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.

 

 

Remote Teaching Case Studies: Camiel Leake, School of Chemistry

Our series on remote teaching continues our conversation with a diverse range of people involved in teaching and learning at St Andrews. We’re listening not only to the voices of lecturers and tutors, but also to graduate and undergraduate students, all of whom have been learning online since the ‘lockdown’ began. This week, we’re interviewing Camiel Leake, a third year undergraduate in the School of Chemistry, currently on placement in Basel, Switzerland. Camiel has been learning online since he began his placement last September and talks about using online materials, how learning online has helped him with a new way of thinking and working, and about how tutorials are going. He stresses the importance of a study place with no distractions, dedicated to study only and thinks that the best thing to do with online learning is just to plunge in. Just do it!

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

I am currently in my third year at St Andrews, studying Medicinal Chemistry, while on placement with Roche, in Basel, Switzerland. I’m taking level 4000 modules. Next year I will be the School of Chemistry student president.

How much had you integrated the use of technology into your study habits before the Covid-19 outbreak? What did you use until now?

I’m away from St Andrews, so, apart from my work in the lab here in Basel, all of my university work has been online this year. That meant that I had adjusted to working online before the pandemic started. We got lecture notes online in the form of .pdfs, which I worked through myself, and which were then followed by tutorial questions and finally an open book exam. We also had to use an online program, Gaussview, for one of the modules.

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

It made sense: universities could become a “corona-hub” where an outbreak could happen and thrive quickly.

How do you manage the process of learning and studying online?

At first, I struggled a lot. Studying online is different from studying in person in St Andrews. While I was disciplined before, in a way, you have to be even more disciplined when studying online. You have to learn in a different way too. At first, I tried to study and learn the way I had done before when I was living in St Andrews: I’d write down everything that the lecturer said, and then spend hours in the library working through any given mechanism/equation/theory over and over again until I got it right, every time. This did not work for me studying online while working in Switzerland. I just did not have the time to do this because I work during the day in the lab. But I now also think that studying like that is not a constructive way of learning. The long distance online learning, with open book exams, was more focused on understanding of the concepts and once you understand the concept properly you can apply it to everything.

Did the process of moving online make you think differently about the way you approach your study? Did you make any changes to your study habits?

Yes. For me, online learning coincided with working in a lab, where the knowledge you must have is less of the rote-memorization kind and more of the understanding-of-concepts kind.  My experience of online learning is that it is more focused on the understanding of concepts. This helps a lot when it comes to working in a lab. In labs, you work on things that neither you, nor anybody else, have ever seen before, thus having a solid grasp of the concepts is a lot more valuable than memorizing each individual example by rote. I am not saying one is better than the other: you must still know examples. But for me, the shift to concepts really started to click with the online learning and it really helped with my work in the lab.

The other change I should mention was to my study space. Since the pandemic started, I’m not at the lab and am working at my flat. At the beginning, before the virus broke out, I used to go through the St Andrews online lecture notes in a nice café, after finishing work in the lab. But since we cannot go to cafés at the moment, my balcony has become that place. I’ve discovered that I really need a separate study place with no distractions, somewhere dedicated to work only, somewhere I go when I only do work.   I think it’s important to be able to close the door on work at the end of the day too and having a separate study space helps with that.

In general, how has your student experience of learning and studying online been?

Pretty good! The modules I’ve taken this year are well established and well organised.

You are an undergraduate at the School of Chemistry. Which technologies have you found especially practically useful for studying Chemistry in particular?

Chemdraw gets you to draw molecules on the computer and it has been useful. I’ve also been using more online resources than I normally would: organic-chemistry.org is something I’ve used a lot too. Following the outbreak, a lot of other universities and research groups have made their notes openly available. Baran’s notes on Hetrocyclic Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute are especially helpful.

In particular, what has been your experience of having undergraduate supervision online been?

It has been good. Lecturers respond to questions very fast. One downside is that the discussion is more difficult, and I feel that technology can get in the way of the discussion you would have when asking a lecturer a question in person.

What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own student experience of learning and studying online?

Just do it. The hardest part is starting with online learning. Then you just need to keep doing it. Maybe hide your phone!

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

No; that’s all.

