What a year it has been! As we prepare to say goodbye to 2020 and set our sights on a more hopeful 2021, we decided to take a moment to remember some of the teaching and learning highlights of the past 12 months.
Highlight 1: Student Learning Supported Through the Pandemic Context
Reflecting on the response by the higher education community to the challenges involved in the sudden relocation of teaching and learning away from their on-campus contexts in March, one senior manager noted: ‘In many respects the response was not characterised by big institutional or sectoral leading pronouncements or initiatives but by an army of individual actions where the sum of the parts has exceeded the whole. This is not a systemic response leading the charge – but individuals and teams motivated by a desire to help – capturing the true essence of a public service.’ The enormity of what was achieved through dedication, collaboration and innovation in moving teaching, learning and assessment online, without warning, is remarkable. National projects partnered by the National Forum also played an integral part, such as the iNOTE project in the Connacht Ulster Alliance and the IUA’s Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning project, both of which supported the move to online/remote learning through webinars, resources and community building. Extraordinary goodwill was demonstrated by those who learn, teach, support and lead across higher education in 2020 and much was learned for the future.
Highlight 2: New Modes of Engagement and Collaboration Welcomed
The teaching and learning community found new ways to remotely engage and collaborate in 2020. In some cases, we found ourselves cooperating and progressing initiatives even though we had never met our colleagues in person. In others, the commitment we had made to building strong relationships when we could meet face-to-face provided a substantial foundation for the maintenance and development of those relationships online. National Forum Board meetings, Associate meetings and key events transferred online for the first time. In addition, the National Seminar Series, which had garnered a participation of over 11,000 up to 2019, invited applications for online seminars for the first time. With 101 events being organised around the country during the 2020/21 Series, remote access allowed an increased number and range of participants to attend and engage with important insights from practice and research.
Highlight 3: Innovative Teaching and Learning Initiatives Supported Nationwide
In October, Minister Simon Harris, T.D., announced a €5m investment focused on Transforming Teaching and Learning for Student Success through the Strategic Alignment of Teaching and Learning Enhancement (SATLE) Fund. This followed an investment of €5.57m through the 2019 SATLE Fund focused Developing Disciplinary Excellence in Learning, Teaching and Assessment. Initiatives funded through the 2020 Fund will begin in January while the 107 initiatives funded through the 2019 Fund demonstrate resilience, creativity and persistence in working towards their stated aims in the challenging 2020 context. Initiative teams met through online reviews and networking events throughout the year, resulting in highly engaging discussions, identification of opportunities for future collaboration and sharing of insights on how to optimise impact on student learning.
In November, the 2020 Network and Discipline Fund was also announced to sustain the collaborative and coherent approach to enhancement within and across networks and discipline groups that has been evident in recent years. Specifically, the Fund has a focus on Shared Solutions to Common Challenges. From January, it will support networks and discipline groups to work together to respond proactively to identified challenges in teaching and learning in higher education, including those that have come to light through the sudden move to online/remote teaching and learning.
Highlight 4: INDEx Survey Report and Resources Published
In May, following contributions from 24,484 students and 4,445 staff at 32 higher education institutions, the report of Ireland’s National Digital Experience (INDEx) Survey was launched through a collaborative online event featuring Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, T.D., Alan Wall, CEO of the Higher Education Authority, representatives of the EU Commission, Ibec and USI, and students, staff and senior managers across the sector. Following the launch of the report, further analysis and supporting resources were published and webinars took place to consider and discuss the survey process and findings. The INDEx findings provide a unique evidence base for the pre-pandemic digital engagement, experiences and expectations of students and staff who teach in higher education in Ireland. This will be especially useful in future years in understanding the educational impact of the shift to online/remote teaching and learning.
Highlight 5: National Student Associate Assembly Established
In November, students across the country committed to partnering in the enhancement of teaching and learning at local and national level through the new National Forum Student Associate Assembly. The Assembly, established in partnership with the USI, is the next step in reinforcing the importance of student engagement and partnership as core enablers of student success in Irish higher education. A total of 45 student associates from 31 HEIs are now serving on the Assembly. In addition to promoting initiatives such as the Teaching Hero Awards, the student associates will ensure that student partnership remains at the core of the National Forum’s work.
