#SoTLwalk February 2021

Funny how we all just skipped January. Today is a SoTL planning day here in the north of Glasgow. Just the right day to make myself cosy with a hot cup of something as rain and sleet are pelting the home office windows. However, since everyone else was braving the weather, the peer pressure weighted heavily and I went out to get the cobwebs blown away–literally.

The video is a recording from this morning’s walk showing the half frozen canal, barren trees, and a seriously dark, barren and desolate looking countryside. The wind is blowing strongly and one can hear the rain fall.

This Month’s Provocation

As always to read the full blog post and provocation hop on over to Natasha Taylor’s blog on the RMIT website. A summary of the provocation follows here:

Forced March or Playful Adventure?

Skutch invites us to think about how ‘rigour’ might look in the post-Covid world. Think about your own role in teaching and learning – would you describe it as a ‘forced march or playful adventure‘? Have recent events made you more rigid in your approaches, or have you found great opportunities to break free and create new spaces for learning?

Natasha Taylor

The landscape this morning seemed strangely suitable for these reflections, but not only this, I just had decided to finally share my summary of the first chapter of the book Hochschulbildungsforschung (link opens in new tab) and the author proposes a guiding principle for higher education that seems to link in with this month’s topic. Last but not least last week’s joined AdvanceHE_chat and LTHEchat explored the topic of universities post Covid (link opens in new tab). So there are many layers of reflection this month.

A first point of view

image of ice slowly defrosting on a canal it looks like a murky slushy

I don’t think we are ever going to go back to pre-Covid ‘normal’, while there might be a rush to campus, to embrace the physical togetherness, interaction, being in place, in space, it will eventually settle into a new sort of equilibrium. Similar to the ice in the image above, full of fractures, and disruption but eventually it will be smooth again as water. But right now it is in the process of shaping and reshaping but we know it will settle. At least until the new frost. This chaos is the creative power we all felt–not always positively–during the last year. Out of it were born innovations, changes, adaptations, some of which have been writing on the wall for a long time and were forced into being, others are temporary stages that need readdressing once we know what a new status quo will look like.

Chaos as creative power, does not mean there is no rigour in the process or outcome. Let’s backpaddle a little in our story.

People now would probably be quite shocked by my undergraduate degree. Full on liberal arts degree: there were key courses I had to take but otherwise each semester I build my own curriculum. We had a booklet from each of the three faculties we studied with 1 core discipline, 2 side disciplines…. it almost sounds like a Marks and Spencer special offer now that I see this written down. Get a mains and two sides for £10.
I remember spending two to three days before the start of each semester building my own curriculum. We had so much freedom. Rigour was there, very much so. Sometimes the rules were too strict: miss more than three seminars or lectures and you were not permitted to sit the exam or take the final assessment you had to take the whole course again from the beginning. Our mid-term exam was as big as a bachelors dissertation. But we had freedom to learn, we were also expected–like described in my previous post–to challenge our teachers and question not only the content but their reasoning. Our teachers also gave us some freedom, despite the assessments rigorous: For instance in one of the statistics exams the professor said, if we could program our calculators to undertake the more complex calculations, then we are permitted to do so. Their reason was: if you can figure out how to program your calculator you have the skills we want you to have. So there was this strange pendulum between Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) and very strict assessment rules. So maybe this was a playful adventure where every now and again we were all assembled to march in order?


Meaning making is key.

The quote Natasha shared today held one aspect in particular that rang true with me … meaning! This is what I am trying, maybe not always successfully, to convey in my creative pedagogies course. If we look beyond the obvious, the structure, QA, technology, assessment what we are left with are two things, people and meaning or rather people who are engaged jointly in a meaning making exercise. And I think this is and will remain the baseline, everything else is bells and whistles. Yesterday, I was told about a lecturer who rings into Zoom live teaching from a landline and one of their students is moving the slides. Another colleague was talking about simply using emails and attachments because they were working with underserviced and underprivileged students, and this was the most accessible way to engage with everyone.

So if we start from there, we can take ownership of how we want to combine freestyle dancing with marching orders. There will be specific disciplines picking up large in person lectures again as debated in a recent LTHEchat, vice versa others will keep their labs online. But I don’t think this was the question for this month’s provocation. It was about creativity versus rigour? And I think one thing we really need to take forward is that these both are not mutually exclusive. It is about a way of building more meaningful assessment, and engagement with learning content and context, to help the learners understand why things are done in a specific way. Let’s play purposefully, create meaning together. Challenge notions of narrow minded viewpoints, of things that have always been done this way. And ask why–five times.

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