Thank you, Mary Robinson

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Photo: CC BY 2.0 Trocaire

In June 1996 I attended a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney at the University of Stirling. The Principal of the University gave a short introduction, saying that we would remember the next hour for the rest of our lives. I believe he was right. There were many reasons that Seamus Heaney connected with and elevated us that evening. One was that Heaney was speaking to a community deeply shocked by the tragedy of the school shooting just 3 months earlier in neighbouring Dunblane, where I also lived. We were still shocked, still grieving, emotionally wide open. I remember thinking at the time that, somehow, Seamus Heaney met us in that space. Without addressing that pain directly, his poetry, his tone, his truth were like lifelines to us. He began and ended with his poem “Song” (from Field Work, 1979):

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Mary Robinson pictured at Galway Arts Festival 2012 where she was joined in conversation with Fintan O’Toole. (Photo: Reg Gordon)

I had similar feelings seeing Mary Robinson last week at the Galway Arts Festival. The event was billed as Mary Robinson in conversation with Fintan O’Toole so the atmosphere was one of an evening among friends. The sound that greeted the pair when they emerged on stage at the Town Hall Theatre told a story in itself. A huge roar arose — applause, whoops and cheers. It was a wave of gratitude, affection and admiration for a woman who many of us regard as a hero, but also an expression I think of our hunger. We yearn for leaders with ethical vision, leadership skills, and courage in the face of injustice. We have so few of these (with our President Michael D. Higgins a notable exception). Seeing Mary Robinson reminded us of the best of us, what we have and also what we lack.

During her remarkable career as a constitutional lawyer, human rights campaigner, Senator, Ireland’s first female President, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson developed a reputation for fearless leadership. As she said last week, she never had a problem confronting bullies. She did that “growing up with four brothers” in Mayo and throughout her student days at Trinity College, as well as in Irish public life and on the world stage. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights she voiced forthright criticism of human rights abuses following the events of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq — and received harsh criticism. She told us that one of her colleagues remarked at the time that she might lose her job for speaking out, to which she replied: “It’s better to do this job then to try to keep this job.” Mary Robinson stepped down from her position at the U.N. in 2002.

For the past decade, Mary Robinson has devoted her passion, her intellect and her considerable energies to educating about and addressing our most serious global problems – racism, human rights abuses, child marriage and climate change. She is a founding member of The Elders (“one of the younger ones”, she wryly remarked) and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice.  Her greatly anticipated memoir Everybody Matters will be published in September 2012.

During the wide-ranging conversation with Mary Robinson in Galway, Fintan O’Toole asked her about emigration, racism, her Presidency and her more recent global work. Emigration from Ireland, across generations, has deeply affected our national psyche, she said. In ways, “emigration is our psyche”. It “hardens us” but also contributes to traits such as our humour, resilience and adaptability. Of xenophobia and racism, however, Mary Robinson was unequivocal. Racism is the human rights issue of our time, she said. During her time as President, and since, she has been aware of racism in Ireland. Mary Robinson linked emigration and racism, saying that we must reflect on the generations of Irish who emigrated to Britain, the United States and elsewhere (my own grandparents among them). How did they or would they have felt experiencing the racist treatment which some emigrants to Ireland experience?

Mary Robinson spoke most passionately about climate justice. She recounted how she has been struck over and over again, across her travels to poorer communities in Africa, Asia and South America, by the cataclysmic effects of climate change. Robinson described how her friend Constance, a small farmer in Uganda, told her that there are no longer any seasons, only cycles of drought and flash flooding. These are dramatic and recent changes which Constance emphatically described as “outside our experience”. Robinson realised that this is likely to mean 200 years of experience, as oral tradition stretches back through the generations. Mary Robinson is clear about our responsibilities in the developed world to work towards climate justice. We must reduce our reliance on oil, continue to invest in and develop renewable forms of energy, and help the developing world become climate resilient. The developing world is suffering “because of what we have done”.

Mary Robinson describes climate change and the goals of climate justice

Of all there is to admire about Mary Robinson, her warmth and humanity shine above all else. She spoke openly last week about all she has learned throughout her public life. She spoke of her dread of public speaking when she was younger, and how she decided she had to overcome that fear in order to speak what had to be said. She learned also, during her time as President, about the importance of tone and humour. Her landmark speech to the Houses of Oireachtas in Ireland in 1995 was feted globally, particularly for her potent concept of the Irish diaspora and the light in the window at Áras an Uachtaráin. The speech was not warmly welcomed by the assembly in the House, however, and she realised that her tone was too serious: “I was too important about it”. So she learned to communicate more of herself and her humour. And from the playwright Tom Murphy she said she gained a deeper understanding of tone while “telling it true”. Today, Mary Robinson is a woman who brings all of her considerable talents to her work, along with her wonderful humanity, humility, honesty and humour. For all of this, and all she has done, she is loved and cherished.

