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October 2020: How to teach in a pandemic

  • Dr Carina Buckley, Instructional Design Manager at Solent University, Southampton
  • Kate Coulson, Head of Learning Development at the University of Northampton
ALDinHE: Two approaches to the move online

In the first instalment of ICALLD’s ‘Symposium-over-time’ for 2020-21, Dr Carina Buckley and Kate Coulson from ALDinHE in the UK were joined over an hour by participants from all five ICALLD nations, based in cities as diverse as Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton, Wellington, Perth, Glasgow, Leicester and Plymouth.

Kate and Carina took a case study approach, presenting their experiences of the last six months and how their institutions have addressed the need to switch to online delivery in two very different ways.

Learning and teaching…then

Solent’s approach focussed on the VLE. In 2016 they had introduced the SOL (Solent Online Learning) Baseline, which aimed to open up the VLE as a learning space, rather than a repository for resources, by shifting the institutional focus away from items to be included on each module page (like readings lists and assessment briefs) to how those items could be interacted with.

The Baseline was founded on the ideas of consistency, communication, interaction and narrative context, and was supported by a template so that every module page had the same first five tabs. After two years, around 67% of all modules were reasonably compliant with the Baseline. So that was a good foundation, with still some way to go.

Over in Northampton, the development of their new Waterside Campus in 2018 provided an opportunity for major changes to teaching and learning, focussed on the use of the physical spaces. They took the radical decision to get rid of all lectures and lecture theatres, moving instead to small group teaching and teamwork, based on activities that reflect the workplace accompanied by a digitally-rich learning environment – what they termed Active Blended Learning. They also switched to hotdesking for everyone, including the VC, and gave all staff a high spec laptop so they could work flexibly.

Both universities have a non-traditional student population with a high proportion of vocational courses and an emphasis on widening participation. Both were trying to do something different in rethinking the possibilities and the resources that were available to them. And then 2020 happened.

Learning and teaching…now!

At Solent, Carina had begun the year thinking about how the SOL Baseline could work for fully online courses – an extended Baseline. This thinking got rapidly accelerated by the introduction of the Transformation Academy, a university-wide project led by the Head of Learning and Teaching that aimed to get around 2000 modules ready for online delivery in September. The Baseline became the SOL Standard and explicitly emphasises cohort identity, accessible design, formative deadlines and peer learning. In addition, they created module and course page exemplars, templates, guidance for completing the template and a set of pedagogic principles to strengthen the rationale, all within the context of a highly structured process driven from the top to support lecturers in their preparation.

Northampton found themselves in a strong position going into lockdown, as small group teaching in a blended environment had become very much the norm. The restrictions imposed nevertheless required significant adjustments on the part of the staff and students, with a group of 60 nursing students arriving in April for the start of their course facing a year wholly online. Pedagogical and technological guidance was provided to staff, and the Learning Development team continued with their project to ensure that all students had contact with LD twice in each year. As lockdown eased, Northampton also introduced Hyflex teaching, whereby part of the class attends in person with the remainder joining in online at the same time, giving academic colleagues choice about how they would deliver their teaching.

The challenges

For both Carina and Kate, the challenges encountered are not unique in themselves but are all a product of change, in itself and how it is managed. It is difficult to find resolution in a change process when the endpoint is resisted; when lecturers are biding their time until they can go back to teaching ‘normally’ again.

  • One solution has been to modify language, and speak only of ‘learning and teaching’, rather than differentiating ‘online’ learning or ‘online’ teaching.
  • Communication and connectedness has also been vital, with multiple points of contact for staff and students struggling to make the transition, and multiple means of support.
  • Above all, both institutions have embraced the changes wrought by the pandemic as an opportunity to change how we ‘do’ learning and teaching, seeing the potential in a difficult time.
And what did participants make of it?

Northampton’s model of learning delivery, including their lack of lectures, was a source of ongoing fascination, partly for its own sake and partly, along with the SOL template, for the level of top-down control and involvement over how teaching has been structured and delivered, which is not necessarily possible in other countries.

Human connection and rapport building with students was also discussed, with many institutions around the world enacting policies of regular phone calls to students. Indeed, some participants said how much they had appreciated that form of contact as students themselves.

Resourcing, particularly in the sense of digital inequalities, was also a common issue. While Northampton staff had their university-issued laptops, others working elsewhere had to make do with what they could get (although in at least one case, their personal computer was far better than anything the university had provided!).

Although there were no answers for how to manage placements, for example, as well as the hands-on, vocational courses that make up a high proportion of what Northampton and Solent offer, participants shared their learning of the last six months:

  • A supportive team with whom you can share ideas is invaluable
  • Working from home puts staff and students on a more equal footing in that it humanises both
  • Offering online learning development sessions or support has had mixed success but is generally positive

There is no word yet on whether Jacinda Ardern is available to lead other countries, but in the meantime at least we are able to share our experiences and ideas with each other. Connecting with and hearing from colleagues around the world has been affirming, thought-provoking and appreciated. Join us for the next one in a couple of months!

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