This summary of a keynote address delivered at the 6th CELC Symposium presents some observations about the accelerated creation and adoption of curriculum innovations triggered by both the pandemic and rapid technological advances. It then discusses innovations in learning and teaching to prepare students for the world of VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The recommendations are underpinned by three key pedagogic principles: familiarisation of students with new competencies; authentic engagement of students with learning and thinking amid changing scenarios; and empowering students in blended learning environments. Suggestions are offered on curriculum design including: multimodal literacies; thinking-based learning; multi-stage communication; students as partners in blended and flipped activities; connecting local with international students in purposeful communication; and complementing the formal curriculum with English Across the Curriculum. Some considerations are highlighted and examples of activities and assessment are provided. Shaping the future of language education with sound pedagogic principles is a purposeful action in the continuous process of forward-looking quality enhancement.

Keywords: Pandemic, VUCA, principle-based, curriculum innovation, new literacies, English Across the Curriculum


Higher education (HE) around the world has been facing unprecedented challenges in the last few years. The onset of COVID-19 necessitated a radical shift from face-to-face lessons to emergency remote learning and teaching (L&T) within a few weeks; and as COVID-19 continued, online L&T has become the norm in many higher education institutions (HEIs). Further, the world is facing an era of VUCA, an acronym first used by the US army, standing for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The Oxford University Executive Education program has a similar acronym, which is TUNA: turbulence; uncertainty; novelty; ambiguity. Both acronyms reflect a complex and ambiguous world in which unpredictable changes, rapid upheavals, and new elements are emerging. While the day-to-day aspects of education in the COVID (or post-COVID) era, such as engaging students in blended courses and designing online assessment, are being addressed, HEIs should also be aware of how a VUCA or TUNA world will form the next generation and consider ways to adapt or re-conceptualise education to prepare students for the future.


The COVID-19 pandemic has been called a perfect storm given the impact it has had on traditional methods of teaching, learning, training, and education (Sutton & Jorge, 2020, p. 125). The pandemic has forced all parties into the middle of a typical battlefield as “it unmasked the hidden fragilities of the system and vulnerabilities of all its stakeholders”, requiring an abrupt and urgent need to change over a very short period of time (Domingo-Maglinao, 2021, p. 803). Although there are diverse views about the effects of COVID on HE, academics agree that teachers and students should try to “achieve a mutual and meaningful collaborative learning and social space” (Neuwirth et al., 2021, p. 154), in which “learning activities involving digital technologies reflect cognitive processes of students” (Sailer, 2021, p.1). In this way, the pandemic can be viewed positively as it has triggered a transformative process that builds on the insights of the past two years, seeking to engage students in “active, constructive, and interactive learning activities” (Sailer, 2021, p.5), and “ease adherence to new processes that foster sustainable development in higher education” (Sá & Serpa, 2020, p.13).

Some, however, have observed that rather than having a transformative process on education, the pandemic has brought a change to online learning, teaching and assessment (LTA) which has simply “reduced [it] to the fulfilment of rudimentary technical functions” (Watermeyer et al., 2020, p. 631).  When HEIs “rethink and reinvent learning environments … that expand … and complement students’ learning” (Tejedor et al., 2020, p. 14), a key to determining whether the changes are rudimentary or transformative may lie with their teachers. Teachers’ responses to the transition to online teaching have been categorised under three profiles: those who have: 1) “actively use new methods and software thoughtfully and managed constraints, and indicated sustainable changes to their way of teaching”, 2) “engaged moderately in making changes, experienced challenges and were less optimistic about their efforts”, and 3) “reported various constraints, that hindered teaching practices and successful delivery of teaching” (Damşa et al., 2021, p. 13).  Thus, HEIs should encourage staff, whether they are innovators, early adopters, or laggards (Rogers, 2003), to make the most of the insights and experiences gained in the last two years.


While COVID-19 has highlighted the need to improve remote teaching with well-planned digital learning environments, the advent of new technologies has given rise to innovative teaching activities that require a certain degree of digital competence from both the teacher and the student. As early as 2006, the European Commission had identified digital competence, communication in the mother tongue, and competence in foreign languages as three of the eight key life skills; however, a review of the literature reveals that the majority of HEI teachers and students are at only “a basic level of digital competence” (Zhao et al., 2021, p. 1).

Rapid technological advances have brought about unprecedented effects on education. Using advanced technology has become a normal, if not required part teaching in HEIs, with Learning Management Systems (LMSs) being a major platform for learning, academic discussions, and archiving of course materials (Navarro et al., 2021). The use of the LMS, other elearning methods, and mobile-assisted learning have prompted studies on task-technology fit, learning styles, and influences on the elearning process (Tan et al., 2018; Dolawattha et al., 2022). One of the notable challenges is the lack of interaction in synchronous lessons and asynchronous activities (Vlachopoulos & Makri, 2019). This difficulty serves as a timely reminder that the design of courses, whether in face-to-face, fully online, or blended mode, should attend to the interplay between three presences: cognitive, teacher, and social, as presented in the Community of Enquiry framework (Garrison et al., 2000; Tyrvainen et al., 2021; Goggins & Hajdukiewicz, 2022).

