Challenging Times

31 March 2020

Normally at this time of the year students at St Mary’s University College would have just completed periods of placement learning. For student teachers it would mark the end of many weeks spent in schools where they have been able to learn from classroom teachers, experience wider school life, implement their own teaching plans, prepare resources and most importantly engage with classes of young learners. For our Liberal Arts students, it would be the end of six weeks learning from the world of business, shadowing key workers and keeping a journal of their learning. Meanwhile our Study Abroad students, most of whom are involved in the Erasmus+ mobility programme in countries all over Europe, would be finalising their assignments and arranging to travel home for Easter, or meet up with their fellow students in the likes of Vienna, Paris or Madrid.

But these are not normal times. We find ourselves living in the midst of a pandemic which has fundamentally changed our former fast moving and globalised world. Our students and staff are now working from home. Thankfully, all our students who had embarked on international learning opportunities arrived back in time to avoid being stranded abroad. What should have been one of the busiest times in the academic life of our College is now eerily quiet and the College campus is silent. Our learning programmes have gone online and we are now in a mode of work to which we are largely unaccustomed.

College communication and dialogue continue of course, and it is noteworthy that our students and staff are using whatever means they can to praise the work of doctors, nurses and all the healthcare workers in the NHS. In doing so they are joining in solidarity with the rest of the population which now fully understands the significance of this wonderful service. There is also praise (as one might expect) for the teaching profession, which is supporting NHS and other key workers in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the same time providing resources and indeed online tuition so that pupils can continue learning at home. In my own role as an Accountable Officer, I wish to commend the Civil Service for keeping essential services going and the Department for the Economy in particular for the way in which it has liaised with St Mary’s.

In recent years community engagement has become an integral element of the role that St Mary’s performs. Readers will know about our partnerships in events such as the Easter School with the West Belfast Partnership Board or our engagement with The Irish News newspaper on the Young News Readers Project. Unfortunately, these activities are now suspended. However, new circumstances bring new opportunities, and we look forward to assisting the Health authorities as best we can, given the College’s close proximity to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Education embraces a great variety of learning and it occurs in many ways. With the end of business-as-usual in schools, colleges and universities, the news outlets are now centre-stage in ‘educating’ our population about the pandemic and what we should and should not do at this time. Newspapers as well as radio and television news have a crucial role to play in our new form of living. Many readers will have learned a great deal from the experience of my friend Paul McErlean, as reported in The Irish News and on the BBC Newsline, when he told his ‘story’ of contracting coronavirus and witnessing the suffering of patients in a London hospital. It was a stark warning to everyone to take the Public Health Agency advice and guidance absolutely seriously. At this time, washing hands thoroughly, social distancing to break the chain of transmission of the virus, self-isolating when required as well as staying at home unless it is absolutely necessary to go out – these are the great educational messages of our time.

St Mary’s is of course an institution of higher education in the Catholic tradition. It is part of a network of over one thousand Catholic universities and colleges worldwide. The network is in solidarity with hundreds of other Christian faith-based institutions such as those in the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Episcopalian traditions. We all share a belief in the power of prayer and on the St Mary’s website readers will see a prayer by Pope Francis to our Blessed Lady, patron of the College. It begins:

"O Mary, you shine continuously along our journey as a sign of salvation and hope."

Hope is a vital factor in education as in other spheres of life at this time. Hope stirs positive feelings about the present and the future. It generates high levels of motivation and optimism just when we need it. We have heard the term ‘unprecedented’ being used frequently to describe the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it is having on our society. Rather than succumbing to the fear of the unknown, education can enable us to band together, draw strength from our convictions and use our creativity for the common good. St Mary’s and the other higher education institutions are now using all their conviction and creativity to craft new educational experiences for their students. At the front and rear entrances to the St Mary’s campus we proudly state that "faith in educational opportunity defines our past, our present and our future."

Dr Ciarán Kearney, who provides sports psychology support for our senior Gaelic football team and who works on the College campus for Gaelfast/Antrim GAA, had an interesting piece in the Irish Examiner recently. He focused on the language that is being used today and stated, “There is a lot of talk about danger and threat at the minute, we need to push that back. We need urgency without a constant sense of emergency.”

That sense of urgency is applicable to the task of St Mary’s and others in providing a service of higher education to students. That service involves continuing the delivery of teaching and supporting students in preparing for and undertaking non-traditional assessment. There is some evidence that students are experiencing stress at this time. They are now experiencing higher education in a very different way than they would normally do. The enjoyable social aspect has been removed. They are worried about completing their courses and final year students have concerns about arrangements for graduation. Students have paid tuition fees for the year and we are bound legally to provide teaching and assessment to enable them to progress to the following year of their degree programmes or to graduate for employment or further study. I also believe we have a moral duty in addition to the legal one to provide the best possible service we can. There is no tried and tested formula for providing such a service. It is not a case of business as usual. We have to be creative and flexible, and for me this means accelerating our adoption of digital approaches. The good news is that the necessary digital infrastructure is already in place at the higher education institutions. There is now no room for reluctance or scepticism about digital technologies in the new circumstances because traditional teaching, assessment and student support will simply not be possible for the rest of this academic year. We also have to ensure that students receive pastoral support and that is best achieved by doing all we can to continue with the sense of community which is a defining characteristic of St Mary’s. Two-way online communications between staff and students as well as good information briefings online are key to this.

With a future looking approach and a sense of hope up-front in their minds, College students can make a significant contribution in our time of need. First up, students can make a difference by demonstrating how wrong was the claim that closing schools and universities would actually lead to increased social interaction, suggesting that young people would congregate in groups. Students can demonstrate their civic responsibility by fulfilling their full-time role as remote-learners, or by offering their services to the school principals who are making their educational institutions available to the children of key workers.

St Mary’s and the other higher education institutions will also be fulfilling their appointed role to ensure that the students can continue their work online, in full compliance with the need for social distancing. That involves facilitating specific learning and support needs, depending on the nature of the degree programmes that students are undertaking. Our Liberal Arts students will complete the necessary alternate assignments to enable them to obtain their degrees and either start employment or further study in the Autumn. They have undertaken a skills-based broad programme of higher education which will stand to them well in their futures. They will make excellent contributions to our society in the years ahead. In the case of Initial Teacher Education, St Mary’s acted with urgency, and now has arrangements in place to facilitate the learning required by BEd and PGCE students to complete their courses by the end of the academic year. Through cooperation between the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland, the Education and Training Inspectorate, the Department of Education and the higher education institutions there will be a cohort of newly qualified teachers ready to enter the teaching profession in a few months’ time. It will be a cohort that has experienced something entirely unprecedented, but these new teachers will have made the necessary adjustments and demonstrated their adaptability to enable completion of their programmes of study. They will be Learning Leaders, ready to contribute to the education of children and young people in our schools in a spirit of hope for the future.

Professor Peter Finn KSG
Principal, St Mary’s University College, Belfast @Anorthosis87

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