In on-ground education the quantity of contact hours is considered a measure of educational quality. Contact time is traditionally defined by academic work that takes place in physical classroom-based instruction: the lecture, the practical, the seminar, the tutorial etc. Essentially, it is perceived as seat-time in a physical location. However, what really defines quality actually has little to do with the space contact takes place in, rather than the ways in which educators and students are present in that space and the opportunities available to learn.
When we understand the essence of what is important in terms of contact in education it becomes easier to think about what that may look like in different spaces, whether it is on-ground or online. Right now real-time video-conferencing may see like a great stand-in for on-ground contact, but is it?
Since the start of the year the world has become more online than it ever has been before. Our students are more online than they ever have been before. Covid-19 has moved their work, their social life, and family connections into a virtual space. There are some important factors to consider in providing predominantly video-based teaching to students at this time:
1. As an academic working fully online, you can feel wiped-out after the webinar series you just hosted, or the back-to-back online meetings you just attended. It is all the work of on-ground education with fewer of the benefits that exist around the edges – the spontaneous conversations, the visits to the coffee shop, the humour – there is no doubt it is different, and hard. Our students feel this too. Why attend a real-time online lecture if it is recorded? Where is the added value? Studies of lecture capture in Universities have shown that in most cases students are not put off attending the on-ground lecture, social reasons being one of the main factors. It does not work so well in reverse.
2. Education needs to be flexible, both for students and educators, which means there are serious logistical challenges to be able to commit to being available at a particular time. This isn’t new, it happened in BC (Before Coronavirus), and is a feature that universities like UCEM and the Open University address. But it’s now more of an issue across the sector in a situation where we are physically locked down. Students and academics will be experiencing multiple issues around lockdown orders, changes to their work and employment, challenging internet connections and bandwidth, and shifting responsibilities around caring for others. This raises concerns about equity and will be even more of a challenge if more people get sick.
3. Providing lengthy real-time or recorded lectures in lieu of other forms of contact will end-up encouraging ‘teacher-centred education’, without a method to facilitate multi-way interaction which is the essence of active learning. It also can add to the feeling of isolation at a particularly difficult time.
It is possible to be present in a variety of ways online that can support, enhance or even positively transform the student learning experience. Presence is what our students need now more than ever. Below are some of the main strategies that can be embedded to develop presence online in a meaningful and sustainable way, and does not rely on Zoom!
- Care: The need for a fundamental sense of care and compassion has never been as important than it is right now. Start the day by asking how everyone is, and do not be afraid to use ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘we’ in your narrative. Flag the student support services available in your weekly announcements, alleviate the pressure on students to perform as they would do BC. Studying online is different and takes getting used to. Studying online in a pandemic makes it even more so.
- Focus on the essentials: You can’t do everything at this time. Focus on getting down to the essentials — What do students need to be able to do by the end of the semester? Ensure it is conveyed to them as what they will ‘be able’ to do. Work backwards from there in identifying relevant learning resources and activities.
- Provide a weekly overview: Provide an introduction at the start of each week explaining the learning points for the week ahead, why they are relevant, and how they relate to the assessment. Outline the activities that should be completed and how they relate to the learning points. You could opt to include a video to give a more informal and personable intro.
- In-week support: Host a weekly Q&A session or surgery where you are online in your video-conferencing platform or forum within a specific time-frame so that students can get timely answers to their questions. To provide more flexibility let students know that they can submit questions in advance. Find out if your VLE can accept anonymous questions which will provide those who are nervous about speaking-up with a voice.
- Provide regular feedback: Be as present as you can be on the discussion forums or other faculty communication tools in place, but you do not have to respond to everything! If you ask students to post their answers, ideas, or work as part of a weekly learning activity you can give general feedback to everyone in a weekly round-up – either as text, video or audio (research shows that the latter two are more effective and appreciated). Other tools are available for students to post work that may be more appropriate for your discipline, for instance FlipGrid (video) or Padlet (images).
- Create study communities: Put students into small groups and have them work together. They can utilise each other as subject and IT support to alleviate demand on faculty. If numbers of students allow then you can set up tutorials with the groups to check in and provide support any common areas of difficulty.
- Set up online office hours. This enables individual students to book dedicated time with you. Tools exist to support you to define dedicated hours such as youcanbookme.com. Many students feel unsure about approaching a tutor. Making it clear and open when you are available alleviates this anxiety and also is kind to your diary!
- Create mini tutorials: Create short, byte-sized recordings (less than 8 minutes) that cover core theories, threshold concepts and tricky ideas. These can be posted in forums or as a stand-alone resource.
- Flip the classroom: Perhaps one for post-lockdown, but certainly a feature of best practice (although you could choose to implement elements of this model now). Rather than provide lectures or presentations in real-time, post slide-decks or upload previous webinar/lecture recordings to the VLE. If these require revisions post a short video or commentary to explain this, or even (for those who dare) turn this is into a learning activity where students are asked what has changed. Use your time to run real-time workshops which focus on problem solving, debate and group work or to go over difficult concepts. Explore options for splitting students out into break-out rooms so they can work in small groups on activities, or use polling software to get a feel for students understanding on particular topics which you can then address on the fly. Enabling students to be in the centre of the learning