Rapidly changing environments have also re-conceptualised communication. No longer mono-directional in the form of writing (e.g., via email) or speaking (e.g., in presentations), communication is an organised and purposeful multi-dimensional mixture of connected and iterative concepts (Martin & Lambert, 2015), and has become “increasingly complex, multimodal, and … inextricably linked with the use of technology” (McCallum, 2021, p. 616). HE students should be taught to make “coherent use” of different modes (Ruiz-Madrid, & Valeiras-Jurado, 2020, p. 44). Multimodal learning design has been found to promote “students’ communication of their understanding of STEM concepts” and their acquisition of “multiple disciplines” (Gray et al., 2019, p. 9).


The volatility sparked by the pandemic, rapid technological advances, and new literacies emerging in the digital age, demand a serious re-consideration of whether our present form of education is appropriately and adequately preparing students for the future. Concurrently, educators need to consider how innovations can be incorporated into our courses, curriculums, and co-curricular provisions to train students to thrive in a VUCA world. Accordingly, I propose addressing VUCA with education supported by the following underpinning pedagogic principles: familiarisation with new competencies, authentic engagement with learning and thinking amid changing scenarios, and empowerment of students in blended learning environments.

While academic literacies are important and should continue to be a main component of language courses, some of the new literacies and genres should also be included to familiarise students with the competencies they are expected to develop (Elola & Oskoz, 2017). The concept of literacy has expanded to include different modes of meaning-making and communication. As defined by UNESCO (2021), “literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.” The aim of HEIs should be to develop students’ ability to communicate and negotiate successfully whatever the mode: written or spoken, text or visual, and in-person or virtual. Developing students’ multiple literacies should be coordinated at the institutional level and the language centre level. At the former level, the development of new literacies should be aligned with the attributes that the HEIs would want to see in their graduates (e.g., effective multi-dimensional communication); thus, they need to be incorporated into institutes’ strategic plans to ensure students do develop those attributes.

At the centre level, some teachers are beginning to include the use of infographics in their courses enabling them to visualise their ideas, systematically present their information, and transfer their content from one mode (e.g., text) to another (graphics) (Sukerti & Sitawati, 2019]. Studies have shown the effect of infographics on enhancing student motivation and achievement (Ibrahem & Alamro, 2021; Kohnke et al., 2021). Another example concerns the focus of language teaching and assessment, where new literacies and competencies are built via the digital story, which is an example of assessment that develops both writing (i.e., composing) and speaking (i.e., audio/video presentation of stories) skills in a situated context, (e.g., topics related to the students’ major discipline). Using digital stories has also been found to increase student achievement and motivation (Aktas & Yurt, 2017). Other types of multi-literacy teaching foci and assessment include multi-modal proposals that have text, infographics and videos, and a critical synthesis and review of multimedia information from multiple sources to help students realise the relationship between, and the inter-dependence of, the various modes and the content expressed through them. One study showed that assignments that require the creation of multimodal portfolios can even engage at-risk students in multimodal thinking and the development of a critical stance (Lawrence & Mathis, 2020). At a more strategic level, language centres can plan which new literacies and competencies should be introduced in which courses, thus building a progressive pathway across the language centre courses in students’ undergraduate years.

Another underpinning educational principle is the active engagement of students in authentic learning and thinking amid changing scenarios, i.e., teachers should train students how to communicate using real-life situations. Courses that currently teach mono-directional communication (e.g., writing one email to a pseudo recipient) should be redesigned to focus on diverse communicative responses (e.g., replying to recipients of different status). Students can be given scenarios in which they do not compose only one response (e.g., proposal or email) or one presentation; instead, after their first response or speaking delivery, they can be required to give two or more different responses (e.g., a rejection or a sceptical response requesting clarification). These practices bring together linguistic and thinking skills, and provide opportunities for discussion of higher-level skills, such as register, criticality, defence, and succinctness. These learning activities promote thinking-based learning, where students articulate their thinking, strategise their responses, and translate those into writing (Swartz, 2008).

Communication is often a multi-stage process (Krishna & Morgan, 2004); thus, to prepare students for a VUCA world, courses should provide students with complex problems that require multiple stages of thinking and communication. In pairs or groups, students can be either given, or asked to establish, the parameters of stage 1 of a multi-stage scenario, then define the problem and attempt to address it. Then they can be given new factors and considerations that offset their previous solutions, forcing them to change their assumptions, re-think, re-plan, and re-communicate their ideas. Deep learning best occurs when some of the multi-stage scenarios end with only temporal solutions to bigger problems, or when tasks are designed in such a way that there are no optimal solutions or conclusion, which is often the case in real life.

