Student positivity and creativity as a source of hope

Photograph looking towards Edinburgh University Main Library from the Meadows
Image Credit: University of Edinburgh Library Collections

In this final post for September’s theme, Catherine Bovill Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement at the Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh and Visiting Fellow at the University of Winchester, offers a granular, holistic and ultimately hopeful reflection on the University of Edinburgh community’s response to the move to digital teaching and learning…

We have come a long way since March and April. Some people I’ve spoken to don’t even want to mention March and April 2020. It was an incredibly challenging time for students and staff. We moved rapidly to remote teaching and learning with very little warning. This was experienced by many staff as emergency teaching with almost no time for thinking through the best ways to do things, and for many students it often involved getting to grips with completely new ways of learning. But we should also acknowledge that some people thrived. As a University, we have significant expertise in running online masters programmes and suddenly those teaching on these programmes were in demand for their advice and guidance. We also have significant expertise within our Information Services Group in offering support and advice to those who were new to the idea of teaching online, and IS colleagues and School learning technologists did a herculean task of supporting colleagues with remote teaching, and students with remote learning.

When we started to realise that this pandemic was not going to be over by July, we started to see much more attention to considering longer term health and wellbeing for students and staff working from home. The student blogs in this month’s Teaching Matters have highlighted some of the very real challenges experienced by students during lockdown. For example, Kat Cassidy referred to experiencing “the harsh and unmatched silence of an empty room”, and facing worries when learning online, about “How did I look? Was my hair alright? What could people see of my childhood bedroom?” She reflected, “As the months went on…I found myself feeling deflated and caring less about my appearance – rolling out of bed and logging onto a call, tired of putting in the extra bit of effort and the continuing façade of wellness”. These feelings may feel familiar to others reading this.

Equally, the student blogs this month have also shared positivity and creativity and hope. Jen Liu described a good day when ‘friends gathered in the residence hall. We exchanged food, had a chat about current situation and mood’. Her beautiful embroidery (which illustrates her blog) became a way of harnessing positivity: “frustration, anxiety and irritability are all in the creative process. However, the tranquil embroidery would gradually bring me out of depression”. In another blog, Hazel Laing described how she “…enjoyed creating a new home working space by arranging my favourite postcards and prints to brighten up my little room… I appreciated the smaller things. It was making nice coffee in the mornings before I started to work. It was the luxury of taking my dog out for an hour after lunch and enjoying the fields and woodland areas next to my home. It was setting up my laptop and sketchbooks in the garden on the warm days. For the most part of lockdown, I felt fresher and fitter… We had frequent online meetings with the class and tutors, which on the whole were uplifting and motivating… I feared communication would be difficult during home learning, but the Blackboard video meetings and sharing boards were easy and a joy to be part of as they captured a small aspect of the social studio space, we had all been missing”.

As we started to plan for hybrid teaching in semester 1, the reality began to hit people that this would be complex. This was not just about using our expertise from those leading online masters programmes, this was about finding new ways of building community among one cohort of students who could be in-person and on-campus, connecting digitally perhaps self-isolating in a hall of residence, and connecting digitally from another time zone…and doing this over and over with all cohorts of students… and recognising a student could move from one to another of these different forms of learning at different points.

I am humbled by the sheer hard work of colleagues, and the sheer determination of students to make the best of this difficult, complex situation. Staff have worked tirelessly to ensure buildings, systems, infrastructure, and teaching are ready for the start of semester. Students have kept the faith, turning up on campus, back in residence halls and in digital spaces to connect with each other, with staff and with the University. Some early feedback from students includes the very natural concerns that students have every year such as adapting to new ways of studying, and settling into University life. There are also more specific concerns for the current context including, how to find ways to connect with other students, avoiding isolation, and uncertainty about new ways of learning digitally. And certainly experiences over the last few weeks have raised the bar in terms of the challenges we are facing as a community. But comments from students also reflect the positivity and creativity we shouldn’t be surprised to see: the excitement they are experiencing from arriving on campus; students talking about ways to proactively seek out contact with others; and describing how they will make the most of any in-person opportunities they have. I’m starting semester 1 hopeful, thanks to reading and listening to what students are saying, and seeing the stunning artwork created by students for this month’s Teaching Matters blogs.

Catherine Bovill

Dr Catherine Bovill is Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement at the Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh and Visiting Fellow at the University of Winchester. She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association and an Editorial Board member for Teaching in Higher Education. At Edinburgh she leads the IAD programme and course design team and the Learning and Teaching Conference team as well as supporting a range of strategic projects focused on student engagement. She regularly publishes and presents her work on partnership and co-creating curriculum internationally. In 2019-2020 she was a Fulbright Scholar based in the USA.



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