Teaching in the time of the coronavirus

Sir Keith Burnett is relieved to find that through online platforms, teachers can still connect with students and can give ideas life

May 10, 2020
Source: istock

This week, I’ve taught quantum mechanics to one of my dear students in quarantine in Shanghai. It is not the first time that I have talked about science to someone in a distant land, but it was nevertheless a heady event.

It made me think about all my colleagues in universities and colleges around the world who are working hard to guide and mentor their students, our children, in these fraught times. My international colleagues have been telling me about how this unexpected new chapter in their academic career is going. Some are lecturing across states in the US; others are giving seminars combining researchers in China and the UK; while another is teaching an Oxford tutorial to a student in Singapore.

As I hear their stories, I remember that only a few months ago I was listening to one of the key originators of the internet, Vint Cerf. It was a wonderful occasion, organised by the Royal Society, where we sat around our tables together, relaxing sociably with food and wine in all the ways we now crave, learning from this pioneer of the internet about how it had been set up.

How important that work is to us now, as we order our food online, and families and government gather via Skype and Zoom during a time of global crisis. I am even able to watch my grandchildren grow as the weeks pass, what a true blessing that is.

And for those who have battled the virus in extremis, a phone or tablet held by a nurse or doctor has allowed loved ones on to Covid-19 wards and enabled a connection precious beyond words. Because in the end, we may be physically distant, but we need human exchange.

We have found the same in education. Building bonds between teacher and student has been my life’s vocation, so to see this go on, in spite of the virus, is truly magical. But learning how to be an effective teacher in this new world can be truly daunting. It is not just a question of technology. We are having to discover, or rediscover, what being a teacher can mean.

Personally, I have always found it difficult to absorb information in a formal lecture. I needed the combination of an inspirational lecturer, self-study with a good text and challenging discussions. I know I am not alone in this and that the needs of each student differ.

The skills of teachers are just as diverse. Some give excellent lectures, and some are great writers. I think my skill has always been for a question-and-answer session. How can these things survive physical distance and the constraints of online? When the rapport between a teacher and student is at stake, it is only natural to be supremely cautious.

Of course, universities have been thinking about how to best use virtual study environments for some time. Only now, the gentle wind pushing us along that path has become a hurricane.

So over these past weeks I’ve been learning about the principles that should guide us in this new world, and what I’ve discovered has been a huge relief. Instead of talking tech, those who are deeply involved in online pedagogy begin with teachers, students and with education.

Talk to David Lefevre, who heads Imperial College Business School’s Edtech Lab, and you will find a dedicated teacher who has been working on how to develop people’s understanding using a computer interface for decades. The insights he has built and is now applying with his Insendi team are driven by a quiet passion to open up the possibility of greater connection, not less.

I have also spoken to teachers alive to the need to vary the content and pace of information and assessment. They are finding new ways to maintain openness, questions, curiosity and challenge.

And then there are our students themselves. This is a generation for whom the online world has always been a reality; it’s another place to meet and connect. Social media, games, chat rooms and messaging apps provide rapid contact for those with access to a smartphone and wi-fi. Each has a vast library at their fingertips.

What a teacher must do is what we always did, to give an idea life. We must embed knowledge deeply using platforms that enable teacher and student to innovate together in this new world. And as I recognise the continuing centrality of teaching itself, my fears begin to diminish. And there is a stirring of possibility, even excitement, at who we might reach and how.

I would, of course, never wish to see my old world disappear. As a tutorial fellow at the University of Oxford for 20 years, I have invested much of my career to the education of those I see immediately before me. But the online world can be welcomed as well as feared.

Next week, I will begin to mentor a new cohort of Schmidt Science Fellows, brilliant postdoc interdisciplinary scientists in New York, London, Melbourne, Delft and Beijing. One day, we will come together again face to face.

But through the blessing of the internet, we do not have to wait to begin our work together. I will be their mentor and convey to them what I know. I am still a teacher. We can be deeply serious about making the very most of what we are driven to do.

Sir Keith Burnett FRS is the chair of the academic council of the Schmidt Science Fellows. He was formerly vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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