What I’ve learnt in the last 3 weeks about online learning that my entire career could never teach me

In happier times, at Hever Castle Christmas wonderland, before I realised I would spend quite a bit of 2020 feeling like I was in a box!

Like many people I have been struggling to cope with what’s happening in the world since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I’ve been emotionally up and down now, particularly since the UK went into lockdown on Monday evening, as it meant being separated from my partner, friends, family and work colleagues. I’m getting used to a new normal, of getting up, doing a YouTube workout, then after a quick shower and breakfast, switching on my computer and starting work for the day. My daily communication is now entirely mediated by technology of some form such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom and whichever platform is needed. I’m trying to take regular breaks, I am going out running once a day, I am staying in touch with my friends and family. I’m trying to keep sane in a world that feels a little bit insane, scary and uncertain.

As someone who has worked in online learning for almost 20 years I am also finding it hard to make sense of the sudden shift to online learning that is happening in our universities, schools, colleges and workplaces and what my role should actually be. I feel like my expertise is needed and have been doing a fair amount to share my knowledge of copyright and online learning with the education community (more about that in a separate blog post). In this blog post, while it’s too soon to start reflecting on what this might mean long term, I’m going to share some of the things that I have learnt from this experience from this sudden shift to online learning.

To give some context, in the last 3 years I have been working at City, University of London as a Senior Lecturer in Educational Development, leading the technology enhanced learning pathway through our MA in Academic Practice. I teach two modules: Technology-enabled Academic Practice and Digital Literacies and Open Practice. Before moving to City I worked at LSE for 15 years in the Centre for Learning Technology, providing copyright advice to staff using educational technologies and helping them get access to digital resources. Slightly more than 2 weeks ago when I heard the news that LSE was stopping face to face teaching and switching entirely online I knew we were living in unprecedented times. LSE had largely been resistant to shifting to online for most of the time I worked there. Lecturers were happy to upload slides or some readings to Moodle, but online learning was not what they were seeking to do. So to switch entirely online, before most other universities, meant something pretty significant was happening in world. And I think for the first time I started to feel a bit anxious. I’m learning to live with being a lot anxious quite a lot of the time.

City University is a different sort of institution to LSE, my colleagues in the Educational Technology team provide a range of services to staff using technology in teaching and while we have different levels of engagement, I noticed almost the moment I started working there that many staff, but particularly those in health sciences, were keen to try and experiment with technology. They knew it had real potential and benefits, they just (like many of us) struggled to find time for their professional development. Those who have taken my modules give positive feedback that this course gives them the time and permission to concentrate on trying something new in their teaching. And many of them realise throughout the 8 months that the Technology module runs, that they are more competent with technology than they think and that it does offer them and their students benefits. Despite more enthusiasm from the outset, City were a week or so behind LSE in making the switch to entirely online learning.

For my own teaching, I had to make a quick decision as the crisis unfolded in what I shall call Week 0 – Monday 16th March, an entire week before the UK lockdown. I was due to teach a day long workshop for my technology module. I left the office on the Friday before wondering if I would be back to do this, and over the weekend it became apparent that I would not. While City wasn’t shut, I felt that teaching a module about online learning, and insisting my cohort came into City to study all day would be a risk both to myself and to my participants. I was also aware that almost half of my cohort are either health sciences lecturers or work in the NHS as health educators, so could be quite distracted. I took the decision that I would shift the entire day online, and really try to make it work. Partly to prove to myself I could do it. But largely so my cohort might experience an online session that I hope might give them some ideas for adapting their own teaching.

The session focused on learning theories and learning design and over the weekend I had an email from one participant asking me if I could make the session more practical to help her shift to online teaching. This started me questioning about how to approach the content. Of course I wanted to do something practical to help people, but launching into a hands-on training session in using every technology tool we have at City would not have been productive. I also felt as a point of principle, we needed to start with the pedagogy and the learning outcomes before we jumped straight into using technology. This is really the ethos underlying the whole module. We ask participants what aspects of their own teaching they would like to improve and to consider any challenges they are facing in their teaching. Then we think about technology and how it might help. So this was a principle I really felt would help people, to give them a framework they could use to plan their shift to online teaching. Obviously we all have a pretty clear problem currently, being unable to leave our homes and teach our students in traditional ways.

I returned to my lesson plan and the materials I had prepared. The session was going to be based around learning design principles using a lot of Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework. Had we met face to face we were going to do an ABC Learning Design workshop. I realised fairly quickly this would not work as an online session. I also knew that a day long workshop would need some rethinking to work effectively. I used my lesson plan to think about what type of learning was happening at different points through the day. There were clearly chunks of knowledge acquisition which lent themselves to some presenting. Time was short so I planned to deliver these during a synchronous session that I would also record. It made sense to me to start the day with an Adobe Connect webinar. My students already have webinars built into the course and most have used the software already. I felt I wanted some face to face time to just check in with people and set them up for the day with a timetable of what they were going to be doing. I decided to start with a quick poll to check in with people and see how they were feeling and to acknowledge the strangeness of the situation.

