teaching and learning. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, integration of the education technology industry with HE ‘pushes old and new capitalist logics into universities and colleges, strengthens neoliberalism, and accelerates the erosion of public education’s mission and values’ (Mirrlees & Alvi, 2019:xii–xiii). The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the growth of privately owned educational technology and platform companies, and an increase in their market capture of services to HE institutions. For example, videoconferencing and electronic platform providers, such as Zoom and MS Teams, saw increased usage and profits during the pandemic. Zoom ‘experienced a 191% per cent increase in total revenue in the first quarter of 2021, for a total of $956 million’ (Stevens, 2022:3). Digital and platform capitalism was already widespread in HE (Williamson, 2021), but the pandemic meant a wider acceptance and usage of digital technologies leading to increased privatisation and commercialisation of academic services and processes (Williamson & Hogan, 2020, 2021; Shultz & Viczko, 2021). Williamson and Hogan’s (2021) research found evidence of market-oriented privatisation policies and commercial reforms in HE, HE reimagined as digital and data-intensive, transformation through technology solutionism, new public–private partnerships and competition, increasing penetration of AI and surveillance, challenges to academic labour, freedom and autonomy, and ‘digital normalcy’ (Williamson & Hogan, 2021:1–4). Technology solutionism is a concept that highlights the tendency to turn to technology as a panacea for all problems in education. Zhang et al. (2022) caution that because ‘technology [is] often conceptualised as the solution to support online learning, it is imperative to put innovative pedagogy at the forefront of the design of online teaching and learning’ (Zhang et al., 2022:621). Rapanta et al. (2021) also argue that ‘active, flexible and meaningful learning’ must work alongside ‘harmonious integration of physical and digital tools and methods’ (Rapanta et al., 2021:738), emphasising that technology on its own cannot solve complex educational challenges without fully considering the broader implications or the need for pedagogical or systemic changes.

            Williamson and Hogan’s (2021) report reinforces the conclusions of Czerniewicz et al. (2020) whose study found that the pandemic exacerbated inequalities by ‘enforced visibility’ of students who did not have sustainable and affordable access. Concerns around student and faculty autonomy through increased digital surveillance can be considered invasions of privacy which add to an already stressful and volatile pandemic teaching and learning environment, characterised by ‘panoptical surveillance’, online exam proctoring software and big data collection (Savage, 2022; Stevens, 2022). The lack of appropriate training, support and readiness was also an issue impacting student’s academic labour. One study found that, amongst Irish university students, there was a ‘significantly lower perceived online readiness in the more experienced “during COVID” cohort compared to “pre-COVID” cohort’, with the sudden immersion in an entirely digital learning environment being an influential factor (Power et al., 2022: 1). While online readiness is not specific to online learning, Dönmez (2022) highlights how the pandemic exacerbated already unequal gendered patterns and dynamics in academic productivity, academic work/household divide and work–life balance.


            This study used a post-structural policy analysis that ‘deconstructs, problematises, questions, and interrupts’ (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016:12) grand narratives found in policy discourses to analyse governance and power relations. Governance involves political rationalities, that is, technologies (or techniques) through which governing occurs, that create policy ‘subjects’ in how people are classified, shaped and ordered according to policies. To undertake a study of governance, this article draws on Carol Bacchi’s post-structural policy analysis, called ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ (WPR). The WPR approach considers governing practices as producing ‘problems’ and asks analysts to consider how problematisations are constituted through policies. In doing so, WPR also challenges the common premise of problem-solving in governance which assumes that ‘problems’ are discrete and self-evident.

            Bacchi’s approach focuses on ‘how policies create, rather than respond to, problems, regardless of the intentions or understandings of problems that policy actors may have’ (Viczko, Lorusso & McKechnie, 2019:121). The pandemic, as a crisis event, impacted teaching and learning environments, but the governing responses by individual institutions had a performative effect on the objects of teaching and learning, instructor and student subjectivities, and the role of the pandemic as a problematic situation on university instructor and student labour. In other words, university responses, as policies, could be seen as a form of governing because they direct objectivities, subjectivities and what is deemed to be problematic. Bacchi draws on Foucault’s (1982) concept of governmentality to inform problematisation as the way in which policies produce techniques of governance with a performative effect and that one’s own conduct is constituted through the ways policy produces problems. This problematisation thinking then considers how subjects are formed through policy responses, as the policies constitute people, objects and problems. Consequently, our main research question asked: how do policy responses about teaching and learning represent academic labour during the pandemic?

