Bridging Gaps – When the monthly SoTL walk went virtual…

Last week we re-imagined our monthly SoTL Walk, moving from walking together in one space, to walking at the same time in many different places!  What connected us was a common question to think about and a shared online space for post-walk reflections. In this blog post, Natasha Taylor discusses the key themes which emerged.

Home as a workspace

Several people reflected on how the physical shift to the ‘home-office’ had blurred the boundaries between work, home and leisure and for many this has been a real challenge and disruption. There is a need to work flexibly, to change our expectations of what can be achieved synchronously and asynchronously, and to always remember that the people we work alongside are navigating the same issues. It is a time for patience and compassion and may require us to open up spaces in our lives which were previously closed or hidden. It was also a reminder that good humour is a tonic in testing times – Lisa Curran joyfully shared her discovery of this ‘stand up desk’ on her street.

How we connect

The provocation for the walk was ‘bridging gaps’, so no surprise that bridges featured in many of the postings. In the physical (literal) world, a bridge connects places and people, always accessible to anyone who wants to cross; this prompted questions about whether we can expect new connections to be available 24/7 and how can we bridge competing expectations from different people (students, colleagues, managers) in the coming months.

 Paths were also used to explore how the importance of narrative and coherence in our work is amplified in this new context – we (and in turn our students) need to understand how the different elements connect together and form a pathway for learning. The role for us in building these paths and working with nature to ensure sustainability and shared ownership was an important consideration.

Community building was highlighted as a powerful outcome/benefit of good connections.  As we re-think how to use technology as a communication tool  we have to adjust our inter-personal skills: huddles of tables and chairs are replaced with tiled headshots on flat screens and we have to read moods and reactions by shifting our senses. There was a strong optimism in the fact that we have the power to help others ease/avoid the anxiety of isolation through the promotion of our communities of practice.

Looking for meaning at this time of rapid change

The very first posting was a picture of a puddle, accompanied with a thought provoking poem. For me it was a stark warning of the risks of moving too quickly in this new space and leaving people behind. In the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, we have expected everyone to jump (booted or otherwise) into the realm of online teaching and learning – the deep muddy puddle. Some staff have experience, some do not; some are agile, some are not. Everything we do to get everyone up and running in this new space has to be inclusive and accessible to a wide audience of teachers – one size does not fit all yet there is little time to offer full flexibility. Some cannot cross the puddle, or if they do they will get soggy and stuck, and it is so, so important to take their hands and guide them across.

An old abandoned morgue prompted a lively discussion about burying stale and out of date work practices and ways of thinking.  This revealed an exciting underlying sense of activism – a genuine desire to do things differently, to reset the clock and a renewed sense of passion for what’s important and how to ensure we learn from our failures and successes. Give the key to the morgue to this community and it would be full of spreadsheets within minutes!

There were also some fundamental questions about what the future holds. What next?  To quote one contributor, ‘Whatever we return to, we will not return the same’. And so it is important to capture the lessons we are learning about our experiences with new work practices, spaces and technologies.  How will our ‘teaching normal’ be transformed – will we rethink traditional approaches like lectures, will fresh reinvigorated curricula blossom from the sleepy, monochrome relics we leave behind? And will the balance between delivering course content and pastoral/extra-curricular care of students be shifted? Will the fundamentals of Higher Education be reset, and will care and compassion be the basis for the brave new world?

Join us next time

Overall, the walk was a great experience for everyone who took part. By moving to a virtual walk, we were actually able to include more people (around the world!) and connect more creatively using images, metaphors and even poetry. There were lots of comments about how good it was to be prompted (even nagged) to get outside and thinking in a different way. We will be holding another walk in April (week beginning 20th April) – you should consider taking part!

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