Keeping the flame alive in Aotearoa: How education research discussions continued and faltered in 2020

Prof. Martin Thrupp, Prof. Stephen Dobson & Prof. Bronwen Cowie

The COVID pandemic was hugely disruptive for New Zealand researchers over 2020. In the field of education, as in other areas, researchers found their workplaces shut, their fieldwork in schools, early childhood centres and other educational settings delayed, and their conference plans thwarted. This was an international problem as well of course. For those involved in New Zealand tertiary teaching, precious research time was taken up by new online teaching demands that came and went during the year with COVID alert levels. Less immediate but no less impactful, educational researchers were like other New Zealanders, distracted by the international horror show of the pandemic, and wondering about its implications for their life, families and work in Aotearoa. We have all lived the digital dilemma – the more we have mastered the online and the joys of being at a distance, the more we have longed for the rich and deeply personal world of social interaction in the flesh.

Despite these problems, and in some ways because of them, New Zealand educational researchers found ways to meet, research and plan for an uncertain future in 2020 (and beyond). This blog puts on record how and why we met, both online and face to face, and what we learnt in the process. It can’t be a comprehensive account, because we don’t have full overview of all New Zealand educational research discussions this year. But we have selected what we regard as four interesting and important developments, which illustrate some pros and cons of different approaches to meeting about research in COVID times.

We begin by looking at a Zoom-based cross-university ‘Learning in a post-Covid world’ group led by Stephen. We then turn to the ‘Cancelled Conference’ symposia series, also held online, which was organised by Bronwen and others. In the last part of the blog Martin writes about the NZARE policy SIG seminar on the Government’s education reviews which was both face to face and Zoom. He was also involved in a University of Waikato staff and student forum on COVID and education which was face to face only, although panopto video recordings were made of the initial presentations intended to kick off discussion.

We conclude that both online and face to face sessions had their place in 2020, although the latter definitely became more difficult in the COVID environment. We celebrate here the resilience and unity shown by New Zealand’s educational research community at a time of great national and global uncertainty, and we also ask about what is changing as a result of the pandemic.

‘Learning in a post-Covid world’

This group had its origins in a communications strategy – a media project – developed by the New Zealand Council of Deans of Education. This was a local manifestation of the way education researchers across the globe are under pressure to strengthen impact and engagement indicators. It was inspired by among other things, the EU PERARES project (2010-2014) which created a network of science exchange shops materialised through science cafes, science festivals and online forums.

Nevertheless for experienced educational researchers this EU project’s drive for more impact and engagement felt like old wine in new bottles because education research has long held an interest in connecting with end users through its applied focus.

Consider, for instance, that the term pedagogy derives from the Greek paidagõgos, the slave escorting boys to schools, supervising them and later bringing forth their learning.

Against this background the pandemic provided fresh impetus for impact and engagement led by the Deans of Education and by Stephen in particular. All those involved – about a dozen academics from education faculties up and down the country – realised that multiple organisations and business would see opportunity in the educational challenges created by the COVID crisis. This ‘disaster capitalism’ scenario made it increasingly important that research-based voices were in the national debates as well.

In practice we met monthly by zoom from early May and brainstormed possible COVID-related educational topics to write about and tried to identify groups to do writing and possible publication outlets as well. We used Google Drive to write simultaneously on the same planning document. Topics identified included the purpose of public education, the role of home and whānau, digital engagement and equity, online teaching and teacher education, literacies in future-focussed education, the risk of ‘silver bullets’ in a time of COVID, and more.

Meetings were good; some of the writing came to quick fruition (See here, and here). Still, by July/August participation began to tail off, most likely because of competing workload pressures as teaching kicked off again after the mid-year break. Also important to note was that the societal moment – writing about the shock and Covid and its implication for schooling and university learning had passed and a different moment was upon us – namely, longer term Covid effects and what a post Covid education system might look like. Reviewing the situation, we agreed the monthly meeting had above all created a discussion group, a place to scan the shifting educational environment and share information.

A key learning – or perhaps reminder – to us all from this group then is that such arrangements, based on voluntary participation, have a way of finding their own level. To the extent that those involved find them useful, they continue to contribute. The group has been an important cross-Faculty network that operates in a generous collaborative spirit regardless of our competing institutions and will likely continue to do this, finding news forms and differing levels of urgency to comment and reflect upon education.

The Cancelled Conference Conversations

The Cancelled Conference Conversations (CCCs) was an initiative of Education’s Associate Deans: Research (ADR’s) across the country. Starting in early April, and hosted by Aaron Wilson (Auckland), Jo Higgins (Victoria) and Leon Bernade (AUT), as well as Bronwen at Waikato, there were two online presentations related to the same theme in the hour-long session each week. The CCCs used an online event app with those participating submitting questions via a chat function and the host (one of the ADR’s), reading them out.

As the name suggests, the original intention of the CCCs was to give people who had missed out on face to face conference attendance a chance to present their work to an academic audience. But as the sessions progressed through the year they included many presenters who had been asked by one of the ADR’s to speak on a theme that was timely and/or relevant, rather than having a conference presentation to hand. The CCCs were a great success, with 25 consecutive sessions from April to September. Each session was attended by around 30 people with some sessions having over 90 participants. A number of presenters commented that they might not have attracted as many participants at a face to face event. The regularity of the event appeared to be important with a number of participants present each week.

