Empty Examination desks

Covid-19 brought a hard stop to face-to-face teaching at Universities. The normal interaction between students and academics disappeared over the space of a week, as the black mirror of technology slid between them. Lectures, small group teaching, tutorials, laboratory sessions all gone. The entire University sector pivoted to remote teaching. After the great retreat to the virtual learning environments, the digital refugees looked around with fresh eyes at the tools lying around. What should we do with these?

If my own experience is anything, a great deal of hard work was done at short notice to make the best experience possible for students. However, it is fair to say that skills in teaching online are unevenly distributed across the sector, from Universities to individual lecturer level. Students’ experience, even with the best online materials provided would also have been mixed. Evidence shows that the multitasking digital native (homo zappiëns) is a myth.1

Aside from the more general disruption and anxiety added to our lives these past weeks, for both teachers and learners, this abrupt change in provision of teaching was not easy. Students still value the everyday face-to-face interaction with other students and academic staff. Replicating this for potentially 18 months while social distancing measures are in place will be a key challenge.

Finding new on-line tools for teaching and innovation is the new Pokemon game for academics. I’ve become enamoured with Perusall myself. However, there are dangers in trying to innovate2 in the face of a complete system change. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve been having about online learning during this change.

Make it coherent - Building a coherant course identity is more important than ever. No one wants their course to be “corporate”, but presenting a programme of study that fits together is more important than ever.

Less is more - The temptation to innovate with new tools is huge, but bombarding students with new tools in a random way will not improve the student experience. Use what you have well. Bring in new things in a consistent controlled way using pilots.

Build a community - As well as using our virtual learning environments for teaching and learning, we need to learn how to use them to build a sense of shared community of learning.

Don’t focus on the tool - Tools don’t replace human connection. How do we get through the black mirror to reach someone? How do we dissolve the screen in the higher education context?

Current students have the peer support they have built up over months and years, and established relationships with academics. They have networks. They have trust. This will have to built from scratch in less than ideal circumstance with new students. Remote teaching seems the wrong term.

If we focus being authentic in our interactions and use digital tools with empathy we can improve our chances of making those connections that matter in teaching. We need to be anything but remote.

Photograph: “Empty Desks” by Anthony Cox. Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  1. Kirschner PA, De Bruyckere P. The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education 2017;67:135-145 doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.06.001 

  2. If your definition of innovation includes effectiveness then relax. This is about the pro-innovation bias that occassionally blinds people to potential weaknesses or lack of evidence in their innovation. Witness, the attempt to leverage new forms of social media into teaching with hardly any evidence or thought about downsides (such as the creepy treehouse effect, when teachers try to use the networks students use for friendships for education). I haven’t seen someone attempt to use Tiktok for teaching, but it can’t be far away. It goes without saying, that not all effective ways to teach are innovative. Some things have been around for a long time precisely because they work.