At the end of Mary Robinson’s talk with Fintan O’Toole, she offered to take questions from the audience. My thoughts were on young people including my own children, so I asked what words of advice or inspiration she might have for young people as they face economic and social challenges, both national and global, unforeseen just a few years ago. In her thoughtful response Mary Robinson spoke first about the power of connection which many young people have – mentioning Twitter and Facebook as examples – which enable them to connect with others across the country or across the globe. This can be a great force for building shared understandings. She went on to describe and to quote from Seamus Heaney’s mighty poem From the Republic of Conscience, commissioned by Amnesty International and published on Human Rights Day, 1985, and in the Irish Times in 2008. The poem, simple in style and language, but rich in metaphor, describes the narrator’s journey to the Republic of Conscience. The poem concludes:

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

This poem, Seamus Heaney’s gift, is Mary Robinson’s message to young people. We are all connected and each of us has dual citizenship: in our own nation(s) and in the Republic of Conscience. Owning and understanding our shared values is the key to individual fulfilment, as well as the hope for our collective global future. I carried this message home like a beautifully wrapped present, a precious gift to my own children.

Of course, it is a gift to us all. Mary Robinson’s words are still ringing inside me. Her words, her work, her example will continue to affect my work in the future. Today I am thinking about ways to connect my IT students with Mary Robinson’s ideas and the work of her foundation on Climate Justice. And I would be delighted to communicate with anyone thinking along these or similar lines.

Finally, thanks to my dear friend Mary Loftus who joined me in Galway for this wonderful event and thanks to Sally McHugh for making contact afterward. Thanks also to Fintan O’Toole and the Galway Arts Festival, and the warm and wonderful people of Galway, for hosting and welcoming Mary Robinson in fine style.

But most of all, thank you, Mary Robinson.

“You see me because I stand on the shoulders of so many.” – Mary Robinson, quoting Desmond Tutu

Image source: CC BY 2.0 Trocaire, Jennifer O’Gorman, July 2011, Dollow, Somalia

Change, (Higher) Education, and Us

History has much to teach us about change. Time and again, social changes which begin with seemingly improbable goals bring about new realities, becoming the fabric of our lives. We each will have personal examples of this. From my childhood in New York City to my nearly 20 years living in the west of Ireland, examples abound. The remarkable becomes the accepted.  Looking back from our current vantage point, many major social changes seem as if they were inevitable.

Today we are living through a time of enormous change in education. The pace of developments in open online education, in particular, has been dizzying: OER, Open Courseware, iTunesU, the Khan Academy, connnectivist MOOCs, institutional MOOCs, open badges. In the past seven months alone, we’ve seen the launch of Udacity, Coursera, MITx, EDx and TEDEd. What might higher education look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? Will our universities look the same, serve the same purposes? In all likelihood, they will not. And when we assess our education institutions at that future point, will we say: “Of course. Given the changes occurring in technology and society, the change was inevitable.”

I was asked to give one of the keynotes at the recent Galway Symposium on Higher Education (described in a previous post). The theme of the symposium, “The Written Word”, gave much scope for participants to consider not just writing but learning, teaching, literacies, assessment, openness and creativity. I welcomed the opportunity to focus on change, particularly  recent developments in open education, and to consider re-imagining the future of higher education.

As with social change, our voice — our vote — in education is essential to creating the future. My heart sinks when I hear wonderful educators say, “I don’t know anything about/I don’t have time for… [fill in the blank: Twitter, blogging, even social bookmarking, etc.]“. I know that this means that their voices will likely not be part of educational futures which are being shaped now.

It’s not about age or the hopefully-dead Digital Natives/Digital Immigrants argument. (And anyway, why would it be about age, when our students are of all ages? As educators we surely are seeking to engage and include all of our students.) And it’s not about using this tool or that, or being for or against using a VLE. I think that the future is being shaped by educators who are open to change, open to continuing to learn, and open to learning from failure. These are the educators who inspire both their peers and their students.

In January 2012 Michael D. Higgins, Uachtarán na hÉireann (President of Ireland), received an Honourary Doctorate of Laws from the National University of Ireland. In his speech at that occasion he spoke of the role of the university in moving boldly into the future:

“The university is, and remains I suggest, a space from which new futures have always emerged and must do so again. The ethos of independent scholarship is what delivers a previous scholarship’s achievements into the present and challenges that scholarship for renewal and replacement… To navigate successfully through today’s troubled, uncertain, and probably uncharted, waters, now, more than ever before, we need vision, foresight and bold strategies. Now, more than ever, an original and confident education system is needed…”

We must be willing to ask the difficult questions. In moves toward open education, many long-held practices are being re-evaluated: open publishing questions (blind) peer review; the use of social media questions the “walled gardens” of classrooms and VLEs; pedagogical research questions the effectiveness of lecture as a teaching method, new educational initiatives outside higher education will continue to question the cost/benefit ratio of university degrees. What are your opinions? Which new practices are worth developing? Which current practices still hold value? Which practices do we wish to hold onto, and which should be left behind? Only those willing to engage with these new technologies and new practices will be in a position to evaluate them, and to make decisions which shape the future of education.

