Earlier today,I was delighted to give the opening keynote for day 2 of GMIT‘s Digital Education Week. Despite not being able to all meet in person in Galway, it was fantastic to be able join so many people from across Ireland and the UK and be part of the event.
For my talk I wanted to reflect on what we have all experienced in the past year of living and learning through a global pandemic. To use the luxurious position of a keynote to ask some questions about our lived experiences, and what we need to think about going forward. I wanted to reflect on words like isolation, self isolation,solitary, quarantine. These words that are so commonplace now, but pre-pandemic were not really part of our everyday discourse and vocabulary.
What really struck me about the quotes I used at the start of my talk about solitude and being alone (and many others I didn’t use) is how out of time and context they seem right now. In all of them, there is a sense of almost noble sacrifice to solitude. Solitude is necessary for great (artistic) work. It’s as if they all had to justify the right to be alone, to be solitary to achieve greatness, and an enhance sense of self worth. In our present day context, that seems to me like a very distant, privileged concept from a bygone era. Enforced solitude is quite a different experience, as we all now know. It’s been hard enough to get out of bed sometimes, never mind reach the great heights of getting dressed!
The realities of living, working and learning from home are bound as much by our physical spaces as our digital ones. I used some of the recent work of Professor Lesley Gourlay to explore this a bit more and talk about the entanglements of our phsyical and digital worlds, and the assemblages we have had to create to “be” at university. Today I thought I might stand to give the talk ( I don’t do much standing these days, do you?) so I created my own assemblage of a lectern using an ironing board, and some boxes. All a bit meta, but actually it work so I might do that again!
The session was recorded so I will add a link to that when it is available, but in the mean time you can view my slides including feedback from participants here.
And here is a screen shot the wonderful sketch note of the talk by Maia Thomas.
I’m doing a short keynote/vision talk next week at the Digital Learning in the Pandemic and Beyond half day conference. The event has a focus on “looking at the practicalities, possibilities and potential pitfalls of online learning”, and has a great line of speakers looking at blended learning, copyright and accessibility.
I’m giving the opening talk and I think it is even more challenging right now to come up with something visionary, yet realistic given our current context. Just going to a conference is a wholly different contextual digital and material experience than from a year ago. We have gone through a radical change not just in education but across all aspects of our lives. I was struck by a quote in an article I read last week about not giving up hope taken from a 2014 paper on Climate Change,
There is no doubt we have lived and continue to live in states of uncertainty. When schools/colleges/universities will fully open is just one of our current “known unknowns” – we have dates but nothing is certain.
We have experienced a radical change in the delivery of education. Arguably this might not have quite as much an impact on radically changing our education system for the future in the calls to “get back to normal” , but it has raised wider societal questions around the cost of data, equitable access to online learning, and the the limits of mobile devices for learning and teaching.
In an attempt to get a bit of community feedback before the event I put out a tweet yesterday asking people to share what if anything they had done since lockdown that they felt was radical in their teaching and learning. Thanks to everyone who responded.
From changes in access such as ports being opened so it was much easier to move in an out of institutional spaces, to making mix tapes for students to listen to as they explore resources, to creating OERs with students, to making more videos for students, to exploring with different design spaces, to getting access to more commerial courses, to choose your own adventure assignments, to using more creative pedagogies it was a very small slice of lots and lots of changes that could be having quite radical impacts on learning and teaching. I’ve collated all the responses into a wakelet shared below, but if you want to share something then please do leave a comment.
Now I am aware that some may not think of any of these as being “radical” but radical change can often be incremental starting with self awareness and having the agency to change the way you do things and look at the world. As we move forward I do think it is going to be really important to have some extended conversations between students, staff, management, government and our wider communities about what we really need to develop in order to develop our education systems to deal with the more uncertainty in equitable, open and accessible ways. And that is the kind of radical hope we all need in these uncertain times.
Six months after we went into full lockdown in the UK, Covid-19 infection rates are rising, we are under restrictions again, and there is a horrible sense of deja-vu in the air. It’s the same but different. The disease seems closer as halls of residence very close to me are shut and students are told to self isolate as hundreds test positive for the virus. Questions are being raised as to why the halls of residence were allowed to open in the first place, why did universities open when as one student I have just heard on the radio said “we are just getting everything online”
Meanwhile I’m still watching Battlestar Galactica. I knew there would be more analogies in it! In the opening mini-series, there are a couple of scenes where the new President of the Colonies meets the military leadership of the battleship. Both are hellbent on “getting back into the battle”. Laura (the President) says ( a bit of paraphrase here) I don’t know why I have to keep pointing this out to you, but we have lost the war. ( for those of you not familiar with BSG – all 12 planets of “the colonies” have just been well and truly nuked by the Cylons, and less than 50,000 humans remain alive. Bare with me there is a point to this!
As I watch, read and listen to the news, many commentators are pointing out that COVID-19 and halls of residence were a match made in rapid community spread infection heaven so why did unis open them without testing? Why were they hell bent on getting back into battle or “normal” so to speak? I think it’s time to have some serious discussions about what normal actually is in (higher) education.
I have had a quote above my desk since lock down start, it says “it the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to”. After some conversations last week I think that perhaps we have rushed back to our formal curriculum (aka normal) without really considering the wider context in which universities are now operating.
I can see why, the curriculum is a key focal point to getting teaching back on track. After rush of the great online pivot, the harsh reality of the transitions is suddenly upon. Getting teaching back to as close to normal delivery of the curriculum as possible is an obvious goal, as is getting as many students as safely as possible back in halls and maybe on campus.
