Harts Online – Normal Service Will NOT Be Resumed Shortly

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An opinion piece by Dr Lewis Sykes, Harts Online Coordinator

It goes without saying that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has impacted profoundly on our day-to-day lives – how we manage and maintain our work/study, play and interpersonal relationships. Significant issues of public health and individual well-being aside, it’s also brought into sharp focus those systemic inequalities, inadequacies and inflexibilities within our current economic and societal infrastructures that have been ignored for far too long. It could be, as in other historical times of crisis, that this emergency creates the impetus for genuine change – let’s hope so.

Initial uncertainty as the pandemic unfolded resulted in understandable confusion and ‘on-the-hoof’ decision making about how best to respond to the ever changing circumstances. What now seems clearer – 15 weeks since lockdown was imposed in the UK – is that while we are slowly returning to a pre-pandemic normality, life in the future will not be the same as it was in the past. “Normal Service Will NOT Be Resumed Shortly” – the ground has simply shifted too much underneath our feet.

This is also true for academia generally – and MMU is no exception – with the wholesale shift to teaching via online learning platforms such as Moodle, ’webinars’ via Adobe Connect and ‘online events’ via Skype for Business and Zoom – as well as working-from-home and remote meetings becoming the norm for the foreseeable future. Yet this pandemic driven switch to ‘digital learning’ isn’t without its consequences – as explored in a recent article in The Atlantic – “Are Universities Going the Way of CDs and Cable TV” – by Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. Smith makes the case, albeit with an American focus, that the pandemic has actually highlighted a failure by academic institutions too comfortable with their traditional models, to engage with these information & communications technologies (ICTs) quickly enough and that in the future “colleges will need to embrace digital services in order to survive”.

This macro overview is reflected in the micro too – news.harts.online being a specific case in point. 

While it “strives to be a ‘virtual hub’ for the… postgraduate research community – complementing and enhancing the ‘real-world’ programming and physical spaces” I’d be the first to admit that it’s been relatively moribund since early April and hasn’t ‘risen to the challenge’ of lockdown. This is partly due to illness and university wide budget freezes impacting on the Harts Online team – but it’s also down to an undermining of its current primary role as a ‘digital noticeboard’ – a listing of PAHC, MMU and wider academic community training, events, seminars, conferences and opportunities aimed at PGRs within the A&H Faculty. When the PAHC Researcher Training Programme (RTP) moved exclusively onto Moodle and almost all forthcoming academic activities were cancelled until further notice, Harts Online’s ‘life-blood’ dried up.

So this new reality begs the questions: What should Harts Online be from now on? How might it best respond to current circumstances and the foreseeable future? Most importantly, how can it remain useful and relevant to the PAHC PGR community?

I’d suggest that one obvious but significant way is as a platform to share perspectives and encourage discourse between PAHC PGRs – for the community itself to provide fresh content for Harts Online. 

While we’ve been trying to coax PGRs to consider this within their research journeys – as illustrated through our recently published “Harts Online Article Guidelines” and the March scheduled (but subsequently postponed) “Writing for the Web” workshop – it seems a more appropriate time than ever to urge this more earnestly.

The site has been more active recently – it now features an updated ’STORIES’ page – duplicating details and content of the recent PAHC ‘Video Voices’ initiative previously only posted on Moodle and featuring the new #PGRLife podcast series – ‘The Shared Experience’ – initiated by PAHC PhD candidate Oli Delgaram-Nejad (we welcome and will try our best to support other similar PGR initiated online projects). We also have a new series of short articles about to launch – from PAHC PGRs across years reflecting on relevant issues within their research journeys – and we really welcome contributions from others.

If you currently maintain a blog or online journal that features an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed and are happy for content you post there to potentially feature on Harts Online too then we could also set up a Reblog section – a weekly selection of interesting new posts from the PGR community via an RSS aggregator. If you’d like to contribute or get involved in helping to set this up contact me – details below.

I’d also like to encourage any PAHC PGRs who are post their RD1 progression stage and currently don’t have a ‘Profile’ on Harts Online to action this as a priority (contact me and I’ll forward relevant details). PAHC is very keen to promote a sense of community among postgraduate researchers – you are the people that make PAHC what it is. The ‘POSTGRADUATES’ page and its profiles enables you and PAHC to:

  • find colleagues who are perhaps based in a different department but with who you may have common interests;
  • demonstrate the richness of the research that we do to the outside world and prospective applicants and employers.

Finally, I really do welcome and encourage your input on the issues and possible responses outlined here. While this article isn’t open for “Comments” (this would require registering individually as a user on the harts.online WordPress network which could be a bit too technically fraught) if anyone would like to respond to this piece and share their perspectives I’m more than open to adding responses – submitted via the ‘CONTACT’ page online form or via my email – L.Sykes@mmu.ac.uk – below the piece.

Here’s to agreeing a ‘new’ but considered normal service…

Dr Lewis Sykes
Harts Online Coordinator