The trying to teach in a pandemic navel gazing post

There is an overwhelming amount being written about teaching in the time of COVID-19 or with other similarly witty titles. Lots of opinion pieces, many of which are actively harmful and symptomatic of the kind of existential angst gripping many at the moment, and often not indicative of what otherwise rational people would ‘normally’ think. Group think is a massive problem when we all work in greater isolation, we stay in contact more naturally with our smaller social-professional circles, with people who think similar to us and act as an amplifying chamber for our perspectives and limit our viewpoints. I’m very grateful to the small number of voices who offer clarity, genuine leadership (the ability to make decisions based on limited information and create greater certainty amidst the confusion), and a calming presence. These voices are definitely the chinks of light coming through the cloudy grey sky.

Great line I’ve just heard on the radio: someone at the UN lamenting the failure of some to combine power with leadership. And I think that summarises my current viewpoint perfectly. You got power right now? Use it to lead and give those who are relying on you honesty and as much certainty as possible. Don’t shift the blame, and when you don’t know, say so but then tell us when we can expect decisions. Uncertainty is the fertiliser of anxiety for many right now. On the other hand, I genuinely believe the majority of people in power are doing the best they can (and please treat that as the double edged sword I intend it as). We just need to reconsider the attributes we wish to appoint to those positions.

Cloudy skies over calm sea, the light is returning although the far off cliffs remain dark. [Talisker Bay, Isle of Skye]

My mid-March/April approach to teaching at a distance was to make everything asynchronous. I was mindful that our students were thrown into highly varying circumstances, timezones, and with a range of capacities to access online anything. I had no robust information about internet access and digital capabilities amongst my students and none was shared. The basic approach was KIS: Keep It Simple. I’ve provided a mixture of bespoke screencasts created new and reused lecture captures from the 18/19 year to create a range of resources. Many topics are supported by annotated lecture notes, reading lists, and fortunately I had digitised sections of many of the textbooks that were of relevance. My next phase is to create model answers for several problem sheets – I believe this is an appropriate use of time because they are resources that can be reused in the future. The bespoke screencasts can also be used in the future as pre-lecture screencasts.

How will my approach change for the coming Autumn semester? I could say that there’s too much uncertainty to make concrete plans, let alone take concrete actions. But I’m going to call bullshit on that approach – there’s plenty that can be done, and with a little leadership we could easily be granted greater certainty to facilitate planning. On a personal level, there are only two scenarios: teaching as normal, and teaching entirely online. Anything in between is simply a hybrid of those two approaches. Here are some of the factors influencing my plans:

  • quality issues around streaming of synchronous content (sound, video)
  • apparent increase in fatigue (and cognitive loading?) caused by online meetings and impact on timetabling (staff and student)
  • concept density of courses*
  • creation of new resources that have potential use beyond a single academic year
  • facilitating learning in a way that includes SLOP** and problem solving opportunities, and goes beyond active learning into applied learning
  • I have no involvement in laboratory teaching but also know that it cannot be allowed to completely dominate the decision making processes in chemistry at the expense of other skills and opportunities
  • that many skills can be enhanced through online provision, particularly those to prepare students for the workplace
  • differences between coursework only modules (survey courses) and modules with some exam style assessment
  • designing assessments to be completed, submitted, and marked online***
  • opportunities for skills development that don’t exist in a f2f environment

I have a broad structure in mind for each teaching session that breaks the session down into phases. This may change but at it’s heart are the ideas of breaking apart long sessions into delivery and doing, making use of a lightly flipped methodology, and providing as much in advance as possible to maximise the usefulness of synchronous/f2f time. There also needs to be a clear navigation structure to aid students in whatever mode of participation they want to take part in so that it’s clear and simple what ‘stuff’ is related to what session.

For each session, in a module where the content is examined.

  1. Intro screencast/reading to topic ending in a question [in advance if f2f, or allow time at start of synchronous session to view];
  2. Go through question [f2f, synchronous, or in next screencast];
  3. Topic elaboration – next concept/idea, example, end in simple application question [live lecture for f2f, screencast for online];
  4. Time to complete question;
  5. Go through question, set question with twist [live lecture for f2f, screencast for online], give time to complete question;
  6. Go through question with twist [live lecture for f2f, screencast for online];
  7. Repeat 1 – 6 as required;
  8. End session with a summary of what has been covered, highlight resources available such as points 9 and 10. Introduce the plan for the next session and highlight the pre-sessional activity;
  9. Create SLOP questions where the first in each ‘kind’ has a model answer or strategy and the remainder have simple answers (e.g. just the correct answer);
  10. Create problem solving questions, with model or simple answers, or guide to problem solving approach.

For ‘survey courses’, where the content is not directly examinable:

  1. Intro screencast/reading to topic ending in question [in advance if f2f, or allow time at start of synchronous session to view]. The question may be more rhetorical or with the aim of starting discussion;
  2. Facilitate discussion of the question and summarise key points;
  3. Topic elaboration – next concept/idea, example, [live lecture for f2f, screencast for online];
  4. if 3 ends in another question, facilitate discussion and summarise. If 3 ends in a task, allow time to do task then discuss and summarise task;
  5. Repeat 3 and 4 as required.

Other things I am getting on with regardless are:

  • ensuring that my reading lists for 2020/21 are as digital as possible (while appreciating that our library staff will be really busy when we get back onto campus, I don’t have to do much here because I’ve used digitisation extensively for several years on the grounds of accessibility);
  • creating the topic intro screencasts which I’m using no matter what;
  • revising module proposals to increase the flexibility for on- or off-line means as necessity permits. This simply means taking out all requirements for f2f sessions and removing/replacing/altering any item that is very rigid in requiring attendance;
  • considering how to build in engagement checkpoints in some courses so that students who decide to work asynchronously are still supported and are working through the necessary learning materials.

That last point is particularly important for any planned online delivery – as we use attendance and other f2f cues for student welfare and engagement, we’re going to have to rapidly learn new ways of distinguishing between bored but capable, disengaged and overwhelmed, and other typical patterns of student (and staff) behaviour.

In any case, this is plenty to be getting on with for now. I’m still contemplating the technologies to make this all happen, and also the very tricky question of how to build a sense of community within courses. As I have two survey courses where I deliver around 60 – 80% of the content, I need something workable. That’s a completely different post.

*by concept density, I mean the number of new ideas introduced per timetable slot. **SLOP – shed loads of practice *** in a few weeks I will be required to mark handwritten and scanned problem sheets digitally. I am utterly dreading it and anticipate it will take at least twice as normal as usual. It’s what happens when assessment types designed for hand-written paper submission and marking have to be done digitally. It’s not the way forward beyond crisis response mode.

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