In this extra post, Ari Badlishah shares her experience with teaching and learning during the pandemic and reflects on some of the benefits and challenges of online learning. Ari is a Digital Engagement Officer working for the University of Edinburgh’s Online Learning Marketing Team.
I have recently completed my MSc Marketing at the University of Edinburgh during the global COVID-19 pandemic – where nearly 100% of my teaching sessions were online! Unlike many of my course mates who applied for the course before the pandemic, online teaching wasn’t something completely unexpected for me as I only applied in May 2020. I arrived in Edinburgh a few weeks into Semester 1, so I only managed to attend a few in-person tutorials before the December lockdown which continued all the way until the end of Semester 2.
Things I found beneficial about teaching methods during the pandemic:
- Self-paced recorded lectures are very accessible
Instead of being tied to a specific schedule, students had the flexibility to listen to lectures whenever they wished before tutorials. Therefore, we had more freedom over our time and could watch lectures whenever it suited us best. Moreover, could also choose the audio speed, turn on captions, or choose to rewind a certain segment, making the lectures very accessible when listening to them for the first time compared to being in an in-person lecture.
- The “Raise Hand” function allows people to speak in an orderly manner
Instead of relying on the lecturer to choose among several raised hands in a lecture hall, the “Raise Hand” function allows students to “queue” and wait their turn to speak. The tool may also give more confidence to people who would, for whatever reason, show more hesitance to raise their hands during in-person classes.
- Creative ways of teaching
Lecturers have had to creatively adapt to teaching online. One of my lecturers would regularly do interactive Mentimeter quizzes, giving out Linkedin recommendations as the prize for the winner instead of physical items as he usually did pre-COVID. Personally I felt that this made his lessons extremely fun while instilling healthy competition. He made the effort to find an intangible yet valuable prize, rather than not giving out rewards at all.
- Class is portable and mobile
Students can attend class from anywhere they wish as long as they have adequate internet connection – be it on a moving train, from a cafe, or the other side of the world. We also got to save huge amounts of time by not needing to get ready or commute to campus.
But of course, there were some downsides of teaching during the pandemic as well:
- Self-paced recorded lectures aren’t for everyone
Even though they have many benefits, keeping up with them may be a challenge for students who struggle with self-discipline, time management, or focus. Some students may skip certain segments of lectures, attempt to listen to them while doing other tasks such as cooking or doing chores, or worst of all – not watch them at all.
- Less interaction with lecturers and course mates
Most students greatly desire the social experience of campus life – and when lessons are online, they are deprived of basic things such as catch-up conversations in the hallway or spontaneously getting coffee with friends after class. Lecturers also likely do not get to know students as well as they did pre-pandemic.
- Students tend to get anxious when put in breakout rooms (at least from my experience!)
In physical tutorials, we usually know who we will be discussing with based on physical proximity, but for randomized breakout rooms you never know what to expect. It can be more nerve-racking when put in the same room as course mates we’ve never met before.
- Some students consciously “hide” and do not contribute at all unless directly prompted
It’s frustrating when you are in a breakout room and there’s someone who doesn’t turn their camera or their microphone on – especially if they’re doing it deliberately. I have even heard of students who managed to not attend tutorials at all for the whole semester without their absence being detected.
- Various other limitations of online teaching
For example, Blackboard Collaborate limits the amount of cameras that can be seen, so in my experience it’s usually only the lecturer who turns on their camera unless a student is speaking – and I’m sure it’s not ideal for lecturers being unable to see students’ faces. There’s also plenty of awkward silences after a lecturer asks a question, until one of the same few people finally answers 45 seconds later. In physical class, silence is less awkward and less long because the lecturer can read the room better.
Some priorities for remote teaching:
- Online or even hybrid learning can be a lonely and isolating experience, but lecturers can do their part to reduce that
They should get to know students and develop relationships with them – especially if they have further opportunities in in-person classes. Some other things that may help are lecturers moving in and out of breakout rooms (as if they are visiting discussion groups in a classroom), or highlighting their availability for scheduled or drop-in meetings regarding course materials.
- Lecturers should encourage equal participation from students during class
Even in face-to-face classes some students tend to avoid participating, but with online classes it’s so easy for some students to just stay “invisible”. Lecturers should try to navigate their way around this and invite students who aren’t regularly raising their “Hands” to come forward.
- The University should continue to prioritize student wellbeing
Dealing with the impact of COVID-19 has been stressful for everyone. Since students at the University come from an extremely diverse range of backgrounds, they will also have had to deal with various degrees of severity. I thought that automatically-approved extensions and assessment adjustments were fantastic initiatives.
- Online learning technology should be further improved to better mimic in-person interaction where possible
For instance, it would be great if Collaborate could accommodate more cameras to be shown at screen at once.
- Constantly ask feedback from students (and provide them the option for them to be anonymous)
Feedback should not just be requested at the end of the semester but rather consistently throughout – maybe through quick and easy forms rather than more complex rating systems. One lecturer of mine asked for live feedback through Mentimeter on what she could improve on, giving students about 5 minutes to answer anonymously. She then addressed the issues that popped up on the screen, discussed them with the whole class and confirmed our preferences, and consequently made improvements to her future lessons.
Teaching during the pandemic is no mean feat, and I applaud the efforts of all University academics and staff who made such huge, rapid changes in terms of delivering education online. The University is still providing hybrid teaching, and there seems to be a brighter future for online learning since the pandemic, so improvements must be made to make sure that online learners receive the same quality of education that traditional learners do.
Ari Badlishah is a Digital Engagement Officer working for the University of Edinburgh’s Online Learning Marketing Team. Her main role is to promote the University’s online masters programmes and free short online courses / MOOCs. Ari is eager to help people discover that they can access a wealth of academic knowledge remotely – simply by surfing the internet. Previously she worked as a Digital Marketing Intern within the same team while completing an MSc Marketing with the University.