 

Remote Teaching Case Studies: Valerie McGuire, School of Modern Languages

This week, as part of our series on remote teaching and learning, we are interviewing Dr.Valerie McGuire from the School of Modern Languages. This is Valerie’s first year teaching at St Andrews and she comes to online teaching with some experience in the United States using what’s sometimes called ‘hybrid-learning’ or ‘blended-learning’, or simply put, in jargon-free terms, a combination of both face-to-face and remote instruction. Valerie illustrates the way she used “think-pair-share” groups on Microsoft Teams while teaching Comparative Literature and discusses how she coordinated students living in different time zones, how learning is slower in this format, and how this can be an advantage when doing close-reading assignments in particular. Along the way, we get a strong impression of how important good judgement and sensitivity are to the role of teaching and of the value of literature for developing our imaginations, our capacity for empathy and critical reflection, and, above all, for finding the words to discuss and reflect upon what are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable subjects.

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

I am a lecturer in the School of Modern Languages jointly appointed to the Italian and Comparative Literature departments. It is my first year here at St Andrews.

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

Not much. At St Andrews, before the pandemic, my use of technology extended to power-point presentations and recording lectures with Panopto. At another institution, I previously experimented with “hybrid-learning” (a combination of face-to-face and remote-instruction) in the foreign language classroom. I worked at that time with the Canvas learning platform, which has been specifically designed for remote instruction and provides an easy, user-friendly interface for integrating different types of media and quickly writing forms of interactive assessment. Nevertheless, even with state-of-the-art technology, that experiment showed me that student engagement drops off quicker in a remote-instruction setting than it does in the traditional classroom. It’s just much easier to flake out on a computer than it is an actual person.

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

All my tutorials are discussion-based and the main learning objective is always to develop students’ skills of critical inquiry and expression, whether orally or in writing. I could not envision a format that did not involve simulating this active-learning pedagogy. Based on my previous experience, I also wanted to ensure that my students still felt like they were getting a bit of face-to-face interaction that could support a new focus on assignments that they would have to do on their own without classroom support. I was also concerned about how many library resources the students would be able to access for their assessments.

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

I switched to doing all my tutorials over Microsoft Teams. I experimented briefly with Zoom, which I like because of the breakout room feature that allows students to pair off and can help instructors to replicate the “think-pair-share” strategy of an active-learning classroom. But I abandoned it when the university advised against using the platform and given all the discussion about Zoom’s weaknesses in terms of data security. Instead, using the vernacular of MS Teams, I decided to put in place “Team Leaders” and designate specific students ahead of class that were in charge of calling over Teams the “think-pair-share” groups that I also decided on before our meeting. I think this strategy worked fairly well, and at a minimum, encouraged students to feel like they should still “attend” tutorial even though we had switched to an online format. I also recognized the need for non-synchronous teaching in light of the different time zones (I’ve actually been in the US since the pandemic and have a different timetable now too). So, I dialled back curriculum I might have otherwise taught through discussion and moved to recording lectures with Panopto. I did find the process of preparing a lecture for recording much more time-consuming since it means writing a script in addition to preparing a power-point presentation.

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?

Although all concepts and learning take a bit longer in this format (it feels a bit like teaching while submerged under five feet of water), I found this slowness could be productive for our discussion. Close reading of novels and films in an online format may be a bit closer in likeness to the experience of solitude that occurs when reading or watching a film. I think I maybe even grew a little bit as an instructor because I found I could let our discussion flow more naturally than I might ordinarily do. In the classroom, students sometimes resist speaking up because they think they do not have the right “answer.” But when we met on MS Teams I had the impression that sometimes they were being less judgmental of their own thoughts.

You are a Lecturer based at the Department of Italian. Have you discovered any aspects of the new technology to be especially practically useful for the teaching of languages in particular? 

This semester I am not teaching language, only literature and culture.

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

Close-reading assignments from my experience work well in this format. Ask students to say why a particular passage or scene interested them, and you might be surprised how much they have to say. And here, I do not know if this is an effect of the remote-teaching or more due to the circumstance of the pandemic itself, but there were also times when material took on a different meaning in the new context. In a Comparative Literature seminar, I had a very strange opportunity to discuss a dystopian, conspiracy-theory Italian novel from the 1970s, and to ask the students if they could relate it to the present. One of my discussion questions ended up being, ‘based on what you have read so far and understood of Pasolini, what do you think he might have to say about us “meeting” remotely over computer software to discuss his unfinished “novel” while we wait out a global pandemic?’ The answers to this question from the students reminded me of the value of literature to open up new pathways and to give us the strength to discuss and reflect on difficult and uncomfortable subjects.

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

There is definitely at least one aspect, maybe more, of your teaching style you will discover by moving online. All your strengths and weaknesses as an instructor will appear to you as if under a magnifying glass.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

That’s it!