            University responses provide a unique opportunity for insight into discourses of the pandemic and the administration’s governance of teaching and learning. While the larger project from which this data is drawn considered all universities belonging to the association of 15 research universities (a collective known as the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities), this article relates to the data from three of those U15 institutions: University of Alberta (UA), University of British Columbia (UBC), and Western University (UWO). These three institutions were chosen because they represent different geographical areas of Canada. Communication of the pandemic shifted to centralised messaging from what we call COVID-19 information hubs. The university responses used as data in our study consisted of updates from each university’s COVID-19 information hub website from March 2020 to April 2022, traversing six waves of the pandemic in Canada. Because responses represent a snapshot in time, the dataset is not an exhaustive or comprehensive capture of the entirety of a university’s public communication. An additional limitation of this dataset is that it does not include internal institutional communications. Responses were organised into excerpts within university statements and categorised using codes. The analysis of the kinds of responses was carried out as part of a larger project. This study uses coded excerpts on learning modality, defined as any mention or referral to teaching and learning spaces. These included in-person and remote (and also including ‘off-campus’, ‘online’, ‘virtual’ and ‘eLearning’), or hybrid (a combination of in-person and remote).

            We used this collection of responses to explore the discourses around teaching and learning spaces during the pandemic. These responses represent governing practices because they direct, guide, support and organise teaching and learning. Additionally, in considering these responses as policies, the WPR approach provided us with a lens through which to consider the way they problematised and, consequently, constituted teaching and learning during the pandemic. The universities were not responding to problems as existing, distinct objects which were awaiting discovery and resolution. Rather, their responses ‘made the pandemic’ by calling into existence, or constituting, problems in the labour of teaching and learning. It is important to note that our aim here was not to focus on specific universities, to make visible their practices for interrogation. Rather, our aim was to consider pandemic practices from a sample of institutions across the Canadian policy landscape. In the analysis in this article, we draw on three institutions to illustrate examples of how pandemic discourses operated across the fuller dataset of the U15. We use the same three institutions throughout the article to allow for clarity in the reading, but our discussion of them is not concerned with how one institution acted, but more broadly with pandemic policy discourses across the national context. That is to say that these are not case studies of individual institutions, but rather examples in a general query about pandemic discourses of teaching and learning as totalising discourses. We also acknowledge and value the difficult challenges that policymakers faced during the pandemic, with little time to make decisions. As Bacchi argues, we are not interrogating individual decisions as particular strategic choices and we want to ensure that fair credit is given to those who were tasked with leading in challenging times.

            Responses were reviewed and read several times using the WPR approach which Bacchi (2009) has structured around a series of questions to understand the problematisations of policy. In this study we focused on four questions:

            1. What is the problem of teaching and learning represented to be?

            2. What are the assumptions that underpin these representations?

            3. What are the effects of these problematisations on instructor and student subjectivities and labour?

            4. How might we think of the problem differently?

            The objective was to identify a problem representation by ‘working backwards’ from stated solutions and to inquire into their implicit problematisations (Bacchi & Goodwin, 2018:20). Identifying intentions and assessing the appropriateness, success or failure of solutions was avoided. Our aim was to determine the implied problem by starting from the stated solutions. Our presentation of the analysis focuses on two main discourses we identified in the data: the ‘securitisation’ of the campus through online teaching and learning, and the ‘return to normal’ as teaching and learning shifted back to in-person or hybrid models.

