In this first blog of 2021, Professor Martha Caddell, Director of the Learning and Teaching Academy, reflects back on the 2020 Inspiring Learning New Year lecture and looks ahead to this year’s event. 

Well, what a year it was!   It is with a wry smile that I think back to January 2020 and the Learning and Teaching Academy’s inaugural Inspiring Learning New Year Lecture, with its focus on digital education.  Our keynote speaker, Sheila MacNeill, offered insight into how to approach the world of digital education, recognising the diffuse ways in which the notion of ‘the digital university’ is employed. She urged us to keep people at the heart of pedagogy, and stressed the importance of taking small steps to enhance learning and teaching. Making use of technologies and employing ‘big ideas’ needed to be approached in ways that were meaningful and contextually relevant.   We ended the discussion outlining our institutional trajectory of enhancement, the measured change and careful pathway we hoped to tread as we moved forward towards Heriot-Watt’s digital education ambition.

Little did we know what was looming around the corner of the New Year.  This was one set of resolutions that were not only going to be met, but would be overtaken by a wave of necessity, action and global transformation. With the onset of Covid-19, the rapid lockdown of our campuses – first in Dubai and then rapidly across all Heriot-Watt locations – we quickly abandoned notions of ‘small steps’ and took the significant leap into blended and online learning and student support.

Throughout the year, though, Sheila’s guiding words and New Year resolve continued to resonate through our institutional work – to put people before technology, to focus on wellbeing and support, to ensure diverse needs and contexts were not lost in the heady search for a ‘big idea’ or a quick fix.

Reflecting back on 2020, we recall the people and relationships that were at the heart of the transformation we’ve undergone – as a university, as course teams, as individuals.  We remember the collegiality and support that came to the fore through 2020, appreciate the camaraderie and support offered across Heriot-Watt’s student and staff community, and are grateful for the generous sharing and open collaboration across the sector.

Alongside the rapid shift to online teaching, learning and wider working, a significant transformation has taken place in how we work across our global Heriot-Watt community.  The relationships within course teams, the diversity of voices around decision-making (virtual) tables, the collaborations and conversations that inform everyday practice – all have changed dramatically in recent months. Working across campuses, seeking out and appreciating skills and insights across our community has accelerated.  Being ‘global’ is increasingly lived out in authentic, unassuming ways.

2020 was characterised by an unexpectedly high-speed start on our digital education journey. Fortunately, in the process we have also gathered a dynamic and inspiring group of travel companions to travel with us on the road ahead.

And it is this focus on people, on strengthening our global learning community, that will be at the forefront of discussion in our 2021 Inspiring Learning New Year Lecture.  What does being a transnational university look and feel like from the vantage point of 2021?  What challenges – and opportunities – lie ahead? And how can we harness them in ways that are authentic and continue to put wellbeing, care and collaboration at the heart of our work?

I am delighted that Professor Catherine Montgomery from the University of Durham, UK, will deliver this year’s Inspiring Learning lecture.  She’ll be bringing her unique insights from research and practice to explore the role of transnational education in a changing world.  She will help us understand how higher education institutions globally are facing unprecedented disruptive trends that are challenging our previously held understandings of the future of international collaboration and global knowledge exchange. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, she’ll then then explore how we can develop the sustainable transnational learning communities that will be key to the quality and sustainability of international higher education in this new decade.  Exploring these possible futures requires focusing on the significance of histories, socio-cultural contexts and building trust in the local knowledge of transnational communities.

But, as with our digital education discussions, these ‘big ideas’ we seek to explore will only be realised if they are accompanied by shared, committed local action – across an institution, embedded in curriculum design, lived out through course teams, and realised in everyday classroom craft.

This year’s Inspiring Learning New Year Lecture will encourage reflection and open space for practical resolutions to be made (and offer the practical tools to help you keep them).  Resolutions that put people, collegiality, and the strengthening of Heriot-Watt’s global learning community at their heart. Join us to help shape and frame your learning and teaching commitments for 2021.