This week our series on remote teaching continues listening to voices from across the University by interviewing Dr. Margaret Leighton from the School of Economics and Finance. Margaret discusses what it was like moving her teaching online while the nurseries closed at the same time, and how she juggled childcare with a full-time job in the middle of a public health crisis, a job which, significantly, not only includes teaching but also research. She also tells us about the new online tools and resources she used, the changes she made to her teaching, and how she missed the kind of interaction with students that makes so much of the job of a teacher meaningful, especially here at St Andrews, where we cherish our strong relationships with our students, and see close engagement with them as part of our institutional identity and purpose.
Could you tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews?
I’m a Lecturer at the School of Economics and Finance. This is my fifth year at the University and I’m on a teaching and research contract, although lately I have been doing far more teaching than research. I lead the Masters programme on International Development Practice that is run through the graduate school. I started putting together this Masters four years ago and it has been running successfully for two years ago. Last semester, I ran this Masters and coordinated a module on it too. I was running the Masters (this year a cohort of 18) in the second semester and was coordinating two undergraduate modules in Economics at the same time: one first year module with 288 students on introductory microeconomics, and an Honours-level module of 24 students on impact evaluation econometrics.
How much had you integrated the use of technology into your teaching before the Covid-19 outbreak?
For my first-year module, I had started Panopto recordings from the start of the semester because even at that early stage, we had students who were potentially not coming back from China. I had also used Moodle quite extensively, especially with the first years, and we use Moodle quizzes, and so on, to keep the students engaged each week. The other modules I was teaching didn’t have a lot of online components. In the Honours module, I use Stata software, but until the pandemic broke out, the students could only access it from the computer room. That has since been made available everywhere on an app, but before the outbreak the students could only access it from University computers.
What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching was moving online?
St Andrews moved online a bit later than other universities but switching to online teaching certainly wasn’t a surprise at the time that the pandemic took hold here in the U.K. In addition, the switch online happened at the same time that nurseries closed and this meant that my infant took up a lot more time than before and I had to figure out how to work childcare at home while holding down a full-time job. On the second day that my daughter was home from nursery, I bought the best pair of noise-cancelling headphones I could find because if I can hear her crying, I can’t work, and if I can hear her laughing, it’s also hard to work; and my daughter is a one-year-old, so, naturally, she’s going to laugh and she’s going to cry, and we’re all in the same house. The students were also quite stressed at the time too and this was especially difficult because I was dealing with students from three modules and the Masters programme. I had around 320 students in total, for whom I was, in many cases, their first port of call for anxieties, stress, and worries, and concerns. So that was quite stressful and the task of responding to so many emails alone took a lot of time. None of those emails were the kind you could file to read later either: they were often quite pressing and coming from students who were understandably stressed. And, of course, at the same time, trying to sort out childcare, and dealing with similar kinds of worries about the pandemic as the students, was not easy.
In the end, we managed to do a good job of sharing childcare across two of us, but effectively, my workday starts when my daughter goes to bed. I can do emails and I can do a lot of things during the day but if I have to concentrate, if I have to record a lecture, that has to be after she has gone to bed. That means most work days, we are up working until 10 or 11pm and working really hard during that time too to get everything done. So life is effectively childcare and work. And, of course, relatively speaking, we’re in a lucky situation! Both of us are at the University, so both of us are on the same sort of schedule, and we only have one child and she sleeps a lot, which is great. Others are not so lucky.
How did you manage the process of moving your lectures and tutorials online?
The main decision was about the format. For my large first-year class of 288 students, I delivered the entire content of the usual 50-minute lecture in 20 minutes by delivering it in a more concise manner, cutting some of the anecdotes, for example, that usually serve to break up the 50-minute content, to help the students maintain their concentration. I chose to maintain the usual Monday, Tuesday and Thursday structure because it seemed to me that providing the students with this familiar structure would help them focus. For tutorials, more planning was needed. At the time, it was less clear to me whether live tutorials would work after Spring break when we all were trying to go online together at the same time. After all, there was a chance that everything would crash, so I decided to move to having tutorial questions solved on video, and then posted these at the start of the week, and arranged for the students to have a live questions-and-answers session at the end of week with their tutors. I also decided not to make tutorial attendance mandatory too. In the end, the system did not crash and things went relatively smoothly. The smaller Honours module was more straightforward: there was the same content to deliver, and I simply broke it up in a way that made sense. There were one or two delays but I adjusted the assignment deadlines to make up for that. I also adjusted the assignments so that the students could do them without having to use Stata software, in case they had difficulties accessing it.
