Remote Teaching Case Studies: Jorge Sarasola Herrera, School of Modern Languages

For the next few weeks in our series on remote teaching, we will be listening not only to the voices of those involved in teaching, but also to undergraduates and graduate students who have been learning online since the ‘lockdown’ began in the U.K. We’re interested in hearing about how they have found working with online materials, how they have managed their study space, and what they have to say about the experience of the process as a whole. This week we’re interviewing Jorge Sarasola Herrera who, in his role as a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages, is in the interesting position of being both a student and a teacher. In a short space of time, Jorge went from being a bit of a technology-sceptic to being a keen devotee, and came up with some really innovative ideas for teaching online. In his role as a postgraduate student, Jorge emphasises the importance of good online library resources. In his role as a teacher, he emphasises trying to help students to stay connected with one another (inside and outside of class) in this age of isolation. At the end of this interview, you can see Jorge’s four-legged friend, Tiggy, making sure that he does not forget to take breaks!

Could you tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews?

I am a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages. Last semester I taught Spanish and this semester I have been tutoring in Comparative Literature.

How much had you integrated the use of technology into your teaching before the Covid-19 outbreak?

Very little; it has never been my forte.

What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching was moving online?

As someone who comes from abroad and has seen a number of HE education systems, I have always held the UK HE system in high esteem due to its use of tutorials as a pedagogical approach (at least in the Arts, which is the world I know best) which I think sets UK HE apart. So, while lectures might not change that much, I was concerned about how I could replicate the effective learning environment fostered by a tutorial setting.

How did you manage the process of moving your lectures and tutorials online?

In CO1002 there was a lot of teamwork led by the module coordinator, Dr Katie Jones, and by Prof Margaret-Anne Hutton, to try and find a tutorial system which we all felt comfortable using. Lectures were delivered via Panopto and we used Teams chats for our tutorials (as a sort of online forum). Before each seminar, students would have to answer questions and post their responses online. Then I would go ‘live’ and engage with their responses in written form for the duration of the actual tutorial, asking follow-up questions and encouraging discussion among them. The rationale for this was that video conferencing would exclude students who couldn’t participate live due to being in different time zones. In an online forum, they could participate in the tutorial before/after it took place.

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! I went from being a technology-sceptic to a keen devotee. My thinking was: I cannot really replicate the context of a tutorial remotely, so how can I adapt the new tools offered by this format in order to enhance my current teaching style? And I came up with a few ideas. I encouraged students to use ‘tagging’ and ‘emoji reactions’ to interact with one another in their discussions. I used online polls and quizzes a lot more than usual. For example, I asked students to rank the texts read this semester according to different criteria. This created data in real time, and then we all analysed the results collectively to examine their choices in a more reflective manner. For another class, I asked a couple of students to act as moderators for an activity (i.e. as tutors). This could be quite daunting in a real tutorial, but it was a lot easier for them to do behind a screen. The main downside was that attendance was lower than usual, so I tried my best to keep students engaged with the module and tried to help them connect with one another (inside and outside of class) in this age of isolation.

You are a PhD Student at the School of Modern Languages. Have you discovered any aspects of the new technology to be especially practically useful for the teaching of literature in particular?

As I taught plays this semester, I made use of Youtube videos in order to analyse aspects of the performance/staging. This worked a lot better remotely as students had the freedom to pause/re-watch clips as they saw fit. Overall, I would say that this new system works well for literary studies, since it gave students a bit more time to produce thoughtful responses as they were writing. Thus, the quality of their comments was very good, and it allowed for a more meaningful exploration of texts. Some students of literature sometimes feel more comfortable writing rather than speaking and this provided them with a more comfortable environment to participate in tutorials. Whilst in seminars students can sometimes speak either too much or too little, here most of them ‘talked’ about the same amount.

You also see things from the point of view of a postgraduate PhD student. How has your postgraduate student experience been?

As long as you can access the materials you need for your research – which diverges greatly amongst students and between disciplines – it is possible to continue with your work from home relatively unscathed. Having said that, the crisis has affected the ability of some PhD students to research effectively, so I welcome the University’s decision to let students apply for an extension free of cost.

What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own experience both as a postgraduate student and as a tutor involved in teaching?

As a student, my days started to feel a bit sluggish after a few weeks of working from home. Since then, I have been using a variation of the ‘Pomodoro’ technique to structure my workdays, with intense working periods followed by scheduled breaks, which has been very successful at reinvigorating my research. I’ve also been following some helpful advice I found online about working from home: ‘commuting’ by having a short walk before starting your working day; having a very clear division both in terms of time and space between work and rest; watching your posture if you lack good office chairs; scheduling your reading of the news to avoid being absorbed by the news cycle.

As a tutor, adapting, experimenting, and asking questions were all essential. Adapting: the nature of the medium forced me to change my teaching strategies. Experimenting: not everything went smoothly (group work, for example, was not a huge success), but other innovative methods worked a treat. Asking: I wanted students to share their views on how remote teaching was going so that they could shape the process as well.

Given what you know now, what would you say to someone apprehensive about moving their teaching and learning online?

Having always felt a bit uncomfortable about online meetings, I found it remarkable how straightforward it has been to transfer these interactions online. I suspect the main downside is not so much to do with online learning, but with managing the complicated effects that the crisis – and lockdown – have on all of us, where it is tricky just to get on with ‘business as usual.’

As a tutor, I was gleefully surprised that when I encouraged students to provide anonymous feedback on how things were going, over 40% said that they felt they were getting more value out of online teaching than out of ordinary tutorials. We managed to cover more ground in each session and as their responses were more elaborate, discussion was often more nuanced. So, I would say: embrace the new medium and try to look for the opportunities offered by this format. As long as the hardware is working, there are no reasons to be late, so you have 60 (instead of 50) minutes; students who are quieter in tutorials may engage more from the comfort of their own home; everything you do is recorded which helps students revise.

As both a student and a tutor, I was acutely aware of the challenging circumstances in which many of my teachers and students might find themselves and, in the case of the students, this may have impacted on their engagement with the module. Asking students who have been slightly disengaged if they were all right and needed help was very useful to understand the diversity of complex situations they were having to face since lockdown.

What are your favourite online resources to teach Spanish?

As I have not taught Spanish this semester, I am not in the best position to answer this compared to some of my colleagues. However, quarantine has made some very interesting cultural resources from the Hispanic world available to all. Two iconic Spanish museums, Prado and Reina Sofía, have produced good-quality audio-visual content in order to visit museums from home. The theatre streaming service, Teatroteca, made available some of its plays. Latin American cinema is freely available at Retina Latina; cinema from Chile and Argentina can be found on Ondamedia and Cine.AR respectively.

On learning Spanish, there are some well-established YouTube channels and websites, such as Butterfly Spanish, Why Not Spanish, Spanish Pod, Don Quijote or The Spanish Blog. Lyrics Training is useful to practice your listening through popular music. Some language apps, where the best version is normally by paid subscription, have made some their contents available for free during lockdown, such as Rosetta Stone, Babbel and Fluent Forever.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Not having to shave is a bonus!

Photo: Jorge with Tiggy who makes sure that he takes breaks!