Remote Teaching Case Studies: Jacqueline Nairn, School of Biology

This is the sixth of our series on interviews about remote teaching. This week we are interviewing Dr. Jacqueline Nairn from the School of Biology. Jacqueline has a considerable amount of experience integrating technology and online resources into her teaching and thinks both can be transformative for those with disabilities. She talks about beginning to use technology in High School 35 years ago in the East End of Glasgow and then later using Panopto both at University of Stirling and here at St Andrews.  To prepare for online teaching at St Andrews, Jacqueline attended an Oxford Brookes online course herself and she says that it really helped her to appreciate what it is like to be a student in this type of learning environment. She describes a range of online resources that she uses to teach second and third year Biochemistry and finds the education portal of the Protein Data Bank website especially useful to teach ‘real world’ examples and to give students the opportunity to explore learning online for themselves.  She emphasises the importance of making clear to the students how to make best use of online materials. Considering how hectic this semester has been for everyone, she was delighted to discover that student grades were not at all affected by online delivery.

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

I’m a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biology and I’ve been Deputy Director of Teaching since arriving in St Andrews six years ago. I’m also the Degree controller for the four year BSc Biochemistry programme and the five year MBiochem programme and am the School Disability Coordinator. I’m a big supporter of using online resources and recordings: they can be transformative for someone with a disability.

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

My first use of technology was during my first paid job in High School in the East End of Glasgow. That was 35 years ago! I compiled Higher Biology multiple choice questions on a ZX Spectrum, a learning tool for Higher Biology pupils back then. I earned enough to buy my first year university text books.

More recently, I recorded all lectures from the moment the University adopted Panopto (and previously at the University of Stirling). As the module organiser for our Biochemistry placement module, I teach our Year 4 students on placement online, previously via Skype but now via Teams. In preparation for this, I attended an Oxford Brookes online course called How to Deliver an Online Course and it really helped me to appreciate what it is like to be a student in this type of learning environment.

Finally, I use a range of online resources to teach second and third year Biochemistry.  The education portal of the Protein Data Bank website is very useful: it’s great for teaching ‘real world’ examples and for giving students the opportunity to explore learning online for themselves. I also use online materials from the book Exploring Proteins that I published with Nicholas Price about 10 years ago. We included an accompanying online resource for lecturers with problem sets, experimental protocols, and sample data, all intended to help build student confidence with handling biochemical data.

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

I wasn’t daunted.  However, I thought that moving our practicals for Biochemistry BL2306 online would need a lot of planning to ensure that we delivered similar learning outcomes that would build students’ confidence with data handling.

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

My lectures were recorded previously, so this made things quite straightforward. Online tutorials were organised in a way similar to face-to-face tutorials except that they were offered across three time zones (10am, 2pm and 6pm BST). All students were given a series of tasks and we discussed how they might approach them.

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?

In addition to moving materials online, we needed to make clear to the students how to make best use of the materials.  The materials also had to be interactive to enable the students to practice experimental design and data analysis and to develop their understanding of biochemical processes. I think that we need to be mindful of a lack of equality in learning environments and technology availability too.

You are a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biology. Have you discovered any aspects of the new technology to be especially practically useful for the teaching of your subject in particular?

I have been thinking about how to use some of the technology for the future. First, I’d like to see whether we could put together dual mode delivery for practicals. One approach would be to use Labster, the immersive software that gives students the experience of being in the lab. But another would be to work with what we already have and use Teams to make lab groups composed of both onsite and offsite students, to give students the opportunity to work as part of a team planning an experiment and analysing the outcomes, as well as using it to observe the practical process. Secondly, I can see ways to repurpose a lot of the recorded materials. For example, we could use the recording of practical classes to alleviate the anxiety, sometimes felt by students, about entering the lab environment by allowing the students to observe the lab and the practical process before attending the practical class. Lab recordings would also help students who are unable to attend their practical class. I have some ideas about how to scale-down and repurpose some of the recordings of practical classes and lectures for some public engagement activities too.

What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own experience?

Take on online course so that you have a sense of what it is like to be a student in this environment. Keep things simple; seek feedback and build from there.

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

Speak to colleagues if you are anxious about moving your teaching online and ask about their experiences. In many respects, it’s nice to be able to jump in from the comfort of home: you can trial recordings and teaching materials and tweak them until you are happy with them. After a few online teaching experiences, you will not notice or even think about the technology. You’ll be focused only on the teaching and learning.

What are your favourite online resources for teaching Biology?

I really like the Protein Data Bank website, especially the section ‘Molecule of the Month’! It’s also a big hit with the students. I also use the enzyme database https://www.brenda-enzymes.org/ and the Bioinformatics resource portal https://expasy.org/.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I learned a lot from recording of BL2306, the protein purification lab class. I was reassured to see that grades did seem to be not impacted by online delivery.