All in all, my philosophy throughout was: we’re going to deliver the content that was promised in as manageable a way as we can. For next year, I have lots of plans to foster online student-to-student engagement outside of class too. It’s important to see that tutorials are also a bonding opportunity for students rather than merely an opportunity to learn about and discuss the content. I think attendance at online tutorials will need to be mandatory next year, with all the usual processes in place for students with a reasonable excuse for not attending.
Did the process of moving online make you think differently about your teaching and the best way to deliver it under these circumstances? Did you make any changes?
Yes. As I mentioned, before the pandemic changed things, I delivered the same content of the big first year module in 50 rather than 20 minutes. Previously, I would teach a concept and then have the students work on their own, or with their neighbour, and then we’d go over whatever they had done, and then move on to another concept. In the shorter, more concise lectures, all of those interactions and breaks were gone. I simply moved steadily through all of the material, but without the fun anecdotes, and so on. In a way, this was quite dry; but it was also quite succinct and efficient. This time I also finished each lecture with a question, which was one of their tutorial questions, and that followed right on from the material that we had reviewed. I had some good feedback on this overall structure too. Students liked the short lecture format. They liked being able to pause during the lecture recording when I was going through the concepts. When they had watched the 20-minute lecture, they could go ahead themselves and work on that problem. I think that those lectures were probably more useful for them in revision than my 50-minute recordings too: they were more to the point.
You are a Lecturer in the School of Economics and Finance. Have you discovered any aspects of the new technology to be especially practically useful for the teaching of your subject in particular?
Using an an iPad or a tablet in lectures has made a big difference to me because they make things so much easier and so much clearer than trying to draw on a whiteboard. That was a big innovation for me and that has carried over into my online teaching. I also used an open education textbook for the first time. It’s called ‘The Economy’ and it’s by CORE, the name of the group which put it together. It was created as an open source, free online textbook and it’s a new way of teaching economics which I think has gone well. Given that it is free and online, it meant that when the students went home, they all had access to their textbook which worked out especially well this year. I’ve also appreciated the quiz feature on Moodle. It keeps students working every week and that is quite helpful.
What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own experience?
I was managing quite a few staff teaching online this semester and I did give people some advice. Here it is. (1) Never listen to your lecture over again. We all hate the sound of our own voices, just post it! (2) Don’t feel you have to take the same amount of time that you took in lectures previously. Many people feel that they are cheating students if they move to the 20-minute lecture format, for example, but that’s not true and the students need to know that it’s not true as well. Less is more when it comes to videos and, as I said previously, in the case of lectures, what matters is that the content is delivered. More generally, I think we need to rethink how we measure contact hours when we plan for any online teaching in the future. Certainly, in this case, there were a lot of hidden costs. And those hidden costs need to be made more explicit so that we get a measure of the true cost of teaching online. The flip side of that is: it might be fine to count the costs, but who is going to pay for them? Will we be hiring new people to cover these new costs?
Given what you know now, what would you say to someone apprehensive about moving their teaching online?
If you have the option, don’t teach online, teach in person because that’s what we’re trained to do, that’s what we were hired to do, that’s what we’re good at, and, at St Andrews, that is what our strength is. Also, in the context of the current crisis, we need to be careful not to confuse online teaching with what we’ve been doing to get through a public health crisis. Between now and September, I think that the need to think about how to improve the experience will be a big challenge. For example, I can improve the experience by spending my whole summer redesigning my module for online teaching but I’m actually supposed to be doing research this summer. I’ve not had time for research since December and that’s not great, since my contract specifies that I must do teaching and research and I am assessed on my research too. And, as I said at the beginning, so much is on hold until nurseries come back. I’m concerned that while in March and April it was recognised as being heroic to pulling out all the stops in the way we have been doing, somehow, now, it has become expected.
What are your favourite online resources for teaching Economics?
In addition to the online text book I mentioned before, another economics-specific website that is very useful and helps students to understand different kinds of economic models is https://economics-games.com
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I find that teaching online is less rewarding, and it’s not a teaching experience that I enjoy, to be honest. I never realised how just seeing student faces in lecture helps make teaching feel meaningful for me. You can see that more people are nodding than are looking at their phones, and that’s great. Whereas talking into my computer at 9pm on a dark night, with no immediate student responses that I could gauge in the moment, was difficult. And while many students did email a few weeks later to say that they appreciated and enjoyed the lectures, you don’t hear that until afterwards. All in all, I much prefer teaching in person.
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