            The way teaching and learning was constituted as a problem during the pandemic

            As the pandemic situation evolved, our data show that university discourses relating to the pandemic changed over time. Figure 1 shows the number of university responses taken from March 2020 to April 2022 in relation to the main shifts in teaching and learning delivery mode and the pandemic waves in Canada. The graph represents the data in a stacked manner. Figure 1 is not a detailed diagram of all the shifts in teaching and learning delivery mode, but a diagram of what we consider to be the main shifts in these three universities. Beyond our data, we used additional sources to help our understanding of the timeline of events during the pandemic (University Affairs, n.d.; World Health Organisation, 2020; Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021; The Canadian Press, 2021; Gilmore, 2022). In the next paragraphs, we discuss these changes in discourse and the solutions and problems represented in the main shifts in teaching and learning modalities.

            Figure 1:

            Diagram representing the timeline of events related to the number of excerpts collected about the teaching and learning delivery mode in university statements. Source: Compiled from data collected during this study, Gilmore (2022), Public Health Agency of Canada (2021), The Canadian Press (2021), University Affairs (n.d.) and World Health Organization (2020).

            Our data indicate that consistently across the three universities, the majority of responses occurred during the first wave of the pandemic. Since the pandemic was a crisis event which affected the classroom in new ways, there was increased communication aimed at providing explanation, guidance, and support. As vaccinations became available in late 2020, coupled with having had some experience with shifting localities and practices around teaching and learning, there were fewer responses after successive waves in comparison to the first wave. The universities returned to mostly in-person teaching and learning for the Fall 2021 semester. However, the emergence of a new Omicron strain created a fifth wave which shifted teaching and learning back to mostly online for the following Winter 2022 semester. Shortly after, there was a return to mostly in-person teaching and learning, as indicated in our last collected responses up to April 2022.

            The problematisation of securitisation

            At the beginning of the pandemic, remote and online options were positioned as solutions to the problem representation of unsafe, in-person teaching and learning spaces. In this context, the problem of the pandemic extended to the modality of teaching and learning practices.

            In the literature, the university campus environment had already been identified as a place where community disease transmission could develop quickly because of its characteristically dense social network system (Weeden & Cornwell, 2020). To minimise community transmission, ‘social distancing’ or ‘physical distancing’ provided a safety measure which reduced interpersonal contact. Pandemic health and safety messaging by Canadian provincial and/or federal government health authorities, which included the promotion of distancing in high-risk settings, was often referred to and featured prominently in university responses. When referencing these sources as the ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’, university responses may appear to confer on them a level of validity. To adhere to distancing recommendations from these sources, any type of remote or off-campus learning appealed as the right fit due to the ability to maximise distancing between all teaching and learning participants and became featured as one of the first solutions in university responses at the beginning of the pandemic.

            University responses commonly referenced local or provincial health units in relation to decisions which favoured remote teaching and learning. The University of Alberta implemented ‘all appropriate health protocols and recommendations from Alberta Health Services and the Chief Medical Officer of Health – such as increased cleaning measures and social distancing’ and ‘moving to remote learning as a COVID-19 preventative measure to ensure that our students can complete their academic term’ (University of Alberta, 2020b). Furthermore, UA stated that ‘moving classes to remote delivery, the number of people on our campuses is greatly reduced – greatly reducing any risks as well’ (University of Alberta, 2020b). Thus, risk reduction became associated with remote learning. Later that same day, UA made the decision that remote learning was the only option and attributed its move to the social distancing recommendations by health authorities, ‘as per the direction of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, NO in-person classes of any size can occur … there is no longer any possibility of an exception to remote delivery’ (University of Alberta, 2020c). UA again directly attributed the move to remote learning to a requirement by government authority when it stated that it was ‘moving to a remote delivery model as required by the current public health directives’ (University of Alberta, 2020g). In these responses, all in-person classes were regarded as problematic and were dealt with by being eliminated.