Participants reported they appreciated having access to a range of topics and had learned more about the diversity of the educational research being conducted around Aotearoa New Zealand. As hosts, the four ADRs received a number of emails from participants about the connections they had made with each other and presenters through their attendance, with some projects initiated. Again this was an important instance of cross-Faculty collaboration that provided a chance for researchers to present even during lockdowns. The main drawback was limited scope for questions/discussion. There was not much time and questions had to be typed into the chat function.

‘Perspectives on the government’s education reviews’ NZARE seminar

On 8 June the NZARE Education Policy SIG held a day seminar, titled “Taking stock: Perspectives on the government’s education reviews and where to from here?” It was organised by Judie Alison and held at the Royal Society rooms in Turnbull Street Wellington. This seminar had its origins in a SIG meeting at the NZARE conference in Christchurch in November where it was agreed that the Labour-led Government had done so many reviews in education that researchers were struggling to keep up. This seminar was intended to be an opportunity to respond to the reviews.

Then COVID hit and the plan for a face to face seminar was up against the various Alert Levels, with their limitations on numbers allowed to gather at events. Yet many of us involved weren’t satisfied with the depth of online seminars and we also didn’t want to delay the seminar to later in the year when we thought COVID might be worse because of winter weather and would also be close to the election.  We found a window of opportunity at the very end of the first lockdown, indeed it was the last day before returning to Level One. Twenty people were able to attend face to face, albeit with ‘social distancing’, and another 38 on Zoom.

There were six sessions over the day on a variety of review-related topics. Martin found it illustrative of the sheer intensity of discussion that is possible in face to face discussion, with occasional input from those zooming in. It was also a gathering with much warmth and humour, despite us being spread out on chairs placed at the requisite one metre intervals. As Judie Alison commented in summing up the event afterwards, it was a real treat for those of us able to be there. It reinforced the importance of face to face research gatherings, both in terms of the depth of discussion possible and the value of participating in a community with shared concerns.

Te Puna Toi Tangata Waikato Forum on Education

Returning to Waikato after the policy SIG event, Martin sought to retain the advantages of face to face discussion in organising a three-part staff and graduate student forum on education at the Hamilton campus.  Within a one hour weekly session the emphasis was on participation, with a speaker briefly introducing the topic and then the session being opened up for general discussion. But these sessions were poorly attended despite a well-advertised and topical focus (‘Education in a time of COVID’), good Waikato speakers and a long history of successful staff forums or colloquia in education at Waikato.

There are many possible explanations. To begin with, COVID alert levels continued to upset plans. The lockdown in Auckland led to sessions having to be put off, initially because of uncertainty about the spread of COVID and then because a speaker on COVID and early childhood education, Linda Mitchell, became stuck in Auckland.

Then there was a general concern about social distancing. The sessions were held in a large lecture theatre where there was room to spread out but still it seems that many academics and graduate students perceived risk in attending. Although some were taking face-to-face tutorials with students anyway, this was not the case with all, and many probably felt more comfortable online. Thirdly, staff (and students) were under greater work pressures than usual as a result of the pandemic. Teaching had become more complex and difficult for many, as had the organisation of papers and other administration tasks. These pressures manifested in numerous ways. One invitation to a senior academic to lead a session about universities and COVID went unanswered.

Finally, although Martin believed that the NZARE SIG had highlighted that general face to face discussion was what had become sorely missing in COVID times, it’s not clear that many others shared the same perception. It may also be that the topic area was too general to engender commitment but that staff and students would have attended something closer to their research interests, such as an NZARE SIG session. Different topics will be attempted in 2021.


It was the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin who identified the capitalist imperative beyond use and exchange value through what he called display value. It takes many forms – engagement and impact might be one of these.  Has education research managed to resist the commodification of our research in terms of display value? The hunt for citation counts in journals for promotion and other goals would seem to indicate that this is not always the case. Yet, we still retain dialogues about research that reach beyond display value and in much of what we have reported here this tradition has been alive and well during COVID times.

At the same time face-to-face education research seminars and conferences have faced particular challenges in 2020, and many were cancelled altogether. This raises the question to what extent we are seeing permanent shifts in what it means to be an education researcher engaging in discussion and debate as a result of the pandemic. As with so much about COVID, time will tell, and there may be some unexpected developments. We anticipate New Zealand educational researchers will still continue to reach out to academic colleagues around the world. We are not alone in looking for new ways to reinvent ourselves. Consider a small well-established conference, the World Learning Summit. After 9 years of face-to-face conferences, it leapt into 2020 with a fully digital conference. Next year a much larger conference, the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) is nominally in Geneva, but is being hosted online . We look forward to seeing what else 2021 will bring. 

Martin Thrupp is a Professor of Education at the University of Waikato. His research interests are in education policy, with a particular focus on school reform as it plays out in different national and local settings. He has previously undertaken research in England and across several other European countries as well as in New Zealand.

Professor Stephen Dobson was born in Zambia, grew up in England and moved to Norway in the 1980s.  He is Dean of Te Whānau o Ako Pai – Wellington Faculty of Education at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Stephen has a PhD in refugee work and a second PhD in assessment. His writing, teaching and research focus upon assessment, ethnicity and the practice of education.

Professor Bronwen Cowie is Associate Dean Research, Te Kura Toi Tangata Division of Education, The University of Waikato. Her research focuses on assessment, funds of knowledge and science education. She has a particular interest in collaboration and partnership as part of knowledge generation and sharing. 

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