Classically Inclined

April 24, 2021

Reflections On A Year Of Pandemic Teaching

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 6:35 pm
Tags: , , ,

We have come to the end of our teaching for the academic year, although there’s still plenty to do in the term ahead in terms of student support and assessment. (I seem to be spending an extraordinary amount of time explaining how our extenuating circumstances process works at the moment, reflecting not only the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our students, but an awful lot of Life that they’ve also been dealing with at the same time.) At the start of the year, I wrote about how the first week of teaching fully on-line had gone; now we have had a whole year, I wanted to capture some things I’ve learned from the process overall.

What worked?

Moodle. My use of our virtual learning environment (where every course has a page) had up to the start of the academic year been very much as an archive dump – that is, the syllabus file, links to the readings, a couple of interesting PDFs or links to things on the web, but no particular narrative structure or other organisation. This year, that has all changed, and I feel as if my VLE use has levelled up by Quite A Lot. I now have a proper structure for how things are ordered each week to support learning, a much better grip on making and embedding videos, and a richer sense of the various functionality available in Moodle to support student learning. It’s amazing how much difference putting things on a linked page rather than in a Word document makes to usability.

Completion tracking. This is a new tool we’ve had in Moodle this year, which I put in a request for; it lets students ‘tick off’ when they’ve done a particular piece of work (completed a reading, watched a video or participated in a discussion forum), with the lecturer having various levels of control over whether they trust the student to be honest, or if the student needs to actually perform certain actions to achieve the tick. I found myself becoming a bit more draconian on this for discussion board completion, where I could require students to post in the forum to tick the task off, but I mainly used the completion tracker to help students see what they needed to do and when. It made the work I expected them to do much more visible and easily parsable, where previously it might have been a bit hidden or have escaped their attention in a particularly busy week.

On-line seminars. When I started the year, I chose to teach in flipped mode – that is, I was going to save our ‘in person’ time for talking to each other rather than for me to talk at the students. This particularly applied for our third years in Contemporary Approaches and my first years in our Roman literature survey – I wanted to make sure that as much time was spent in conversation. This meant hacking break-out groups before break-out groups existed in Teams, namely through using Team subchannels and giving my students digital responsibility for themselves. It worked really well – they took advantage of the privacy of the subchannel to talk to each other (and often turn their cameras on when they might not in full session), and since I kept the first year groups the same for the whole term, they got some social time together which otherwise was pretty thin on the ground for them.

Virtual consultation hours and student appointments. My consultation hours and meetings with advisees and other students feel like they have been much more well-attended this year. I don’t know whether it’s the particular group of students I have, whether the current circumstances mean that any opportunity for lecturer contact is gold dust, or whether it’s the method of contact. I have taken to putting my two weekly consultation hours into my students’ Teams diaries, along with one-to-one advisor or dissertation meetings; we have all this year come accustomed to things appearing in our diaries without prior consultation, so in some ways this is a valuable skill to acquire for the future world of work. But I have noticed that far more students seem to attend their advisee meetings when it’s a pre-scheduled slot in their diary (chosen to suit myself in the first instance but reschedulable if necessary), rather than doing the long dance of inviting them to pick a slot and then having to chase those who do not. I have also noticed that students are more inclined to hop onto one of the regular Teams consultation hours for a five minute chat from the comfort of their own home or the library than they necessarily are to trek to the office in the set time. I am definitely keeping one of my consultation hours a Teams one in the future, even if we can also have on-site meetings with students, and I am going to have absolutely no problem with dropping meetings into students’ diaries rather than faffing with scheduling.

What didn’t work?

Online pedagogy meets language instruction. My colleague Siobhan and I originally designed our Latin language teaching following best-practice on-line pedagogy, namely two hours of asynchronous contact and one hour of synchronous contact, as opposed to three hours on Teams start. While this worked very well for one course, for the other two where we applied this structure, the students were not happy – the bulletin board structure didn’t engage them, they didn’t feel they were getting enough lecturer time, and generally the feedback we got was unimpressed. Our solution was to move to two hours of synchronous time and one hour asynchronous time; this was well received, and (to be honest) wasn’t more work for us as it meant preparing for the same conversation in real time rather than asynchronously. I did find the lack of engagement with the bulletin boards a bit frustrating, particularly as I had other courses where they worked well, but clearly this isn’t a pedagogy that works with our Latin language students, regardless of what may work in other courses and in other institutions.

