Teaching intelligence: switching online in the middle of a course

Earlier this year, meticulously crafted seminar plans and carefully designed modules went out the window, as lecturers scrambled to ensure they could get some form of teaching to their students.

Although universities are now preparing for a return to face-to-face classes − at least, where possible − the potential for a swift U-turn lingers, as Covid-19 cases rise and fall around the world. So how can universities prepare? We spoke to four experts about what to do if staff need to switch to online teaching in the middle of a course.

Erik Blair, senior lecturer in higher education research and practice at the University of West London and author of Independent Thinking on Teaching in Higher Education, warned that a rapid switch was unlikely to “happen smoothly” but, in the event of such a switch, it is essential to recognise that the practice of teaching online is very different to face-to-face.

For a long time, he explained, higher education has been moving towards a more holistic approach −focusing on not just knowledge but also skills and understanding. The problem with flipping to online is that it is easy to continue to share knowledge − with pre-recorded lectures and the whole web at everyone’s fingertips − but the skills and understanding can get lost. “It’s important not to forget that. As we move into a flip-flop online-offline environment, we need to have more emphasis [on] supporting those aspects of student development,” he said.

The lecture, for instance, is less useful online, because students can easily lose concentration, so instead switch to group work and get students to interact with each other, he said. “Students want to learn. Give them something to sink their teeth into…online this can be done in short, discrete blocks that probably shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes,” he advised.

Dr Blair said that universities have now put a lot of emphasis on online support and hired academic developers. “If you have the content, you need to find the support, and universities have now deployed many more specialists since the pandemic began − find these teams,” he advised.

The best way to prepare is “not about mastering a specific learning tool but thinking about what it looks like from the other side”, he added.

Leonardo Rolla, an associate professor at the University of Warwick and a visiting assistant professor at NYU Shanghai, agreed that addressing the student perspective was crucial and added that staff needed to start collecting feedback as soon as the switch was made, rather than further down the line.

Dr Rolla knows first-hand what it is like to change in the midst of a course, because he was unable to return to Shanghai, where he had been teaching a maths course, when the lockdowns happened. Because of the time difference, he switched to asynchronous teaching, recording videos and setting tasks that “pushed their skills” but did not need to be done in real time.

The benefit of switching part way through the course was that he had had time to get to know the students and knew where they were in their learning. “You have to listen to the students and build a community where they feel they are contributing,” he said.

Erle Lim Chuen Hian, vice-provost (teaching innovation and quality) at the National University of Singapore, echoed the importance of engagement, not just with students but between the university leadership team and staff to ensure a smooth transition.

“We created quick guides, WikiHows, toolkits for e-learning, helpdesks and helplines. The senior management set up chat groups so people could ask any questions they wanted,” he said.

Lisa Elfring, associate vice-provost, instruction and assessment at the University of Arizona, also said that support for staff was key, which is why the university had developed its Teaching Models website, a one-stop shop to provide ideas and resources to support instructors when they planned for various “teaching modalities” in the next term. The site also contains links to blogs, articles and other suggestions to help instructors when planning teaching.

She explained that Arizona was recommending that instructors plan for a “robust, fully online experience, and then to view any potential in-person sessions as an opportunity to substitute some of the activities that had been planned for online”.

“We think this will result in a much better overall student experience, compared with a rapid switch to online/remote, which was what happened in spring 2020, with fairly spotty results,” she said.

Dr Lim added that if that switch did occur, it was important, amid the scramble for quality teaching techniques, not to overlook assessment. Online exams can prove a real difficulty, but Dr Lim said that his team worked tirelessly to find ways to invigilate exams from a distance. He also advised using authentic assessment − testing “higher-order skills”, such as problem-solving and critical thinking – wherever possible, because this made it harder to cheat.

One of the advantages NUS had was that Singapore had been at the forefront of pandemic management for a while. Following the Sars outbreak “that changed everything” in 2003, the university began an annual “e-learning week”, in which, for one week, all teaching and learning moves online.

Despite Covid-19 being disruptive in a way that previous pandemics had not been, teachers at the university were not completely unprepared when lockdowns began, Dr Lim explained – something that other universities around the globe may wish to emulate going forward.  

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