Highlight 6: Practice and Evidence on Work-Based Assessment Explored
Between June and November, Quality and Qualifications Ireland and the National Forum worked in partnership to facilitate a national event series focused on work-based assessment. The event series, which featured contributions from national and international experts and members of the further and higher education communities, included two webinars and a national symposium. The series allowed experiences of and approaches to work-based assessment to be shared so that challenges could be explored and good practice responses identified collaboratively. Across the three events, the series attracted over 800 registrations and an online community has since been established to continue the conversation.
Highlight 7: New Professional Development Opportunities Developed
Course developers across the country collaborated with the National Forum throughout 2020 to broaden and enhance the range of open-access professional development short courses available to those who teach. For example, in November, an exciting new short course was launched by Joe O’Brien, T.D., Minister of State for Community Development and Charities, focused on community engaged learning. The course, developed by Campus Engage in partnership with the National Forum and due to be delivered in 2021, aims to assist those who teach to implement community-based learning in their curriculum and prepare students to address real-world problems in collaboration with community organisations. In addition to supplementing existing provision, a new model for expansion and support was developed in partnership with AHEAD and UCD Access and Lifelong Learning. The developers teamed up with previously trained facilitators of the Universal Design for Learning short course to offer this popular course to participants simultaneously in the further and higher education sectors. Over 500 UDL activities had been submitted by participants as part of the course by mid-December.
Highlight 8: Teaching and Learning Excellence and Commitment Recognised
Exceptional teaching, disciplinary excellence and outstanding teaching and learning scholarship were all in the spotlight throughout 2020. Ireland’s inaugural Teaching and Learning Research Fellows were named in June, following a three-stage selection process. During November and December, thousands of students nominated people they felt were deserving of a national Teaching Hero Award. And, since July, discipline teams across the country have committed to enhancing their teaching and learning practices through the new rolling call for the Disciplinary Excellence in Learning Teaching and Assessment (DELTA) Awards.
Highlight 9: Ireland’s Insights Shared Internationally
From February through to December, invitations were received from bodies including the OECD, Council of Europe and European Commission and from countries including Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden to better understand how the Irish higher education community has leveraged synergies and fostered collaboration sector-wide to the benefit of all institutions and those who teach and learn within them. In particular, international colleagues have expressed interest in how Ireland responded to the sudden shift to online/remote learning, our ongoing work on teaching and learning in a digital world, professional development and student success, and how disciplines are supported as a key unit of change in higher education. These international engagements afforded the National Forum an opportunity to gain insights into international good practice and shine a light on impactful funded initiatives, course development teams, teaching and learning awardees, and the overall enhancement structures and activities of our higher education community.
Highlight 10: National Conversation Started on the Value of Teaching and Learning
The experience of 2020 has demonstrated, like never before, the centrality of teaching and learning to student success. Despite the ongoing significant challenges in higher education, there is a sense across the sector that there has never been a better time to articulate a shared declaration, and an agreed approach, to how we recognise and demonstrate the value of teaching and learning in Irish higher education. High-level conversations focused on Valuing Ireland’s Teaching and Learning (VITAL) began in 2020 and will continue through a national consultation in 2021. The consultation will culminate in VITAL Week on 08-12 Nov 2021. VITAL Week will involve students, staff, senior managers and policy partners across the country through a mix of live and pre-recorded events in which good practice and scholarship will be shared, strategic discussions will be held, excellence will be recognised, and the sector will come together to consider how to realise the promise of a valued and informed teaching and learning culture in Irish higher education.
More information on all developments detailed above can be found in the news section of our website here.
We extend heartfelt gratitude to everyone for all the goodwill and collaboration against incredible odds over the past 12 months. In 2020 we observed the immense determination and commitment of colleagues to provide the meaningful learning experiences for students which are integral to their success in higher education. These pedagogical efforts were matched wholeheartedly by the ways in which higher education staff, those who teach and all those who support learning, cared for their students during this extraordinary year.
As we look forward to 2021, we recognise that it will be another important year for teaching and learning. Within the context of a new Department and upcoming legislation focused on higher education, we will consult on our post-2021 national strategy for teaching and learning in higher education. We look forward to working together with the entire community towards an enhanced future for all who teach and learn.
In the meantime, all of us here at the National Forum wish you and those close to you a restful and healthy end to 2020 and look forward with hope to the possibility that we will have opportunities to meet in person again in 2021.