I then devised some simple activities to do throughout the day – reading a blog post about ABC, watching a couple of videos on the Conversational Framework and Connectivism and then writing a reflection in the Moodle discussion forum, to try and replicate some group discussion. At lunchtime around 3 people checked in with me to ask some questions, including one business studies lecturer who was looking for some help as she planned to run her first Adobe Connect session a few days later.  This lunchtime surgery session for anyone stuck and in need of some help seemed to work well. The day progressed and people posted in the forum. We then came back together for a final session from 3-4pm. I made the slides and content much more minimal but asked people to talk about what they had learnt from the day and which aspects of learning design and learning theory might they use to help them plan the shift to online learning in their own teaching. I also did another poll to see how people were feeling at the end of the day. Anxiety levels seemed to have gone down a little which was a relief (mine has too!) We also had some great discussion, largely in the chat box but by the end of the day people were feeling braver and switching on their audio to speak.

My lesson plan for the day (which I also sent to them all and posted in Moodle as a simple word document) is here if anyone would like to take a look. I tried to make it as clear as possible with step by step instructions and links to the relevant part of Moodle so they knew what was expected. It wasn’t perfect but I’ve had some positive feedback from the cohort and I hope the blend of synchronous and asynchronous activities gave them flexibility to study in the way they want to. I’m also aware that many of my cohort are very stretched at the moment, emotionally, health wise or work wise. So I am checking in with them, giving them options to defer their studies and get extensions on their assignments.

In summary, some of what I learnt from these few weeks include:

  • Think really hard about priorities – every day, every week, every hour even – what needs to be done NOW. What can wait. Review everything that ever ended up on a to do list! What do you really need to do it? Do you need to do it now? Can you add it to your schedule to do it in a timely way, to stop feeling like everything needs to be done immediately. The need to adapt my own teaching made me really look at what I was covering in a day long session and prioritise what they really needed to know for now and for their assessments.
  • Accept that it’s not possible to achieve everything and that is ok and that some things just will have to wait and people will understand. Some of my marking has been late, it’s been the one things I’ve found really difficult to concentrate on. But I am trying to communicate with people and let them know when I can do things. But the experience of an ABC workshop was just not something I could replicate online, so I did the best I could and pointed them to the resources and down the line, when this is all over we’ll run a workshop.
  • Try to be good enough. Anyone who knows me knows I am not a perfectionist, I’m a getting things done person. And at this current time I’m being even less of a perfectionist. I made a voice over PowerPoint this week. It was not the greatest thing I have produced, but it is perfectly audible and will do and so it’s up on Moodle and ready for the students. The same with hastily adapted day of teaching. It wasn’t perfect, but on balance it was a lot better than bringing people into the university and I gave people a way of engaging with the teaching live or following up afterwards with a recording and discussion forum activities.
  • Ask for help! I realised that many of my colleagues are genuinely lovely people and want to help and letting some of them know I was struggling was important. By the end of this week when my colleague Sarah said “Jane you sound so much more energised today – I think you are feeling better” that really gave me a lift. Several joined me for my day of teaching and everyone has been checking in on each other to make sure we’re getting through this. I’m really grateful to everyone I work with for being so supportive at this current time.
  • Online learning is not about getting the content online, it’s about your role as a teacher. Many of us working in this field have talked about how slides in Moodle or long lists of readings are not online learning for years, but at this time it’s becoming so clear that people want human contact. I miss seeing my students face to face, so I’ve been talking to them on Teams and Skype and in Adobe Connect. I’ve also realised that without the teacher it’s just lists of stuff. We need someone to help us make sense of what we are studying – our teachers, our peers, our colleagues.
  • Engage with your students and check in with them frequently – now more than ever they need to know you care. In the word of Paolo Freire “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is him/herself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.” This is a tough situation, but we are all in this together.
  • Make any instructions crystal clear and tell people about them multiple times. Write lists that say – first do this, then do this, read this and answer this question. It’s not always obvious what we are expecting people to do with information we present to them. They need our help turning it into knowledge. And no this is not spoon-feeding, this is good teaching and we’re all suffering a bit from knowing where to focus our attention and need plenty of reminders.
  • Take time to do some proper planning as it will pay off in the long run. We’ve all been saying for years we haven’t got enough time to do things, but now we’re locked down time is something some of us have a lot more of. So take the time to think about your teaching, return to your learning outcomes and think about your students at the moment, and their capacity to study and take things in. Give them as many options as you can. Perhaps a short video, a longer piece of reading and an activity. If you are making recordings or voice over PowerPoint that’s helpful, but make sure there is a way they can ask questions. Keep the video as short as you can covering the really key points.

I am not sure if I am saying anything profound. Shifting to online is hard work, it’s always been hard work, but everything is hard work at the moment. There are so many people who’ve told me this week how tired they feel from all the online meetings. I usually commute for around 3 hours a day, and I am more tired than ever in my short walk from the kitchen to the home office. I need down time and I need to be kind to myself. We will get through this, alone / together. I’m sure we’ll all learn a lot more about technology over the coming weeks and months, but I hope we’ll reconnect with what makes us human and the underlying values of higher education that the world needs now – the need for communities, self improvement, fulfilment, kindness and most of all love for each other. Teaching is a political act said Freire, but he also said that “education was an act of love and this is an act of courage.” I shall keep that in my mind in the coming weeks.

One thought on “What I’ve learnt in the last 3 weeks about online learning that my entire career could never teach me

  1. Pingback: The move to online education; is this pandemic the push we needed, or should we be striving for a full return to campus? I guess this is the global question on most agendas for those tasked with strategy plans for higher education institutes. – Sine

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