Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Teaching Online

In the past I had sought out a number of paths towards studying online and had enrolled onto short programs organised under the 'Coursera' banner. These courses were written and taught by lecturers at institutions around the world and in structure were quite similar.

I actually enrolled onto these courses to learn how such courses are organised, administered and what kind of experience learners may receive.
On reflection, the experience was mixed to say the least. Some of the courses were ridiculously easy and yet others demanded a number of hours of dedicated study in order to complete. When I first began my investigation the courses were free and I automatically received a digital certificate stating that I had successfully completed the course along with a type of transcript which stated the exact % of my overall 'grade', a kind of GPA I guess. Later, these statements were removed unless a fee was paid. However, it was still possible to audit the course for free, but no certificate was provided for this.
Apart from the huge fluctuation in the level of difficulty in the courses I took, the most annoying aspect was the peer assessment (the only assessment). I assume it was possible to partake in the assignments for free as many participants did not take the assignments seriously and submitted silly pieces of work as their submission. I did smile when I opened an assignment that had been designated for me to grade, only to find a single sentence that called into question President Trump's sanity, but I wondered how much attention my own assignment was receiving, considering I had spent two evenings putting it together.
I came away from this 'fieldwork' with a mixed opinion of online learning.

I didn't expect that, as we moved into 2020, I myself would become caught up in online teaching in a much more involved way. The COVID 19 virus spread around the globe and eventually caught up with me here in Vietnam.
As we began our usual 12 week semester, I only met the students once face-to-face in the classroom before the government announced the closure of schools and universities country-wide as part of the lockdown that was ultimately successful in its attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.

In contrast I had to watch as my home country, the UK, dithered and procrastinated while the virus spread about the population. At one stage the UK Prime Minister considered doing nothing, allowing the virus to 'move through' the population, as though if everyone stayed still and quiet the virus would slip through without noticing the people around it, and without infecting them. Later this was changed to 'of course, many of our loved ones may die', and eventually to the knowledge that if nothing was done there was a strong possibility of a terrifying death toll. The result of this lack of action means the UK now has the highest death toll in Europe while Vietnam, early adopters of the lock-down approach, have none.

The move to online teaching was not easy or without problems. This is to be expected. Entire courses that had been designed specifically for face-to-face delivery now had to be adapted instantly to online/virtual mode. Some courses could not adapt. Courses that required specialist equipment based on campus were impossible to run virtually. However, most courses found a way to move forward and most of them thrived. This success was down to the energy and education of the teaching staff. The ingenuity, imagination and resourcefulness of my colleagues has been astonishing.

For my part, I was teaching an art/design history based course relating developments in art & design to developments in materials and technology and also the changing attitudes of society set against developments in history. This means looking at a lot of case-studies and getting through a lot of material in class. Usually this has been achieved successfully via class discussion. As each topic was opened out a discussion was provoked that explored the various aspects relevant in each case without it being presented in a boring list-type format. The most difficult part of this process to replicate online was the spontaneity of the discussions and the most enjoyable aspect for me as a teacher was the unpredictable direction of the discussions. There was no script to follow so I would tend to analyze and deconstruct each issue as they arose, quite exciting. Hopefully this helped to demonstrate to the students that these issues are not pre-scripted and it is essential for them to look at each case carefully and respectfully before constructing a personal opinion, later backed up and supported by evidence.

The main platform I I had to us for my online teaching was 'Collaborate Ultra' and I had up to 25 students online at the same time during my sessions. I would upload a prepared lecture for the students to read through beforehand. This would give them time to become familiar with the proposed topics, names, dates, terms and would allow them the opportunity to conduct some research prior to the session (an approach adopted from flipped learning).

During the actual session I would begin by reviewing the previous session in order to set the scene for the current one. Then I would choose some of the slides to discuss in more detail, encouraging the students to comment on certain aspects. In the beginning I had one or two students using the microphone to speak but it quickly changed to typed comments and questions in the chat box. One reason for this was the bandwidth. Although the students could be hosted together, if all our videos were active, people speaking and slides being shared at the same time, the system stuttered a little. I did initially try to break the students into groups but the task of duplicating the session and repeating everything several times was ridiculous. This meant the spontaneity that had been so successful in class was almost impossible. However, it was possible to work through the sessions, clarify issues, answer questions and check that the topics had been understood. I was flexible with the time, prolonging the session until I felt everyone was satisfied and confident to move on with the assignment.
Following the online session I uploaded more background information to the topics covered online and posted a couple of videos along with provocative questions that acted as a catalyst for a more leisurely conversation in the discussion board.

Besides the extra time needed to cover these approaches, I also received almost double the usual number of emails from students. At first I feared these emails may have been written due to something lacking from my delivery of information online but it turned out that the majority were seeking reviews of their assignment drafts. If students are actively seeking to improve the depth and refinement of their assignments then I consider this as a positive sign.

Other teachers found alternative ways of adapting to online teaching, depending on the nature of their course and their personal teaching style. I feel it is important for teachers to be individuals, for students to feel a noticeable change in the rhythm and character of the classroom when they enter a different class. This is a reminder that each teacher has different experiences, background, often comes from a different culture. All of these differences help to enrich the students' learning and that, I feel, is our goal.

It was a new and rewarding experience but I have to say, hand on heart, I look forward to meeting students face-to-face in future.