The third underpinning pedagogic principle concerns empowering students in blended environments. Blended learning is likely to remain in the post-pandemic era, and flipped-classroom pedagogy will also probably continue. To increase student engagement and deepen their learning in blended and flipped classrooms, the Students-as-Partners or the Student-Staff-Partnership approach may be useful. “‘Students as Partners’ (SaP) in higher education re-envisions students and staff as active collaborators in teaching and learning” (Mercer-Mapstone et al., 2017, p.1).  Students are engaged as partners in the co-creation of learning and teaching activities and materials. One possible way of integrating SaP and blended/flipped learning is for students to work in pairs/groups to design blended activities to be completed pre- or post-class; students can manage the first half hour of every lesson in which they conduct activities to check that their peers have completed and learnt from the flipped pre-class activities. Teachers can co-design with students “multiliteracies learning that meets them where they are” (Lim et al., 2021, p.109). These SaP arrangements empower students and have the potential to lead to deep, transformative learning (Healey et al., 2014).

Advanced technology also allows remote student-student partnerships in blended environments without geographical borders. The pandemic may have prevented HEIs from sending students on overseas learning trips; however, language courses are in an optimal position to bring the world to the classroom, enabling students to have an international experience. Collaborative online international learning (COIL) allows students from different countries to engage online in purposeful learning with “concrete goals and deliverables” (Mundel, 2020, p.114). In a COIL classroom, a class of students from another city join a local lesson online. Both classes of students can be engaged in cross-group discussions and assignments (such as comparative studies) that foster their intercultural communicative competence. Another type of assessment that suits COIL classes is problem-solving group activities (Jimenez & Kressner, 2021) that enrich students’ understanding of the thought processes and considerations of different cultures.

Blended learning encourages learning beyond the classroom and outside the formal curriculum. Due to a typically packed curriculum in undergraduate programmes, the number of English language courses is limited, with none in many semesters, resulting in an understandably incomplete coverage of the disciplinary academic literacy needs of students. Further, if an HEI provides generic academic English courses to students from all departments, those courses cannot cover highly specific academic genres, such as laboratory report writing. The English Across the Curriculum (EAC) initiative, based on the Writing Across the Curriculum model in North America, has identified these learning gaps and offers language learning resources and support outside the formal language curriculum (Chen & Morrison, 2021). In EAC, English teachers and discipline faculty work together to address students’ disciplinary literacy needs by offering timely English tips and learning activities that align with the language skills needed for specific assignments (Chen, Chan, & Ng, 2021), such as laboratory reports, medical incident reports, and product promotion. Textual analyses of students’ writing and speaking performances have been conducted to enable the production of support materials that target weaknesses, e.g., research mapping (Chen et al., 2021). The resources that are produced for students can be in multi-modal format and delivered to students via multiple channels using different platforms, including the Learning Management System or mobile applications, to cater for ubiquitous learning.


Rather than viewing VUCA negatively and avoiding its teaching repercussions, HEIs should train students to face VUCA and embrace its four aspects as critical processes that are present in any system that grows and evolves. Indeed, “the forces outlined in the VUCA model are beginning to wend their way into the rarefied environment of academe and are necessitating an existential reappraisal of higher educational institutions” (Stewart et al., 2016, p. 242). The pandemic has been a very difficult period, but it has also accelerated exciting changes in education while challenging academics to think strategically about the future of education, which includes the shaping of language education that reaches so many students every year. With strong underpinning philosophies and teamwork, HEIs and language centres need to step up to the challenge and make educational decisions that are compatible with sound pedagogic principles. The future may not be friendly to the unprepared; however, with determination and agility, language educators can introduce quality enhancement to their courses and programmes and develop in students a “futures literacy” (Miller, 2018) and a future-oriented mindset.


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Associate Professor Julia CHEN is the Director of the Educational Development Centre at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her research interests include English Across the Curriculum, leveraging technology for advancing learning and teaching, and using learning analytics for curriculum review and quality enhancement. She was the principal investigator of several large-scale government-funded inter-university projects on EAC and using technology for literacy development. Her work has been published in journals and edited collections. A two-time recipient of her university’s President Award for Excellent Performance, first in teaching and then in service, she was shortlisted for the Hong Kong UGC Teaching Award and by QS Quacquarelli Symonds for the Reimagine Education Learning Assessment Award. She is a Principal Fellow of Advance HE (PFHEA), and recently received the lifetime designation award of Distinguished Fellow from the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. She has served on many education committees, as well as review boards in the US and East Asia.


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