Teaching online: difficulties, tips and examples in a time of pandemic  

 Along with many academics globally, we have been scrambling to put content online given the various lockdowns we are all under due to Covid19. For so many reasons, it is an intensely difficult period for academics to manage their own (potential) existential crisis alongside the expectation that the teaching show must still go on, while several are nursing or trying to home school children. Organisationally, the higher education sector in so many countries has been – and is still being – hit with funding cuts that metaphorically go beyond fat and muscle, and into the bone. Our point here is to recognise the deeply troubling circumstances many educators face, especially those employed sessionally or on contract.

What are our options? Refuse to move face to face classes online until a proper allocation of workload time, training support and up to date equipment is made available? Scramble to keep up with the latest trends, platforms, gizmos that show how nimble/flexible/innovate [insert other neoliberal weasel words here] we are? Or do we scurry to put our teaching online, in whatever ways that we can manage, while trying to keep our sanity and good humour? Many other possibilities exist but for many, this third option has been the way forward. Many of us are motivated to support students while also trying to remain relevant in a world beset by long unemployment queues motivates many of us—at least for the time being.

We offer this blog to anyone wrestling with the challenges of moving face-to-face classes online, especially people whose current IT skills don’t match their pedagogical aspirations.  After reading a number of articles about online teaching we have noted – with some frustration – that the articles often do not give ‘nuts and bolts’ ideas for specific mechanisms to use. That is why we decided to pull together some practical ideas from a couple of sources. The first is from a request we sent to numerous colleagues who teach online. The second is from the various meetings we have been going to at our respective universities where these issues have been discussed. Accordingly, we have split the below into two sections:

(1) tips – these are more generic tips and tricks from people who currently teach online, and

(2) examples – these are more specific ideas around engagement and assessment.

While this blog is aimed primarily at those who teach animal studies from the humanities, arts and social sciences perspectives we hope that these tips but will be of use to others working in similar disciplines on different topics.

Tips:

  • Remember that decent content and positive classroom relationships are the most crucial parts of the education process. Technological bells and whistles can’t make up for this.
  • Take stock of your current IT skills. Ask others for help to figure out which are the easiest or most straightforward to navigate; and then which training sessions are worth your time attending. If you are not very confident with your IT skills then look for simpler ways to deliver your classes while building your skills. Talking powerpoints and little video recordings done on your phone, for instance, might be a possibility rather than say, live streaming lectures on your own at home.
  • Don’t stress yourself – or students – by aiming for synchronous material. Especially during the pandemic, students will have other things to focus on, building in flexibility for them (and you) might make studying more feasible for them.
  • Consider how you can keep engaging students, not just with you but also their peers. Online discussion boards, quizzes and other asynchronous activities might be good for students, and for those of us who would prefer to set up as many activities in advance in case technology fails us (or vice versa).
  • Link activities to assessment and give time frames. Open ended options tend to be under subscribed. For example, ask students to post a question and respond to two other students comments within a week of the initial post.
  • When using forum discussions engage often and ask a lot of questions to keep the discussion going. Also, point them to each other’s comments and ask them to think about things other students have said – be specific, name these students (e.g., “Sari made a great suggestion, what do folks think about her argument that …”
  • Keep up the feedback. When students post online or are involved in discussions, make sure you let them know their comments are being read.
  • Keep layouts and instructions simple but specific. Include time frames if possible. For example, Step 1: Watch this 10 minute video. Step 2: Spend around 5 minutes answering this question on the forum. Step 3: Spend around another 10 minutes reading others’ comments and reply to at least TWO other posts. This lets students at home with other obligations manage their time.
  • During this particular online teaching period (i.e. as a result of lockdowns) give students plenty of options regarding when they can interact with you. Not all of them will be able to make a set hour per week for example. Design for asynchronous learning.
  • Think about incorporating visuals. For example, set a specific task where they have to upload an image or an example of media and comment on it. This might be especially useful for those students who have English as a second language.

Examples:

In one case, I wrote 4 different case studies and gave participants an analytic tool for looking at the case studies. They then had to go into four ‘break out’ rooms to discuss the case and come up with a case formulation and report back. The participants loved that chance to talk together in small groups. The challenge for me was switching between rooms to ‘moderate’ them and give feedback during the session.

 – Dr Damien Riggs, Flinders University


[Though not needing these at the moment] I would make much use of the white board function on Zoom (for whole group interaction and knowledge building) and I would most likely use links in chat to live documents that everyone can contribute to simultaneously, as well as learning stimuli.

 – Dr Naomi Stekelenburg, QUT


I created virtual study groups on Learn for my students by automatically creating groups and connecting them to their own group forum and group chat so they could keep in contact and have social support. I thought this was especially important for those students who did not have friends in the class already. I first asked them to share what time they would usually be online before setting small tasks for them to do as a group to get them interacting. The aim of this is to provide social support, study support, and get them engaged with their peers and the course.

 – Ann-Marie Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Canterbury


I created a closed Facebook page for the students to join and we used this page during synchronous class lectures/discussions. Each week I gave the students an activation challenge to do with the topic – e.g. post a link to your favourite childhood character and state how the marketing influenced you; OR post a link to a news article which shows an unethical business practice. In class I used the posts as examples and called on the student who posted them to explain their post. The students were much happier speaking up when they were just explaining their own example. It also got them applying that week’s theory to real life before class even started! The great thing about the Facebook feed was also that I was able to ask a person who gave a new example to post a link to it live to the newsfeed for us to discuss right then and there.

– Ann-Marie Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Canterbury


Because our teaching team were not familiar with much of the online teaching technologies, we started small. At first, we created discussion boards rather than expect that we all dive into tutorials by zoom or collaborate. This gave us a chance to catch our breath, respond to student posts when we were able, and squeeze in the necessary training. We still have to practice with each other this week to feel more confident that the technology will not dominate our interactions. Alongside this we have been posting announcements and encouraging and responding to student emails with extra warmth, care and concern. The students are reciprocating this, which helps a lot. As the weeks pass, we are picking up more tips and tricks from those around us, helping us to save time but also frustration. After the break we hope to be able to offer students a greater suite of technological possibilities, but only as we feel more able to institute them

– Heather Fraser, Associate Professor in Social Work, Queensland University of Technology


I’ve been dividing my online content into blocks. This is partly to help the students concentrate – who wants to try and listen to a full 2 hour narrated powerpoint? Not me – and partly so the files aren’t huge for them to download. I start with a very short personal video of me saying hello and outlining the session. Then I add blocks. So, for example, block one could be a 20 minute narrated powerpoint. Block two could be a video to watch with instructions to take part in a guided discussion after. Block three is another narrated powerpoint, and block four asks them to read a section of a paper/chapter and discuss specific points.

 – Nik Taylor, Associate Professor in Human Services, University of Canterbury


 

Thanks to those who gave their time and their tips.

Artwork: Heather Fraser

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