Higher education: lecturing in lockdown and distance learning

With periods of quarantine set to continue into the autumn term and possibly beyond, lecturers must leverage technology to augment traditional teaching and pave the way for a likely increase in distance learning.

In the era of coronavirus-related self-isolation, the switch to online teaching has been swift and urgent for teaching staff in the higher education sector.

The move has been made reluctantly by many, who have yet to feel comfortable with the technology required, with some preferring to cancel lectures and give students a credit instead.

But they are missing a trick, say leading educators, who believe the technology is easier to grasp than some might think – they are probably already using it in other aspects of their lives. What’s more, investing at this stage will stand academics in good stead for a not-too-distant future where online teaching will be a far bigger and permanent feature of the education landscape.

A positive response to online classes

Mike Savage, Martin White professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, is “pleasantly surprised” by how easy the technology has been to navigate (he’s using Zoom), and by students’ response. “One of the benefits is that students who tend to be quiet in the physical classroom are more talkative,” he says.

While many of Savage’s previous lectures are already available online, there is, inevitably, new material to deliver, and he tries to ensure students feel engaged in the absence of face-to-face contact. “I can see everyone’s faces, with their names underneath, so it’s as easy to personalise my teaching as it is in a physical seminar,” he says.

Savage admits that switching to teaching online has been relatively easy because he and his students are two thirds through the course and know each other well. “It will be more challenging to deliver a course entirely online from the beginning, but my experience over the past few weeks has made me realise it is not impossible.”

Indeed, the current crisis is bringing long-standing debates about how to augment traditional teaching with high-quality online lectures back to the table.

We’re being forced into new ways of interacting, teaching, learning and researching, and this crisis will go on long enough for new habits to be formed, reducing the danger we’ll slip back into old ways

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor, University of Buckingham

Some academics have been teaching and facilitating online since well before the coronavirus crisis. Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational behavior and international management at the Brandeis International Business School in Massachusetts, has tips for others new to the experience. One is to recognise that face-to-face and virtual teaching are different things, requiring different tools and approaches. Like Savage, he stresses the importance of a warm and engaging learning environment to mitigate the danger of impersonality. Molinksy arrives early at the virtual lecture so he can greet students as they pop up and engage in small talk, and he encourages them to turn on their video functionality to enhance the personal connection.

You need to act a bit, suggests Molinsky. “Show a warm smile, insert an occasional laugh, and convey a friendly engaging tone.” Make eye contact by looking into the camera, he advises, and angle the camera for a view of your entire face.

On course to teach remotely

The Open University (OU), which has always delivered tuition through distance learning, is a valuable source of free advice for academics scrambling to move online. One of the most useful courses it offers has to be ‘ Take your teaching online ’, which covers everything from why teaching online is different to what technologies are available, and finding, using and sharing educational materials.

“Activities that can be done quickly, face to face, take more time online, particularly collaborative activities,” says Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the OU. One reason is that you need to structure different types of activity and engagement. “‘Read this for two hours and then watch this for an hour’ is hard going,” he points out. Ideally, you shouldn’t just try to migrate your existing lecture content online: “Think about what opportunities the new medium affords you – asynchronous discussion [online and not in real time], different resources, a range of tools, and so on.”

When it comes to technology, keep it simple, advises Weller. “Artificial intelligence, blockchain and MOOCs [massive online open courses] have their place, but what’s needed at the moment is a focus on using the mundane tech effectively to construct engaging and meaningful online learning.”

With the summer holidays ahead, it could be a good time for educators to educate themselves in delivering high-class quality lectures and seminars online. Any return to business-as-usual in September seems a vain hope: phases of social distancing, whether strict or relaxed, look set to continue for a while yet. As such, universities and academics need to be sufficiently flexible to switch their teaching online as and when required.

An enhanced learning environment

Dave Coplin, founder of consultancy The Envisioners, and previously chief envisioning officer at Microsoft, has worked with universities including Oxford, Sheffield, Coventry and the OU to help them improve the way they deliver teaching. His message is that the nature of the educator has changed in a world where knowledge has become commoditised: “Education has to pivot from its present position of ‘high priest of the mysteries’ to a facilitator of understanding,” he says. Educators’ roles are increasingly about helping students connect to the best knowledge and learning – “which is not necessarily their own”.

James Gray, CEO and founder of Kortext, a digital textbook platform provider, says the campus shutdowns mean universities are now exploring more deeply how technology can support access to courses online or in a mixed learning environment of both online and on-campus delivery. In response to the coronavirus crisis, Kortext has partnered with academic publishers and Microsoft to launch the Free Student eTextbook Programme (FSTP), enabling students to access over 10,000 textbooks online until the end of the current semester. Take-up has been high, with 140 universities interested in participating and 120 already set up to do so. 

“Online access to learning resources, embedded into the learning environment and provided as part of the course fees, is rapidly moving to become the norm,” says Gray. “The value for students is obvious: equal online access for all students to all learning materials any time, anywhere. The value for universities, however, is only just beginning to be tapped, driving an improved student user experience through better engagement, and utilising the data gathered from online study to support students and intervene early, if required. This all helps drive success and reduce failure rates.”

Lessons from the young

Coplin admits most educators will need support during this accelerated shift to digital, and he advises them to start working with IT departments and colleagues who may be further up the learning curve. Soliciting feedback from students will also help. He urges a mindset shift: “Recognise that technology doesn’t compromise learning, but, deployed well, actually enhances it.”

Coplin’s top tip is to look at how young people themselves consume media – increasingly through video on demand and live streaming – and learn from masters of their craft. He cites body coach Joe Wicks as an exemplar: his daily ‘PE with Joe’ streaming sessions have won him a cult following during the lockdown. Coplin himself uses OBS Studio – free software which, using a webcam and microphone, allows him to live stream, record and edit content, and share it with viewers anywhere in the world. A piece of greenscreen cloth, bought for £20, provides a starry backdrop that makes it look as though he is talking from outer space.

The current crisis is an opportunity to learn and grow, says Coplin: “We could move forward further and faster than we would otherwise have done.”

Sir Anthony Seldon, educationalist and vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, agrees. “We’re being forced into new ways of interacting, teaching, learning and researching, and this crisis will go on long enough for new habits to be formed, reducing the danger we’ll slip back into old ways,” he predicts. These habits will be consolidated by other trends at work – like climate change, which is slowing since the lockdowns, and the fact that many students were already questioning the return on their investment in higher education.

He concludes: “When you look at history, wars or other sudden crises are always catalysts of change. And Covid-19 is the biggest thunderbolt in education in any of our lifetimes.”

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