Spotlight on Remote Teaching: Reflections of a PhD tutor

Photo Credit: Suhyeon Choi, Unsplash CC0

In this Spotlight on Remote Teaching post, Lisa Howard, a senior PhD tutor in Sustainable Development, reflects on the rapid transition towards online tutoring, and the challenges that she has faced during her tutorials in the last couple weeks…

I’m a senior tutor and this is my third semester of teaching sustainable development. It’s a topic I love and really enjoy tutoring, mainly for the engagement with students – to see their ideas and understanding develop and deepen within our group activities. It’s the benefits of a face-to-face learning environment that I’ve found the most challenging aspect to adjust from when moving to the online environment.

On paper, the audio and video connection, along with being able to show slides and share a whiteboard, seemed to be a straightforward and pragmatic way to focus on a set of discussion points. However, in reality, there were a few problems that I did not expect, which were fundamentally down to not being co-located.

First, there are two important aspects of communication – body language and facial cues – that were lost in this medium. Not all students chose to switch on their webcams, and those who did appeared as tiny headshots in our video connection. Although the attendance was rather low (sometimes only two or three students in the Course Room), the inability to see one another properly meant we often inadvertently spoke over one another, and in contrast, long silences often followed after my pauses to allow students to answer. Whether or not the ability to be effectively hidden from my steely glare had a part to play, I don’t know. The outcome was that for me, this felt a bit awkward.

The second issue was that because students could not really interact within one another independent of me, there was little opportunity to have time to think together about how to answer particular questions. This tended to result in a self-conscious articulation of ideas. I became more aware that my students are first year undergrads, and have not necessarily had much experience of speaking to a group in an academic setting. This is certainly something that I’m sure they will adapt to, and I have every confidence that, within a few more online tutorials, they will find their voice.

My reflections and thoughts on improving things

We’re all still getting used to this: it’s new and strange and everyone has had very little time to learn and practise the technology. Next time, I will remind students there is a little ‘raise hand’ button to alert me and prepare me to give way to a student’s question. I will prepare the discussion points and send to the students in advance, asking them to focus their reading and come along with notes. I hope this will make the online time more productive and lively, and therefore more enjoyable for everyone.

A final thought on the challenges of working interactively online is the blurring of public and private space. I live in a small flat which I share with my partner who is a web developer and is currently working from home in the bedroom. In the everyday comings and goings of trying to live together but work apart, there are some inconvenient moments. At one point during my online tutorial, my partner wanted to pass through ‘my’ space to make his lunch in the adjacent kitchen. However, he decided to stay put in the bedroom for over half an hour for fear of the noise disturbing my tutorial. This made me feel guilty for a situation that was essentially not my fault. The blurring of living and working space is an issue when you live in cramped conditions. I’m just glad we do not have the additional auditory burden of children at home!


Lisa Howard

Lisa is a 1st year PhD student in Sociology, researching the gendered emotion work of parents acting to mitigate climate change.

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