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Taking your teaching online: what your students want you to know

As lockdown continues across much of the world, lecture halls and labs stand eerily silent. Meanwhile, academics responsible for course delivery are hard at work at home, tailoring and transitioning content for teaching online.

A shift towards the use of digital learning spaces has been underway for some time, but the coronavirus crisis has catalysed a sudden acceleration. If you are one of those tasked with making this transition, you are likely to be juggling a significant new workload with a number of other demanding professional and personal responsibilities. Maintaining anything approaching a healthy balance in these disorientating times can be a challenge: check out these suggestions for ways to do this.

It is worth remembering that periods of change like this often present valuable opportunities. When it comes to taking teaching online, these include:

  • A chance to challenge longstanding practices or long-held assumptions and adapt or improve them
  • The removal of many paywalls and barriers to access, broadening and deepening teaching and learning opportunities
  • Greater intentionality in the equipping of students for the digital lives ahead of them.

But it is also an inescapable fact that alongside these upsides come some devastating downsides, not least of which is the searing sense of loss so many of your students will be feeling. Stripped of their new-found freedom and autonomy, even the luckiest ones may be trying to work in cramped childhood bedrooms they thought they had left behind. Many finalists, in particular, are still reeling from such an abrupt, bruising and confusing end to their university career.

Some of your students will have a supportive family and a well-equipped home. But many will be struggling – dealing with anything from the pressure to help fill a sudden gaping hole in household income to shielding family members from domestic violence or grieving a loved one.

The way in which you adapt to teaching your courses online will have a significant impact on your students’ ability to continue learning successfully. With that in mind, here are three recommendations your students would like you to consider as you plan and deliver your online teaching in the weeks ahead:

  1. Be as proactively and deliberately inclusive as you can
    Your institution may have invested substantial resources in attracting students from less affluent backgrounds. Now is the time to keep the challenges they will be facing front of mind. Even in the best of times, some low-income households cannot afford reliable internet access. Those who can may still be competing for time on a shared computer or working from a phone screen. Ways to mitigate this include:
  • Checking in with students in the most difficult circumstances. Appropriate support from you now could play a key part in their continued well-being and attainment, and also in the quality and impact of your institution’s commitment to inclusion and diversity
  • Minimising synchronous work. Pre-recorded sessions give students greater flexibility. This enables them to find ways around issues such as the need to earn or care for siblings, or a noisy, overcrowded living space. It will also help ensure the inclusion of those students who now find themselves in a different time zone from you
  • Promoting and ensuring ease of access to bursaries for IT costs or equipment. Ensuring students know about other hardship funds may also be a lifeline to those previously dependent on zero-hour contract jobs to pay their bills
  • Including captions for the hard of hearing. If you are using automatic transcription, make time to scan and correct text wherever possible. It is also worth thinking through the challenges presented by live sessions that include contributions from several different people
  • Making the resources you provide mobile-friendly. Check how your slides look on a phone screen for those who have no choice but to access them in this way.
  1. Communicate frequently, clearly and simply
    Your students’ heads and hearts will be full of all they have seen, read and experienced over the last few tumultuous weeks. The confusion they are feeling will only be worsened by any lack of clarity or consistency in your communication.

    Eve, a third-year humanities student, explains: ‘Where the rubric is changed or set to change, or where deadlines are extended, I’ve been confused by the information given to me. It should be conveyed as early and clearly as possible, with scope for students to ask questions and receive a prompt reply.’

    Now, more than ever, frequent communication, careful defining of expectations and clear signposting will be crucial. Good ways to do this include:
  • Keeping communication as simple and specific as possible. Avoid long or vague instructions. A filmed introduction to your new syllabus may be much appreciated. (Be sure to film your face as you address your audience to help reassure and create connection.)
  • Streamlining the channels you and your colleagues use. If you opt for a couple of different platforms and each of your peers uses several others, your students may find themselves struggling. Choosing those platforms which are approved and supported by your institution’s technical staff may be wise
  • Creating a coherent structure for your content. Make sure it is easily navigable, for example by numbering resources, setting out the specific steps you want students to take or giving exact timings on relevant sections of films you use
  • Being explicit about when you can be contacted and how. Publicising contact hours and making sure you are available throughout that window will reassure students and also help you maintain your own boundaries
  • Prioritising feedback. For students working in isolation, your regular, detailed feedback will be invaluable.
  1. Make learning interactive
    Much of your teaching may involve presenting information for your students to receive and absorb. But finding ways to ensure that learning stays an active process despite the distance between you and your audience will go a long way in boosting learning and overall attainment. This will look different for each context, but could include getting students to collaborate to solve a problem, present an argument or answer a quiz.

    Making learning interactive will also help create and sustain vital social connections between students. You could set up a new discussion forum or encourage students to create groups where they can check commonly asked questions with each other before contacting you. Slack’s donut app is a great way to launch a buddy system between students and help reduce the damaging effects of isolation and withdrawal.

    Finally, in addition to giving students feedback on their work, be sure to seek their feedback on your performance. Using their insight to fine-tune the delivery of your online teaching now will help ensure the longer term resilience and recovery of your students from the effects of this all-encompassing crisis.

As a parent I’ve been watching my son and daughter grapple with all the confusion and weirdness, so this comes from lived experience and the heart – Jo Mitchell


Useful resources:

The Association of College and University Educators’ online teaching toolkit

Digital teaching toolkit from NYU Shanghai

The University of Portsmouth’s ‘Learning, teaching and assessment during enforced absence

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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