            At Western University (UWO) the semester was well underway, with approaching exams, before any form of alternative learning was mentioned in responses. On the afternoon of 12 March 2020, UWO stated they had ‘concerns from our campus community regarding the continuation of in-person classes’ and that they were consulting with their local Middlesex London Health Unit (Western University, 2020a). Later that evening, there was a call for ‘cancelling classes … to provide instructors and academic support staff adequate time to prepare to deliver course content in alternative ways’ and ‘starting Wednesday, 18 March and for the remainder of the term, Western will be moving its classes online’ (Western University, 2020b). In this response, a temporary pause to classes was prioritised to allow educators preparation time in moving to online teaching. A response, including the move to online classes as well as seeking consultation into how to do so, took into consideration the input of both its academic community and local health authorities. UWO prioritised its operations and staffing levels in support of both in-person and remote learning whereby ‘planning will help identify the appropriate staffing levels required to maintain the safety of our community and the continuity of operations’ (Western University, 2020d).

            At the University of British Columbia the mention of remote learning did not appear in our dataset until 25 March 2020, so we sought out an earlier announcement through another public channel, the UBC’s president’s office website. While not included in our data, we were curious about the first mention of alternate forms to in-person learning. An announcement first appeared through the president’s office website which stated, ‘the transition to online classes [is] effective Monday March 16, 2020, for the remainder of the term … UBC’s actions are aligned with advice from the Provincial Health Officer announced on March 13, 2020’ (Office of the President, 2020). Our data show that the first mention of remote learning indicated that ‘Term 1 of Summer Session … will be online’ and stressed that ‘online application is simply not available to all courses … and in those instances, courses may have to be postponed or redesigned’ (University of British Columbia, 2020). Thus, the move to online teaching and learning was presented as necessary to align with the advice of provincial health authorities, although there appeared to be acknowledgement of difficulties presented by courses not conducive or suited to an online environment. In this case, messaging towards working with those departments in seeking alternatives to remote learning as a customised response where one blanket solution, for example, alternates with in-person learning, was understood to not be ideal for all scenarios. UBC then moved towards a hybrid teaching and learning arrangement where the preference was to transition as many courses as possible online, and when this was not possible, a smaller contingent of courses remained in-person.

            Responses positioned local and provincial government health authorities’ advice as a backdrop to their rationale on remote learning decisions, constructing the problem as unsafe, in-person teaching and learning spaces. By enacting remote measures as an early solution and attempting to transition as many courses as possible into an online format, universities represented the problem of the pandemic as one of an unsafe, in-person learning and teaching environment. But what are the assumptions that underlie this problem representation? One assumption, which became apparent in the early phases of the pandemic, was that an in-person environment poses a physical health and safety threat to the academic community. UA associated higher risk with in-person learning compared to lower risks in remote options. UWO moved classes online to ‘maintain safety’. UBC did not explicitly use terms associated with health, risk or safety but instead stated its alignment and compliance with provincial health authorities. A binary notion of security levels as either ‘unsecured’ or ‘secured’ was determined by the application of health and safety measures. An in-person environment was seen as the least secure because distancing measures were fallible whereas remote options were regarded as the most secure because distancing measures were maximised. The assumption of in-person environments as a safety threat is consistent with Murphy’s (2020) study of declarations from 25 universities in the United States which had all established emergency eLearning policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Murphy (2020) found that ‘face-to-face schooling is constructed as a specific threat from which the communities must be protected, and emergency eLearning is the security measure proposed to protect the community’ (Murphy, 2020:499). In our study, we were concerned with how such threats became associated with teaching and learning, so that the labour of education took on a role in securing safety. When considering how ‘safety’ was broadly represented across UA, UWO and UBC, a search for the word ‘safety’ across their websites provided a general idea (University of Alberta, n.d.; University of British Columbia, n.d.; Western University, n.d.). Safety encompasses a broad and varied range of measures to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of their students, faculty and staff. This could include, but was not limited to, providing a safe and secure environment on campus (e.g. compliance to fire codes, laboratory procedures, accessibility design, emergency preparedness and training.), preventing and responding to incidents of harassment, discrimination or violence (e.g. policies addressing academic freedom, or equity, diversity and inclusion), promoting mental health and well-being (e.g. health and counselling support.) and data security (e.g. keeping student information confidential). Revisiting the underlying assumption found in responses, that the in-person environment posed a physical health and safety threat, reveals that the pandemic increased the association between the labour of teaching and learning with that of security and safety. As online spaces became mitigations, there was a subjectification effect on educators and students to take on new roles as safety and security policy actors.

