HOW we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic and emerge, blinking into the “new normal”, has spurred one academic to wonder how “new” the concept actually is.

Frank Rennie, a professor of sustainable rural development at Lews Castle College UHI, delivered the first online course from there in 1993 and, while the establishment was advanced, today’s online connectivity “is like comparing NASA with stone-age technology”.

However, he said that small step for man was a giant leap for developing the network of colleges that became the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Not too long after that, rudimentary digital resources were developed for the university’s first networked degree, and the rest is history.

Writing on the UHI blog, Rennie said: “Suddenly there are fewer options for learning and teaching. Suddenly, even colleagues who have been reticent to put anything online are seeing the advantages of being able to use educational technology to communicate in a semi-normal way with students and other staff members.”

He said that among his observations after 11 weeks working from home, was most of his workload had continued as normal, without the commute and corridor confabs, as all his teaching is through UHI’s own virtual learning environment.

Discussions with research students are by video conference, as are network and committee meetings. Online learning had now become mainstream, with tutor-student online communication, and that between professionals, almost normalised.

“From being an ‘alternative’, it has become mainstream and some of the anticipated demons and obstacles have faded or disappeared,” he said.

“Secondly, the shift online means that I am now even MORE connected with the wider world of academia than I was previously … The geographic argument of population numbers and transport links that make Inverness, Edinburgh, and Glasgow (to name but three cities) venues of convenience for meetings of physical networks and committees, is now destabilised.”

Rennie said many were finding the new normal “incredibly efficient and cost-effective,” and added: “Whether this revelation becomes sufficiently embedded to survive and thrive beyond the immediate lockdown will be interesting to observe. For my part, as an early convert, I would prefer not to regress to old ways.”