Lingnan University is strongly committed to supporting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a far-sighted range of research projects and community initiatives designed to inspire action and awareness.
An essential part of that is spreading the message. It is important for the wider international audience to learn about ongoing plans and outcomes, thereby creating further opportunities for knowledge transfer, productive collaboration, and new avenues of enquiry.
With that in mind, Lingnan hosted a special event which ran alongside the prestigious THE Global Sustainable Development Congress held at the University of Glasgow in early November. As the overall organiser, Times Higher Education was keen to involve leading institutions from around the world, giving key speakers a platform to set out broader goals and explain steps being taken to achieve objectives tied to specific SDGs.
Lingnan’s chosen theme, linked to SDG 4, was “Quality Education: the driving force in breaking down barriers to equality”.
Through a combination of individual presentations and interactive workshops, it provided the chance to explore topics ranging from digital technology’s impact on education to what universities - particularly those which lean towards the liberal arts - can do to promote concepts of peace and justice in a world where geopolitical tensions are so evident.
Following introductory remarks from Professor Leonard K Cheng, President of Lingnan University, the first session looked at how Covid-19 has changed higher education.
More than anything that was seen in the way universities had to adapt, using digital technology to deliver remote learning when social distancing and lockdown rules were in place.
Subsequently, though, the discussion has been all about whether those initially enforced changes should now become the norm.
For some, greater use of tech tools makes perfect sense. It increases mobility and access to learning, helps to bridge the digital divide, and opens up all kinds of new possibilities. For others, it is a mixed blessing at best.
Setting the scene, Diana Laurillard, Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies at University College London, spoke about the mission of universities and how they can most effectively reflect the UN SDGs, which make clear that quality education and lifelong learning should be available for all.
The obvious way to make that happen is by adopting digital methods, which help to bring together multiple sources of learning and, in doing so, have the power to transform. However, as Laurillard noted, student engagement is the number one driver when it comes to learning technology. Without that, things can easily falter. So, if blended and hybrid, models increasingly become the main mode of learning, it is essential for universities to address certain pressing priorities.
These include creating more opportunities for interaction with other students and not simply assuming that today’s general acceptance of recorded lectures and online tutorials, check-ins, seminars and discussion groups – all necessitated by Covid – is the ideal.
Improvements can be found by applying the “Co-design theory of change”, which helps professors and lecturers become better online teachers by mastering the technology and techniques. And it also requires close monitoring of what works and what doesn’t in order to adjust and enhance.
The follow-on sessions considered such topics as how to beat digital poverty in higher education and how to facilitate foreseeable changes.
This allowed other eminent speakers to share their insights and expertise including Professor Albert Ko, Director of the Lingnan Entrepreneurship Initiative; Dr Emma Sabzalieva, Head of Higher Education Research and Policy Analysis for Unesco; and Angela Yong Chi Hou, Professor of Higher Education and Associate Dean at the College of Education, National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
The second main area for discussion was slightly more esoteric, yet equally significant in terms of assessing what may lie ahead. The task was to examine how liberal arts education promotes peace and justice at a time of geopolitical tensions exacerbated by mistrust and intransigence.
Catherine Montgomery, Deputy Executive Dean (Global) of Durham University’s Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, indicated that with the right approach, it should always be possible to find workable solutions even to seemingly intractable problems.
There is nothing to stop liberal arts universities playing an active part in defusing tensions and bringing sides together and, indeed, they should perhaps be doing more to assume that responsibility.
This theme was developed further in a workshop session also featuring Professor Ka-ho Mok, Vice-President and Chair Professor of Comparative Policy at Lingnan University, and David Mills, Associate Professor of Pedagogy and Social Sciences at Oxford University.
Each speaker gave plenty of cause for hope that the pursuit of peace and justice, whatever the place or situation, is and will remain high on the agenda.