Last Word: Professor Keith McLay, Provost - Learning & Teaching

As a keen student of history, in the precious (few) quieter moments of the past two years, I’ve pondered whether the global Covid-19 pandemic would become an historical epoch. As the Renaissance lit the path to modernity from the dark Middle Ages, the Enlightenment fostered intellectual criticality in opposition to the prevailing conventional wisdom and the tumultuous 20th century played host to the rise and fall of the great powers, so would the Covid-19 pandemic become synonymous with W.B. Yeats’ Easter 1916 refrain, ‘All Changed, changed utterly’. Well, yes and no.

It is certainly true for universities that the pandemic rightly prompted thinking about different means of academic delivery, the accessibility and inclusivity of resource delivered remotely; but equally 18 months of largely virtual delivery has reaffirmed a truism: education at its most effective and indeed (say it quietly) at its most enjoyable is a sentient, in-person dialectic. Genuine online degree programmes which are designed specifically for virtual delivery to address conspicuous choice hold firm but otherwise, as we came to appreciate over 2020/2021, the sinews of our university community are best exercised face-to-face.

This insight and understanding meant that as soon as government regulations permitted, the University of Derby planned a full timetable of in-person, face-to-face teaching for this academic year, 2021/2022. With appropriate Covid-19 protocols in place, we welcomed the students back to the seminar room, to the science and computer laboratories, to the engineering workshops, to the simulation spaces, to the creative studios and to the social learning spaces, while in addition facilities integral to learning and teaching such as the Library and Bookshop fully opened.

Keith McLay

The past 18 months underscored the importance of the supporting Virtual Learning Environment, particularly in enhancing accessibility and inclusivity of learning.

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning & Teaching

A notable feature of the University’s full-time return to campus has been the continued collaborative planning with the Union of Students. As occurred during the pandemic under the aegis of the Academic Task Group established at the outset to plan and manage the academic and wider student experience, the University and the Union curated a packed co-curricular offer. Reflected in a chock-full Welcome Week on campus and in our city, with the Freshers’ Fair deemed one of the very best in recent years, the co-curricular offer continues to be represented through the openness of academic and sporting societies doing what they do best: collegial participation and excellence in their activities.

The pandemic-enforced remote delivery of learning and teaching did, though, prompt change, albeit perhaps not of Yeats’ epochal quality. The past 18 months underscored the importance of the supporting Virtual Learning Environment particularly in enhancing accessibility and inclusivity of learning. There are many sure pedagogic reasons for offering virtual degree programme resources such as bite sized lecture video clips, online discussion boards which facilitate the continuation of the debate in the seminar room, and formative assessments that can be readily and swiftly completed with feedback simultaneously returned, and these will therefore remain.

Those of a certain vintage, and perhaps more parochial nationality (I plead guilty to both), will be familiar with the 1980s Hogmanay comedy sketch show, Scotch & Wry (look it up online if you’re unfamiliar). The final sketch just before the New Year bells was always the comedian Ricky Fulton delivering a monologue as the Reverend I M Jolly (the pun was very much in the name). Reverend I M Jolly’s typical opening line was: “Hullo. It’s been a helluva year.’

Nobody would likely disagree that academic year, 2020/2021, was indeed a ‘helluva year’ in the negative sense; but now, back full-time on campus, engaged in a face-to-face timetable, enjoying in-person the University’s learning and teaching and social facilities supported by the best of digital resource and pedagogic practice, I’m convinced that this will be a ‘helluva year’ - in the positive sense!