            Shifting spaces for collegial governance in the threat of security

            The subjectification of educators as security policy actors also moved attention away from other core governing practices. According to Murphy (2020), enacting an emergency measure meant that normal ‘democratic deliberation’ and decision-making practices involving academic community stakeholder involvement were suspended, made justifiable by the pandemic as a crisis event. Our data show discrepancy and irregularity in the level of consultation in decision-making processes from academic community stakeholders during the first wave, when rapid deployment of remote and hybrid teaching and learning options occurred. For example, UBC acknowledged the concerns of the community but did not explicitly state stakeholder involvement in alternate learning options, ‘many in our community are asking what the status of our summer terms will be in the light of these uncertain times’ and to ‘aid our students, faculty and staff as they plan, and in clear recognition that current mitigations may need to continue for an as yet undetermined period, I am announcing that Term 1 of Summer Session … will be online’ (University of British Columbia, 2020). UA first mentioned consultation with the academic community during the third wave of the pandemic stating that they ‘have heard the challenges raised by students and instructors concerning online learning’ to ensure that students with medical, technological, accessibility, or other barriers, will be ‘reasonably accommodated … and a new Provost’s Task Force will be called on [to implement] remote teaching and learning effective immediately’ (University of Alberta, 2021a).

            In comparison, UWO acknowledged consultation with the academic community early on during the first wave when they ‘heard the concerns from our campus community regarding continuation of in-person classes’ (Western University, 2020a). A response a few days later included direction for employee stakeholders according to which some employees were required to be physically present on-campus while others worked off-campus in a virtual mode, ‘regarding this shift to virtual, off-campus work, we need some time to consult academic and administrative leaders, along with our union/employee-group leaders’ (Western University, 2020d).

            Taken together, our data show that the announcements related to the initial shift to online teaching and learning declared that campus operations would continue, which meant that some employees did not have the privilege to stay home at times during the pandemic. This created a dividing practice, a Foucauldian concept adopted in Bacchi’s (2009) WPR approach that describes how the population is categorised, ordered and positioned counter to other groups. In our data, the responses established a clear separation of ‘essential’ on-site or on-campus support staff labour in contrast to the labour of students, faculty and administrative staff who, in most cases, could protect themselves by staying home in the early stages of the pandemic. Similarly, Suspitsyna (2021) discussed how American HE institutions privileged the lives of students over the lives of institutional staff during the pandemic. The issue of safety and security operated with fluid boundaries, creating different realities for different policy actors.

            By representing in-person environments as a problem, and in the context of an emergency or crisis of shifting to remote or hybrid learning as the solution, we also see a discursive effect, which limits what can be said or thought (Bacchi, 2009), through the construction of processes which enabled online course delivery. At all three institutions, responses indicated reliance on existing online course management systems already in place before the pandemic. As classes went online, pedagogical adaptations – such as lesson planning, instructional design, curriculum development, classroom management and assessment – followed, further entrenching practices towards a singular online approach and thereby limiting and excluding other possibilities. For example, responses varied between institutions on the assessment tool of exams. In March 2020, UWO did not require students to be on campus since ‘final exams will not take place in-person’ (Western University, 2020c). Online final exams returned the following year in early April 2021, with the ‘difficult decision to move most remaining in-person classes and final exams online’ (Western University, 2021a). With the emergence of a new Omicron strain ushering in a fifth COVID-19 wave, in December 2021, UWO ‘as a preventative measure and out of an abundance of caution’ moved to mostly online exams with the ‘exception of clinical and some other assessments that are required to be completed in-person’ (Western University, 2021c). UWO directed whether exams were to be taken online, but did not make pedagogical recommendations, for example, in relation to content coverage or exam type.

