This week, we chatted to author and university creative writing lecturer Emma Henderson about the resilience shown by staff and students – and why online teaching is more rewarding than you might think.
Tell me a little about what teaching online has been like for you.
My experience has been mostly quite positive if I’m honest. Initially it was all quite hectic and anxiety inducing, for staff as well as the students – just the newness of it, really. But I think that even then there was something quite exciting, in a way, about having to get to grips with a new way of teaching. I love teaching in any form. It was a challenge, which is a cliché of course, but it was a challenge that we had no choice about, so I thought ‘okay, let’s go for it.’ It did vary from group to group how well things went. It went really well with third years, I think, and my theory is that that was because third years already had established friendship groups – they mostly knew me as well as each other. They’ve actually been incredibly supportive of each other.
‘It was a challenge that we had no choice about’
The other thing is that, for students who are extroverted and happy to talk in class anyway, that didn’t change for them. But then you have another group of students who, in the real life classroom are really quite shy – being online has actually been quite liberating for them. You know, being able to use the chat function etc. We use that now as staff, in meetings, and in a way it’s almost better because there’s more time to say what you want. Personally I don’t always like speaking up in meetings, but I feel much more comfortable with the written word, so it’s been very useful in that sense.
I think also it’s useful in the sense that, if a discussion has moved on but you still have a point you wanted to make you can still get that out there without backtracking or interrupting.
Or even just being able to say ‘I agree with so and so’
And yeah I think there’s a supportive element to that, too..
On the other hand, I think the negatives are so obvious that there’s really not much point spelling them out. From my perspective teaching creative writing, I miss being able to model the writing process – holding the pen, the piece of paper in my hand. And working one to one, too – it works fine online, but the excitement is missing. If a student has done some really good work, of course I can verbalise it online but the body language isn’t there.
On that note, how have you felt about the ‘cameras on’ vs ‘cameras off’ situation?
‘Much as one chivvies people, some people find it really hard’
As staff, we’ve talked about that quite a lot, and quite early on I decided not to let it bother me too much if students don’t keep their cameras on – because I really sympathise with them. Of course there are the students who have their cameras off and still don’t talk or still don’t use the chat function. But to be honest, in my mind they’re the same category of students who wouldn’t engage in an in person lesson as much either. Much as one chivvies people, some people find it really hard.
Do you think going online has had an impact on that level of motivation you get from students?
I think it’s difficult to say without generalising. I’d say that for third years it’s maybe a bit easier, because the end is in sight, you have high motivation to get through it no matter what. For first years, it’s all they’ve ever known, poor things, so it’s a case of love it or hate it. It may be most difficult for second years, because they’ve had that taste of ‘real’ university life, but they still have a way to go.
‘We’ve adapted how we teach, and students have responded very well’
In terms of the quality of work, I don’t think there’s been a drop in that, particularly because we’ve adapted how we teach an awful lot to accommodate it and I think students have responded very well to that.
If anything I’ve put more effort into my work, because I have so much more free time.
Yes, and we’ve also made ourselves ironically more available on a one to one basis for consultations with students, so that helps a lot.
Is that taxing on you as staff, to offer more of your time?
I think of it as a good investment, the small amount of extra time really pays off. You can’t beat one on one.
‘Online works fine but its very black and white’
What are you looking forward to most when we can return to campus properly?
The casual stuff. Bumping into people in the corridors, chatting in the cafe, it’s underrated as a way of educating ourselves. Online works fine, but it’s very black and white – ‘Now I’m teaching and now I’m not.’ So I miss the grey areas most, that’s what I’m looking forward to.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this interview are that of the individual and do not reflect their workplace or organisation.
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