CC and publicly available images:

Rosa Parks, donated by Corbis-Bettmann, Shavar Ross (Flickr); President Barack Obama on Rosa Parks bus, The White House (Flickr); Presidential Inauguration, Michael D. Higgins, Irish Defence Forces (Flickr); Separate factions on Irish Street, Downpatrick, Burns Library, Boston College (Flickr); Mary Robinson and Nadhifa Ibrahim Mohamed in Somalia, Trocaire (Flickr); Dunnes Stores strikers, Trocaire (Flickr) – used with permission; NUI Galway, Nelson Mandela visit, 20 June 2003

Volvo Ocean Race, NUI Galway and online learning

The Volvo Ocean Race is in town! As I write this, the boats are due into Galway (the finishing point of the race) after midnight tonight. The last time “the Volvo” was in Galway in 2009, an estimated 10,000 people crowded into Galway city to greet the boats arriving — at 3:00 in the morning — and enjoyed sunshine and a festival atmosphere for the next 10 days. Such is the spirit of Galway. [03/07/12 Update: huge crowds attended the race finish in Galway in the early hours of this morning.]

The event is about much more than the race. For the 2012 Volvo Ocean Race event, Galway has been transformed. We have a Race Village and a Global Village where you can find food stalls, musical entertainment, comedy, sports and adventure activities, crafts and fashion, as well as science, technology and education events. There is a great programme of events scheduled at the NUI Galway pavilion where I’ll be speaking in the Ideas Lab on Tuesday and Wednesday (July 3rd and 4th) at 2pm.

I’ve been asked to speak about “Online Learning for the Future” and I look forward to meeting people and engaging in discussion about social media in education, open learning, online and blended learning, and the range of opportunities for studying at NUI Galway. I’ve prepared the following short presentation as taster, but I hope that this will lead to conversations, both in person and online.

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I didn’t want this presentation to be only about higher education and NUI Galway — online learning happens everywhere, formally as well as informally, and at all levels of education. So a few weeks ago I asked teachers involved in #edchatIE in Ireland if anyone would be willing to contribute a short video to show how they and their students are using technology. The results, from 10 different classrooms across Ireland, were amazing — see for yourself!

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From my vantage point in higher education, these are our future students, as well as our future citizens. We need to be sure that we are doing our best to welcome, engage with and challenge these students as they enter post-secondary education. That’s a big challenge for us. May the conversation continue…

Image: PAUL TODD at www.volvooceanracegalway.ie

Galway Symposium on Higher Education #celt12

The 10th Galway Symposium on Higher Education will be held here at NUI Galway on June 7th and 8th. The theme is The Written Word: Writing, Publishing and Communication in Higher Education. The popular annual event, organised by CELT (Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching), attracts people from across higher education in Ireland and beyond. This year’s keynote speakers are a diverse and fascinating group including Adam Rutherford, Mary Lea, Aileen Fyfe, William St. Clair and Adrian Frazier. Symposium sessions — including workshops, papers and Pecha Kucha presentations — cover a broad range of topics, e.g. flipped learning and teaching, writing for publication, academic integrity, active learning, social media in research, developing online learning, and “serious play” (!).

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the conference this year, on the topic of open education. I’m following Brian Hughes’s lead and publishing my abstract here in my blog; I’ll follow up with a more detailed post after the symposium. In the meantime, I welcome your comments and feedback.

#CELT12 Plenary: Exploring Open Education, Re-imagining Higher Education

We are in the early days of open education. The boundaries are blurring between real and virtual spaces, formal and informal learning, educators and learners. Open, participatory and social media are not just enabling new forms of communication; they are enabling new ways of learning, and thus are transforming education. In Joichi Ito’s (2011) words: “I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process [of] establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.” What this means for the future of higher education is still unclear. We have a great opportunity, however, as educators, scholars and students, to engage in re-imagining and creating that future – what Keri Facer calls future building (2011).

Catherine will explore current practices of open education, both within and outside HE, based on her research and learning and teaching experiences. Open practices in education will be explored: open research, open learning and teaching, open publishing; as well as the digital literacies required to engage in open education practices, particularly using social media. A radical approach to open education is to work metaphorically and physically (inasmuch as possible) beyond the confines of the classroom and lecture hall: engaging with students as co-learners; openly sharing ideas, feedback and reflections – with students and with wider learning communities; and acknowledging the value of informal learning and personal learning networks (PLNs) as the key to integrated and continual learning. As educators, we each must consider our own approach to openness and to open education. What role will we play in building the future – as individuals and as universities?

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