Some reflections on next steps and a bit of kintsugi

Last week saw the launch of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning Ireland’s latest report – Next Steps Moving Forward Together. The report is the culmination of a quite unique collaborative project across the Irish HE sector, exploring the impact of COVID 19 on learning and teaching and providing a framework for collaboration to help move the sector forward. It really is worth exploring the report and its accompanying insights papers from each of the partners involved in the project. Huge congratulations to everyone at the National Forum for bringing this project to fruition.

I was lucky enough to be involved in the IUA‘s response to this project, working with Sharon Flynn and Lewis Purser. The IUA decided to focus on the lived experiences of its members to share some qualitative evidence and highlight common issues across support services in Universities. In June I interviewed 42 staff and students from across IUA member universities, and produced a synthesis report outlining key themes and potential areas for “next steps”. The common themes identified through the interviews were: leadership and rapid decision making, funding, digital fatigue, well-being & flexible working and intra/inter university collaboration. Emerging areas for moving forward were consolidation of experiences, assessment lifecycle, re-imagining digital and physical spaces for learning, digital transformation and cyber security. A summary of the findings is available in the Insights from Students and Care Services on the Impact of Covid-19 and Next Steps part insight report available here.

I have to say that this was one most interesting and rewarding jobs I’ve had this year. And I don’t say that lightly. Colleagues and students responded very quickly to engage with the project, and gave their time, thoughts and experiences in an open and collegiate way. It was an absolute privilege to speak with them all and get an insight into their lock-down experiences. I was in awe at the level of support, commitment and work they all provided over lock-down.

One thing that did strike me again and again during the interviews was the speed that universities worked at to implement changes and provide continued support to students. Universities, not normally the most agile of organisations, proved they could adapt and make changes incredibly quickly. Processes, policies and procedures adapted and became more inclusive with clear focus on learning and teaching and student support.

During the panel discussion at the launch event last week, I think it was Tim Conlon who said that the pandemic had made many cracks in our systems visible, To paraphrase, the positive aspect about cracks is that they let in the light. In COVID-19 lockdown context, they shone light on areas such as digital poverty, accessibility and inclusion.

It’s important that these issues don’t get hidden or covered up again. As this discussion unfolded, I was reminded of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of the golden repair. A concept I was first made aware of by another wonderful Irish educator Su-Ming Khoo, NUI Galway in her OER19 keynote around culturally repairing pedagogies. Well worth watching if you haven’t seen it. Kintsugi refers to repairs in Japanese pottery that are made visible by the use of a golden thread. The repairs add to the history of the object, but remain visible, adding another layer of beauty and narrative to the original object.

One of my worries about the impact of COVID and the rush to get “back to normal’ is that we might actually forget what has happened, my Bobby Ewing moment! When I wrote that post I wish I had remembered kintsugi. As we move forward, I hope that we can weave some golden threads across changes in practice, policy and procedures that explicitly show the impact of the past almost 2 years. The next steps project is hopefully one of these threads for the Irish HE sector.