I can’t comment with any authority on the situation in halls of residences just now. I’m sure lots of people have worked really hard to make sure that they were as safe as possible for students. Of course universities wanted them to open again – for one thing they need the money as well as start to “get back to normal”. But things aren’t normal just now and they won’t be for quite a while yet. I suspect we will have at least a year of various levels of lockdown. Even with a decent testing system in place, everyone is liable to be in and out of work/study for the foreseeable future.
I don’t think our formal curriculum represented this “new normal”. We need to start planning for now for no exams next year, making provision for alternative assessment method, taking online learning really seriously and exploiting the benefits and flexibility of synchronous and asynchronous learning.
In couple of keynotes over the lockdown period, I put forward the notion of rethinking the first year experience to allow students and staff to adapt to our new context. To have a focus on well being, developing digital research skills and capabilities and adjusting and sharing how we can adapt and “be” at university in our new context, the ever changing “new normal”.
The experience of university for staff and students is different now. We need to recognise and develop ways to understand and support a whole new set of seemingly smaller (or micro) transitions we are all making now. For example, the transition from you laptop/phone/tablet on the kitchen table when you are “at uni”, followed the transition from your laptop to your laptop/phone/tablet for catching up with friends and family. Same space and device, completely different context.
Where are the spaces where people switch off, socialise. Where are the “leaky” space and places of the formal and informal curriculum? You know the places where you have those serendipitous discussions about one thing that lead you on a completely different direction for your study/teaching/work. How open are/can we going to be about what we are doing, what we are learning, what we are really struggling with if we hide behind a drive to deliver the “normal ” formal curriculum.
I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously not working a university just now I fully acknowledge I am removed from the reality on the ground. But I do think that not being obsessed with getting things as close to possible as they were ( but just online!!) isn’t doing anyone any favours. We need to be creating the new narrative about what the university experience is now, not what it used to be.
We need to be discussing the digital university in a different context now. And dear reader, with my colleagues Bill Johnson and Keith Smyth I am doing exactly that just now so look out for a new publication in the not too distant future
Another week of easing out of lock down and the death toll in the UK as I write is 44,198. There are still over 100 people dying everyday in the UK from COVID-19, this is not over. Lock down restrictions are lifting across the UK and different paces. Non essential shops opened this week in Scotland. I found seeing shops open a heartening sign but to be honest it also made me feel a bit uneasy. From next Friday it will be mandatory to wear face coverings/masks in shops in Scotland. Again, I am fine with that, but I do have worries about the invincibility behaviour some people seem to demonstrate when wearing masks – no need for physical distancing, no need for hand sanitizer, or washing hands.
The death rate in Scotland is now very low, and the impact in divergence of approach from the UK government is becoming more apparent. I just hope that the rush to “get back to normal”, economic factors will be prioritised over health priorities.
As we get back to some sort of normal, I have become quite nostalgic for some of the elements of the early days of lockdown – little or no traffic, saying hello to people you passed as you were out for your daily walk on the canal, and people smiling and saying hello back with that knowing understanding and shared relief of being allowed to be outside for a bit. Not being able to go anywhere, see anyone was easier in some ways easier than working out who and when you can see now . . .
Overall though, this has been quite a good week for me work wise. I gave a keynote at the London Met Teaching and Learning Conference on Tuesday. It built on some of the ideas I presented earlier this year at the GMIT event, particularly around notions of “being and belonging” at university (both physically and digitally) for students and staff. This is going to be quite different as we move forward, and we really need to make sure we are giving our students and staff plenty of time to become confident and comfortable with the spaces and places they will be “be” at university from now on.
The first local lockdown in Leicester this week also highlighted the need for flexibility. Staff and students could be off campus again at very short notice, so we need to be prepared for that and really seriously think about design and refocus on our current context, notions of care, inclusion, accessibility as we expand our notions of curriculum development and day to day delivery.
It’s always nice to get positive feedback from any speaking event, but I was thrilled to get almost instant positive feedback afterwards, and I’m looking forward to speaking with a smaller group of colleagues from there later in the month.
Brilliant start to the LT conference @LondonMetUni fantastic @sheilmcn on the realities of HE staff during lockdown+how we use this time to interrogate what+how we teach in order to advance equity + social justice. One of the most relevant,real+solution based keynotes I’ve heard! https://t.co/LRA7CZQekk
On Friday I was part of a panel in SEDA webinar about the challenges and opportunities facing educational development and learning technology just now. Here’s what I hoped to say. One of my fellow panelists, Teresa McKinnon wrote a really powerful reflection of her experience with a slight tech glitch, and the need for ensuring we care for our students when they are using technology, give them lots of opportunities to build up their confidence and get things wrong and cope with with in low stakes activities before getting them to do high stakes activities. We need to keep reminding ourselves that whilst a lot of us have been having zoom-tactic times over the past few months, not everyone has, and using any kind of technology in an educational context changes everything.
What the future of our new normal will be in education is still up for grabs. I can recommend this paper by Eamon Costello and colleagues, a re-imagining of how things might turn out. I was thrilled to see this published, and also to be given such a lovely acknowledgement – I am seriously considering changed my bio to “Thought-smith Sheila-who-sees-MacNeill“
I feel that the lockdown context is changing too, so this might be the last in this series of posts. Maybe I’ll do a final reflection next week. Until then dear reader, stay safe. I’ll leave you with a song that might be one of my favourites over the past few months.