            We did not find any responses from UBC specific to assessment in our dataset, which does not indicate these types of responses did not exist, but rather that they may have been made available in another form not captured by our method. In contrast, UA focused attention on providing instructions for exams during the first wave of the pandemic during multiple days in March 2020 (University of Alberta, 2020a, 2020d, 2020e). Shortly afterwards, UA directed instructors to ‘some of the concerns, challenges, and recommendations for delivering online assessments’, and summed up a blanket solution as, ‘in short, wherever possible, final assessments this semester should be asynchronous, open book, flexible, and should focus on the learning outcomes that have not yet been assessed by previous course work’ and that ‘traditional final exams should be the exception rather than the rule for this semester’ (University of Alberta, 2020f). Pandemic principles of assessment were defined to include ‘prioritise simple solutions’, ‘aim for fairness and equity amidst a variety of contexts and challenges’, with the aim of encouraging commitment and responsibility in ‘assuring students meet learning outcomes’ (University of Alberta, 2020f). Most importantly, it was clear that these responses did not just dictate that an in-person exam was to be simply digitised but that the learning aims of exams were to change to accommodate the online environment, thereby making the environment dictate pedagogy rather than being guided and controlled by the expertise of faculty. In this way, these types of responses constituted pedagogy, where managerial logics challenged the labour rights of academic autonomy endemic to faculty.

            Problematising the return to normal

            Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘normal’ discursive condition of teaching and learning in HE was predominantly in-person and on-campus, although certain programmes and courses had increasingly moved online (e.g. professional degrees, flexible programmes, etc.). Governing practices constructed these normative discourses, and students, teachers, and support services organised their labour efforts around this reality. Occupying smaller, yet growing discourses on teaching and learning in HE, online teaching and learning was positioned as a flexible, technology-enabled, innovative option meant to enhance experiences for existing students and teachers while also creating new opportunities for students who encounter geographical, social, economic and mobility access barriers. However, as the pandemic necessitated emergency measures, discourses shifted towards repositioning hybrid or online spaces as a new ‘normal’.

            As vaccination in Canada began in December 2020 (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021), university discourses in relation to the delivery mode of most classes gradually changed. In the universities’ Fall plans announced in late February 2021 and early March 2021, vaccination became the solution to unsafe teaching and learning. In the case of UA, as the Fall plan announcement was not included in our data, we searched for it, because we noticed that both UBC and UWO took similar decisions in this period. We found that UA announced their Fall plans for the return of a growing number of people to campus some weeks before Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education recommended that Alberta’s HEIs plan a complete return to on-campus instruction in the Fall (Dew, 2021; Government of Alberta, 2021). All three universities announced that Fall 2021 plans to return to in-person activities and instruction were based on the wider availability of vaccines in the upcoming months. According to our data, all three universities thus had an absence of statements related to teaching and learning delivery mode from May 2021 to August 2021, which may be related to the effect of these institutions’ decisions in the early months of 2021 in relation to their Fall semester plans.

            As vaccines became the new solution for the universities’ problem of unsafe teaching and learning, our data demonstrate that the problem representation shifted from unsafe teaching and learning to an unhealthy campus community. This problem representation was accompanied by the assumption that these community members needed to be surveilled in relation to vaccination, testing and COVID-19 protocol compliances in the return to in-person activities. Thus, while students and educators were positioned as security policy actors in the university responses that problematised in-person teaching and learning as unsafe, the same students and educators were positioned as threatening in the ‘return to normal’ responses, since they needed to be surveilled so that ‘normal’ could be ‘viable’.

            Throughout the pandemic waves, we found instances where university responses constitute an eventual and presumptive ‘return to normal’ as the resumption of pre-pandemic teaching and learning spaces. However, the discursive emphasis on a desired return to normal silenced the hard-earned remote online learning knowledges – specifically teaching and learning methods and practices – that had been acquired during the pandemic and deemed the new skills and competencies that had been acquired by students, instructors, and support services employees to be irrelevant. Thus, the pandemic labour efforts of these groups were marginalised, and the accompanying knowledges rendered invisible.