Shared BA and MA courses. This is particular niggle because of the way we teach our MA courses, as part of the intercollegiate MA where we share teaching with UCL and KCL – so I had MA students from two different universities as well as RHUL. Plus I taught the MA students for a term, and it was my first time teaching a BA/MA language combo, although it’s been our model for a while. A first run of a course always has its ups and downs, so I’m not surprised I’ve come out with quite a few improvements in mind for how to make the integration smoother, but many of them do relate to the extraordinary circumstances of this year.

Black squares of death. I think everyone who taught this year experienced t. he issue of students being reluctant to turn their cameras on, for a whole range of reasons. (As someone who spent several meetings with her camera off because that was the only way to participate with a cracking headache, I am certainly not going to start judging students for their choices, nor am I going to hypothesise about what reasons may lie behind those choices.) However, it is incredibly difficult to lecture to a screen of initials and a reasonably quiet chat, not to mention hugely emotionally draining. It does mean that when we are back on site, there will be students who know what I look like and what my name is, and I will have no idea who they are, which will probably lead to some very awkward conversations as people wave and say hello and I look both confused and panicked.

Social time. In teaching on-site, there are all kinds of opportunities for casual interaction – passing each other on campus, a quick word before or after class, popping your head around the corner of someone’s office. I have missed this with colleagues, and I have missed it with students too – although I’ve been in the Teams room before and after class has started, nobody has taken advantage of that hanging around in the same way they would do on site. I miss the opportunity for casual chat and conversation that arises on these occasions. I’m not quite sure what strategies might create that sort of space, and I know this is one of those big problems that seems to have affected a lot of on-line teaching this year.

Buy-in. This is a bit of a tricky one, because we have buy-in problems every year – that is, students who make use of their autonomy as grown adults to not engage with what we ask them to do and the activities we provide for them. My move to the flipped model has meant that lack of engagement is painfully obvious and easy to track. In a normal year, while bodies may have been in a classroom, there’s no guarantee that the ears were listening or the computer was being used for notes or the gazing out of the window wasn’t facilitating an day-dream about something much more interesting than Petronius, but one could console oneself with the fact that at least the student was physically present and ticked off on the register. That new ways of identifying buy-in, or the lack thereof, have emerged this year is hardly surprising; as may already be clear, I’ve found that particularly tricky to deal with myself when there’s been a lack of engagement with bulletin boards, particularly when part of the point has been to provide support with things students are finding difficult. (They may very well not want to share the things they are finding difficult with the rest of the class, which could result in a flat discussion on-site rather than a silent bulletin board – again, this is not a new problem, just a new manifestation of a particular pedagogical challenge.) So next year, regardless of what blend of on-line and on-site I have, I’m going to have to pay particular attention to getting buy-in early, and to getting feedback on what issues are getting in the way of buy-in. (Maybe I need an anonymous survey for people to share stuff they have problems with rather than bulletin boarding it. There’s a thought.)

Overall Reflections

As I have been saying to more or less anyone who will listen – this isn’t the year of teaching that any of us would have wanted to give our students in an ideal world. However, given that we are not in an ideal world, it has actually gone a lot better than I think we all (students and teachers) worried it might. Yes, there is room for improvement – but there’s room for improvement every year, because teaching is a practice, not a perfect. I’m grateful for the enforced up-skilling I’ve had to do in terms of my use of Moodle and online learning resources; I’m grateful for the reminder that you need to adapt your pedagogy to your students, not the other way around. What next academic year will look like is still pretty up in the air as we wait to see how teaching will be delivered, and whether vaccination will mean we avoid another wave of COVID-19 and another lock-down in response. That said, my students have progressed in their understanding of what I’ve been trying to teach them, and have already turned out some fantastic work – and, honestly, I’ll take that as a win.

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