We chatted to Dr Rebecca Bowler about the unexpected positives of teaching online – and what online university has been like from the other side of the screen.
I’m really curious to hear about your experience of online university – there’s a lot of emphasis on the student experience but it can’t have been easy for the teaching staff either, can it?
Yes, so when we first moved online in March it was all very sudden, we’d all spent a couple of months thinking: ‘Oh, COVID, that won’t be a big deal it’s not going to be a huge pandemic or anything’, and then suddenly it was and from my perspective that happened so quickly. There were, I think, three days during which we realised we’d be moving online, and then had to actually be online. So that initial shift to online teaching was really hard, because none of us knew what the platforms were or how to use them. I think I’d used Zoom once before in my whole life. So suddenly I was thinking: ‘So what are we using?’ ‘Is it fair to get students to download Zoom if they’ve never used it before?’ Initially I used Google Hangouts, and it felt like I’d gone back to the 90s using MSN messenger which was actually pretty cool. It gave people some time to think about their responses rather than being put on the spot.
I remember doing one of your modules during the transition and it actually definitely looked smooth to us, even though it might not have felt like it for you.
“Great, so what is Teams?”
Eventually I was made aware that there’s an accessibility issue with that, because some students – if you’re dyslexic for example – might struggle to keep up with the chat. Over the summer we moved to Microsoft Teams as part of the university roll out, which became easier then because that choice had been made for us. Then we sort of had to go ‘Great, so what is Teams?’ and honestly there are still some teething issues a year on – I’m learning new things as recently as last week.
That’s actually something I’d noticed, is that oftentimes teaching staff aren’t just teaching their modules, but are teaching students how to use Teams properly and navigate online university, so that’s an extra burden.
Yeah, and there are training videos provided by the University so I have that to fall back on, but we are basically all just learning as we go along. The other main issue then is how to engage students when no one is actually ‘there’. A lot of the teaching I normally do involves getting you to talk amongst yourselves before you feed back ideas – of course, none of that is really possible in the same way.
You touched on it when you mentioned response times, but do you think there are any positives to online university that perhaps aren’t so present face to face?
“It’s actually more democratic”
Yes, a few! One that really surprised me that I quite liked – especially for third years just because they already know and are comfortable with each other – is the raise hands function, it’s amazing. If I bring up the participants list it will show me who’s raised their hand in what order – i can’t do that in real life, you’re looking around the room and you can’t tell who was first. It’s revolutionary. You’re being fair but also students are responding to the ideas in the order in which the ideas are happening. It’s actually more democratic.
I like as well that in the chat function we obviously have issues with access to tech and decent wifi speed, some students have generally bad wifi speed so they can’t have their cameras on and sometimes drop in and out – the chat function works really well for those students who don’t have the tech, in that it allows them to catch up.
Do you think the impact on students has been noticeable? Not necessarily in terms of their performance, but in terms of motivation, that sort of thing?
“They just don’t have the time or the emotional energy”
Yes, and on a few different levels. With everyone feeling so overwhelmed, a lot of them have been saying they just don’t have time or emotional energy to contribute as often when assessments are due and with the added anxieties of the pandemic. Organising our teaching style to account for that has been easier this year because we sort of know we’ll be online at least for the immediate future, rather than just waiting to see whether I’m going to work tomorrow, which was the case last semester.
I agree that the discussion boards are difficult in terms of structure and discipline – you’re left to your own devices.
Becky: I agree, it’s about having a schedule – everything else in life is so unstructured at the minute so it’s nice to be able to say ‘It’s Tuesday at one o’clock which means I’m doing this’ – it gives your life and learning some structure.
In that sense, then, uni has had a positive impact on the chaos of general life – at least for me – in that it’s something to focus on, something that’s steadfast and structured when nothing else really is.
Disclaimer: All views in this interview are that of the individuals and do not represent the views of their workplaces or organisations.