            UWO’s advice to ‘carefully follow ministry and public health regulations and preserve as much of the in-person educational experience for which Western is known’ linked ‘preservation’ with ‘in-person’ teaching and learning (Western University, 2020e). By the Fall 2021 semester vaccinations had increased the safety and security on campus leading to a situation where ‘a highly vaccinated campus population gives us confidence as we welcome back the community and provide the exceptional in-person experience Western is known for’ and ‘we know in-person learning and collaboration best supports student success, mental health and well-being’ (Western University, 2021b). UA expressed their desire to return to normalcy when they stated, ‘as public health restrictions allow, we will continue to explore all opportunities to increase our roster of in-person course offerings to maximise student learning opportunities’ (University of Alberta, 2021a) and ‘… prepare for a full return to on-campus learning this Fall’ (University of Alberta, 2021b). In the Winter 2022 semester, UBC also expressed the desire for a return to normal whereby ‘we will continue to assess the situation from the perspective of our students, faculty and staff, and … will provide a further update regarding our full return to in-person teaching and learning’ (University of British Columbia, 2022).

            The ‘return to normal’ illustrated a dividing practice between what was normalised and what was marginalised. Bartholomay (2022) found that, because of the extraordinary amount of stress and conflict placed on educators and students by the pandemic, it was no wonder that they expressed a strong desire for a ‘return to normal’ for stability and familiarity. However, the pandemic had permanently altered teaching and learning and offered new strategies for educators centred around compassion and accessibility, including exhibiting greater compassion, establishing boundaries with students, adopting the use of affordable learning tools and open education resources, and rethinking attendance and assignments through multimodal pedagogy (Bartholomay, 2022). Clinging to the idea of a return to pre-pandemic times meant rendering invisible and invalidating the new teaching and learning advances that had been gained. Veletsianos (2022) argues that the idea of online learning as a ‘temporary and inadequate façade of the real thing’ (Veletsianos, 2022, para. 2) to help education get through the pandemic jeopardised the application of this powerful tool when considering its usefulness for meeting other crises (for example, climate emergencies) and challenges (for example, the inability of some people to access in-person education because they are disabled, live in remote areas, are also working, are military professionals or are caring for children or families). Our analysis shows how the problematisation of the labour of teaching and learning as a shift to the ‘return to normal’ deemed such challenges not to be relevant, as the pedagogical knowledges about how to address online and other pedagogies became sidelined.

            A ‘return-to-normal’ discourse centred around resuming pre-pandemic in-person teaching and learning can be juxtaposed against Canadian studies conducted during the pandemic showing user preference towards online or hybrid teaching and learning and greater institutional support for digital technologies. The Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) conducted nationwide, and Ontario-specific, surveys of faculty and students in postsecondary institutions (Johnson, 2021). Findings included an overall greater interest in online and hybrid learning, with strong indicators favouring more hybrid course offerings and increased technology use, and an increased need for professional development as the shift to online posed new skills demand on academic labour (Johnson, 2021). Johnson’s (2021) study also found that HE institutions were planning to increase technology infrastructure to accommodate more digital teaching materials (including open educational resources). In particular, the massive shift to online course delivery at the onset of the pandemic was referred to as a ‘watershed moment for digital learning’ with a lasting impact which ‘will drive innovation and change in the years to come’ (Johnson, 2021:3). Additionally, a survey by Markov et al. (2021) of the online teaching and learning experiences of students and instructors in Ontario made several recommendations including enhancing institutional support for faculty and students, student-centred design, infusion of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and mechanisms for quality assurance. Both surveys found a growing demand for and acceptance of OLT, in line with Canadian HE efforts towards increased digitalisation (Conrad & Veletsianos, 2022), while also highlighting limitations and barriers in terms of support (both for employees in terms of labour issues, and for students in terms of learning environment), access and adaptive pedagogy. These surveys offer unique insights into online education during the pandemic from a Canadian and local Ontario context. They provide information about the backdrop of normative practices against which HE institutions in Ontario were reacting and to which they were responding during the pandemic. Thus, these studies are representative of an alternative, emerging discourse positioning online education both as a pandemic mitigation and as a response to a post-pandemic need for increasing demand and growth.

