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!