Saying Goodbye to Online Teaching (For Now)
So, I'm wrapping up teaching at the LUMC today. I'm taking the next 6 months or more off to finally finish writing my PhD in Law and Development. Teaching and writing the PhD together has been a difficult process, and is probably a blog for another time.
Today I want to write about some of the challenges with online teaching I've had over the past year or so in Leiden University Medical Centre. And, what I want to remember about and improve in my own teaching practice.
Not Normal Times
We are still not in 'normal' circumstances. I barely saw the university I taught in this past year. In universities we perhaps need to have further recognition for the fact we as lecturers have been engaging in protracted emergency online teaching rather than simply teaching online. This is also true from the students' perspective, who have been in protracted emergency remote (arguably isolated?) learning.
Over the past year, we have adapted and done our best to innovate. But also, perhaps have underestimated the stress and uncertainty the students have faced (and ourselves as educators). And, consequently have not built in enough time/space in the course outlines and tried too hard to get back to 'normality'.
Stress in the Learning Experience
In many ways, this academic year, we were all better prepared for online teaching. Especially in comparison to last year when we had to suddenly dropped our face-to-face session plans and switch to online teaching.
But, we have still been somewhat restricted in our mindset on online teaching. We have continued to frame teaching online as a reaction to an ongoing problem rather than an opportunity to expand the student learning experience. I myself have been guilty of being apologetic for teaching online, rather than simply asking students how we can make the most of this space and opportunity. I probably spent more time thinking of the 'fun' sessions I could have had if we were teaching face-to-face in 'normal' times, rather than accept where we actually are at.
I've worked extensively with refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons for a long time now and engaged with them on learning programmes. What’s been interesting for me is seeing some connections in how they react to their own educational practices and how some of my students have also acted (to a lesser degree). Living in protracted conditions of stress and uncertainty, I would see some of the refugee students in Malaysia make panic responses to learning objectives - i.e. shutting down rather than engaging with the topic, having brain fog, trying to memorize 'just enough' to get by the grading rather than take the time to ask questions, and create rumours based on misconceptions of 'high' standards (and somehow creating even higher expectations of themselves).
They were learning in survival mode.
I think this is where we are at right now. It is a tense and difficult time for learning. Students are wondering the utility of what they learn and applicability to labour markets. I see this as only increasing. We could certainly find ways to stress the utility of our courses but I genuinely believe we do this anyway. Honestly, I don't think further showcasing or 'marketing' our own teaching is the best way forward or will at best only have marginal impact on the students learning experience.
What I see is a greater need, both online and off-line, for students is to have more time to think, reflect and interact. And, potentially engage in greater discussions on their own learning journeys.
Finding Time to Connect
In future, I would certainly do more on engagement and finding time to connect with students. Simply asking how they've previously enjoyed or not online teaching and how we could make better use of the virtual space together to help them learn,would be a good start. In some ways what is missing is not dependent on the question of being online or not, but is simply a need for increased sense of community that co-creates and learns together.
Suggestions for future teaching
I would try and find spaces where the students can direct their own learning better. Perhaps allow say 30 minutes every other session where the students would choose what they needed to learn. It could be a simple Q&A or re-teaching an aspect of an earlier lesson or expanding on a topic etc. Maybe ask students to go and find resources on for example; how to write research questions and objectives. They could bring in what they've found into a session for us to compare and discuss how they might use this in their own writing. (And probably have to warn about using materials that are not credible or would need to be adapted for their projects). In any case, a greater sense of co-creation may have provided students with the sense of ownership over their own learning that I noticed was missing during the course.
A couple of moments of success I noted with students, happened in the 15 minutes after the workgroup sessions. I would stay online for 15 minutes to allow more time for questions or just for a chat and a few students made use of this time. A few students mentioned the stress and uncertainty and difficulties with time management. I used a community development approach at these times i.e. did not provide any answers but simply recognised what they were experiencing and ask questions for them to reflect and formulate their own strategies.
If I had been more creative I would have found more ways to integrate this approach in the sessions. However, I think simply having more time for students to think and reflect could release some of the tension and difficulties we saw. Having additional points of contact that simply allows students to speak openly without the burden of need to 'learn' or produce something could also be helpful in reducing this sense of stress. But, I would prioritize more time over more expectations to interact.
Challenges Online: Recording Sessions
A lot of what I have said could probably apply both online and off-line teaching practices. In terms of specific engagement issues online, I would say the recording of sessions reduced interaction during the session. Students were less willing to jump in and give their thoughts, which inevitably made the sessions drag. Nevertheless, I still think it is important to have recorded sections for the students to fall back on and re-listen to. I would be more confident in using a flipped classroom approach, and put more content online in shorter videos and have more time for discussion in workgroup sessions.
Successes Online: Tutorials
Overall, I think the online space for teaching has allowed greater accessibility, transparency and personalisation. The online tutorials especially allowed students to feel comfortable and make a connection with me. I saw a couple of students really take on board the discussions from tutorials and make plans on how to improve. I think there is something to be said for face-to-face communication but, the level of comfort students have had discussing their challenges online with me in tutorials has been far greater.
I would also say we want to see more use of the flexibility offered by online spaces in the course outline. We have students with diverse learning experiences, and grouped sessions can sometimes limit how we interact with them. One of the things I've enjoyed is spending that time to interact via online tutorials (without additional admin worries of booking a room and working to as strict and fixed a timetable).
I don't think we should be over worrying about making the best use of technology (though I’m sure there are other apps we can use). Instead I would be thinking more in fundamental terms of student learning experiences, connection and collaboration. Which are of course factors that continue to have relevance regardless of how the pandemic and restrictions play out. These are hard times, but I hope we can also think of it as something of an opportunity to re-frame engagement between ourselves as educators and students. My teaching with LUMC was not directly related to my field in my PhD. However, I learned a great deal whilst refreshing my teaching skills and helping students on their own research journeys. We tend in academia to live in silos but teaching Medical, Pharmacy and Biomedical students, I have learned we have more in common than we may think. I've also learned I have a great deal still to offer as an educator, and I look forward to getting back to teaching as soon as my PhD is done.