            Universities centring discourses around online and hybrid teaching and learning, running parallel with surveys showing increased use and confidence by users, point towards online education becoming increasingly normalised. This creates an interesting tension whereby, on the one hand, university responses reflected an attempt to regain the pre-pandemic in-person past, while, on the other hand, online teaching and learning was already propelling these same universities into a post-pandemic future of bold, new opportunities and challenges. Perhaps we can interpret the lived effects, in which academic employees and students were governed by decisions of when and how online education was to be used, coupled with Canadian user perception studies, to Foucault equating ‘counter-conduct’ as a form of resistance (Bacchi & Goodwin, 2018:24). The struggle over how things could be constructed otherwise demonstrates the politics of policy. In other words, as the institutional discourse changed towards returning to normal, the fluctuating instability from going between in-person and online modalities had given academic employees and students both the experiences and tools that made it possible to re-create a new teaching and learning reality which resisted the return of what could now be considered a mismatched and irrelevant pre-pandemic ‘normal’.


            In this article, we set out to understand how university responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, related to teaching and learning, involved different policy problem representations that organised faculty and student labour practices and subjectivities. We considered how different problem representations operated on different assumptions about teaching and learning and the roles faculty and students play in universities. In doing so, we considered the ways these practices created different lived, discursive, and subjectification effects. Consequently, we moved away from a view that the labour of teaching and learning is organised only along a spatial reality of either in-person or online means, towards a discursive reality of teaching and learning as a security practice and a practice of the ‘return to normal’. These discourses, arising from university responses as governing practices, create teaching and learning subjects which transcend the spatial realm. The examination of these two main responses across three Canadian university contexts offers an opportunity to critically examine how pandemic labour practices impact the future world we create towards post-pandemic university conditions, as what we do and where we now stand, to influence where we might go.

            It’s important to note that we acknowledge that rapid transitions to teaching and learning during the pandemic were stressful. Our data highlight how institutions grappled with the difficulty of balancing continuity of teaching and learning with the health and well-being of their campus communities. Our findings shed light on the stresses, tensions, and struggles encountered by these institutions, and their response efforts are tremendous and commendable considering the chaotic emergency preparedness and response from governments and the public. This aspect of the research relates to Bacchi’s consideration of how we might engage with policy representations in other ways. Our research across these three university institutions demonstrates that while there was commonality in problem representations, there were varied governing responses. Such problem representations may exist in other national contexts and educational jurisdictions, and our analysis may therefore provide insights to practitioners and policymakers in other sites about how their own problem representations create the conditions in which faculty and students work. Reflection on these problem representations invites consideration for how we might construct policy responses in other ways, and to be cognisant of counter-conduct moves of resistance, as they are subjugated as irrelevant. For example, in thinking about the labour of educators and students, policymakers might pay attention to how pedagogical and learning practices can be brought to the fore. This may influence how the knowledges gained through the transitions of teaching and learning can inform future policy approaches. If policies construct educators and students as pedagogical actors, rather than ‘security policy actors’, better learning outcomes and more inclusive practices could be prioritised in university work practices. Such considerations might move HE institutions away from privileging economic rationales and put the labour of teaching and learning related to knowledge at the fore.



            While this article uses the phrase ‘teaching and learning’ predominantly for consistency, we also use the phrase ‘learning and teaching’ in the context of online education as ‘online learning and teaching’ (OLT). The ‘learning and teaching’ phrasing is becoming more common as it better reflects a student-centered approach where the focus is on meeting the learning needs and goals of each individual student.


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            Author and article information

            Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation
            Pluto Journals
            27 February 2024
            : 18
            : 1
            : 44-64
            [1 ] Mara De Giusti Bordignon is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education at Western University, Ontario, Canada.
            [2 ] Melody Viczko is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Western University, Ontario, Canada.
            [3 ] Renata Matsumoto is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education at Western University, Ontario, Canada.
            Author notes
            Renata Matsumoto rmatsum@ 123456uwo.ca
            © 2024, Mara De Giusti Bordignon, Melody Viczko and Renata Matsumoto.

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

            Page count
            Pages: 21

            Sociology,Labor law,Political science,Labor & Demographic economics,Political economics
            COVID-19 pandemic,policy,academic labour,higher education


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