Remote Teaching Case Studies: Margaret Leighton, School of Economics and Finance

 

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.

 

Remote Teaching Case Studies: Naomi Abayasekara, School of Classics

This week in our series on remote teaching and learning we are interviewing third year undergraduate Naomi Abayasekara from the School of Classics. Naomi was already familiar with standard online resources for reading articles and helping with translation before teaching moved online at St Andrews, but having lectures and tutorials online was a new experience for her (as it was for most students and many staff too). From this perspective of an undergraduate, she offers us some interesting insights about how things went during the transition to online teaching. Naomi was impressed by how quickly lecturers adapted to the new circumstances and says that clear and frequent communication from members of staff at the School of Classics reassured her and meant that she always knew how things would work. She also tells us that she still prefers reading actual physical books and that she misses the chance encounters and exchanges that one has on campus in St Andrews itself. What’s more, she thinks that working at home is not as easy as some people might imagine it to be. While she was lucky to have access to study space and a desk, she thinks that there are still more distractions at home than at the Library; and having more than one family member working at home means that it is harder to concentrate, especially when you can hear your dad in online meetings next door!

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

I’m a third year Classics student.

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

To a very limited extent! I mainly used technology to read articles online (although where it was available, I always preferred to read the physical copy from the library), and I used online tools for translation help (such as Perseus) but again, I also combined this with physical copies of the text and grammar books.

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

It wasn’t a surprise, given that many other universities were doing the same thing. I was apprehensive about how it would work, but was reassured by frequent communication both from the University and from my lecturers.

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

It was alright, given that everyone was in the same boat and that it was such a strange time for everyone. Luckily, I already had access to a desk and study space at home, though it was difficult at times because my dad was also trying to work from home so it was sometimes hard to concentrate when I could hear him in meetings all day!

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?

Not really, I know that I still prefer to work without using my laptop too much and I don’t like working at home as there are frequent distractions. Given the choice, I would definitely prefer to study in the silence of a physical library using physical resources, but in the circumstances it worked ok.

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

It has been largely very positive, I have felt well-supported by the department, and there has been frequent communication by different members of staff at each stage of the process, so we all know exactly how things are going to work. However, obviously I would much prefer face-to-face learning! I miss the chance encounters in the Library or in the department and going for coffee with people to talk about what we’re doing.

How has your experience of lectures, seminars, and tutorials (if you have them) been?

They have been pretty good, given how quickly everyone had to adapt to the situation. I had weekly live seminars in both my modules on Teams, which was nice to provide structure and also to check in with everyone weekly. However, I think that at times it felt more like a lecture than a whole class discussion, as it was difficult with the online format to include everyone in the dialogue. There were definitely a lot of people who got lost or were ignored in the online classes and that didn’t happen as much in face-to-face tutorials.

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

I like Perseus for translation help, Loeb online for texts, and all the usual forums for access to scholarship online (eg. Oxford University Press Online, JSTOR etc.)

What has been your experience of having undergraduate supervision online been?

It was largely positive but it did feel a shame that a lot of the discussion element that I enjoy so much about face-to-face teaching got lost when online. I think everyone understood this because we were all still getting used to the new style of learning, and the lecturers were very quick to adapt considering the circumstances. However, if online teaching were to continue next year (presumably without the safety-net policies of S-coding (a process whereby allowances can be made for special circumstances), I think the students would expect a lot more in order to ensure that our learning experience isn’t compromised through being online.

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

Do as much preparation as possible so that you can really get the most out of the online session. Don’t be afraid to speak up in the online classes, even if it might feel more difficult to do so online, to make sure that your voice is heard. Probably everyone else is thinking the same thing anyway, but are just too afraid to say! Try to join in with discussion. Also, don’t be afraid to approach lecturers for help and have one-to-one Skype calls and so on, just as you would normally attend an office hour. They are still there to help, and it is important to still have real contact with people in the department as much as possible!

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

No; that’s all.

 

Remote Teaching Case Studies: Jon Hesk, School of Classics

Dr. Jon Hesk from the School of Classics has kindly agreed to do the next interview in our series of remote teaching case studies. Jon talks about his experiments with technology over the past year or so and also during those first few hectic months when the pandemic began to take hold here in the U.K. He talks about the importance of trusting your instincts when teaching (especially when you’ve been doing it for over 22 years as he has!) and how keeping things simple and using technology judiciously helps to achieve good outcomes for everyone. Jon is a big advocate of using Panopto for large Subhonours modules and describes the many uses it has both for his students and for teachers. As we were migrating online, he decided to use Moodle discussion forums for students to post blog-style discussions on set texts. This was a big hit with his students and he thinks that it gave him a more accurate picture of student engagement and levels of understanding too. Finally, he describes some of the opportunity costs of using technology when teaching, especially when teaching new modules.

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

I’m Reader in Ancient Greek and Classical Studies in the School of Classics.  I teach at all levels of undergraduate study, primarily on the single and joint honours Classical Studies, Greek and Classics degree programmes.  I also teach taught and research postgraduates on our MLitt, MPhil and PhD programmes.  I’m research active, do a fair bit of impact and outreach work and I’m currently director of our School’s research centre called The Centre for the Public Understanding of Greek and Roman Drama.

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

Well, I had experimented last year and again last semester – I think quite successfully – with Panopto in my lecturing for a big first year module (CL1004 – Myth and Community in Ancient Greek literature and Culture).  And I’ve more or less decided to keep using that. I know there are concerns about Panopto but I think it can be really useful for all sorts of reasons: I’ve found it’s great for those hectic times early in the first semester when students sometimes miss the first couple of lectures and need to catch up; it’s great for review and revision too; it gives students who are not native English speakers an extra source of support; and it helps students who are ill or have a disability and find it difficult to attend lectures in person.

I also make a lot of use of the Library’s ‘online reading lists’ facility, and, like most of us in Classics, I use MMS to post links and additional resources, to archive handouts, powerpoints, and so on.

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

Well if I’m honest, my very first thought was that the University should stop any kind of teaching and suspend studies for all students.  I thought that the pandemic would overwhelm the NHS, public services and our ability to deliver food and other essentials.  At first, I thought that our brilliant young people would be needed to train up and backfill some key jobs. Then I realized that while it would be an international, national and tragic catastrophe of historic proportions, it wasn’t quite going to be the zombie apocalypse I’d imagined!   And of course, many of our students would remain in St Andrews – some of them effectively stranded, others staying put to protect their loved ones – or else would go home but still really want to study for their degrees, and, in some cases, graduate this summer.  So, once it sank in that for all sorts of reasons, we needed to carry on, I was fine with it.  The only things that worried me about online teaching were that it would be very tiring and time-consuming, and that it wouldn’t be as fulfilling for me or the students as ‘normal’ St Andrews teaching.  But I wasn’t too worried about my ability to do the teaching or maintain standards and intended outcomes.  It has been tiring and time-consuming, and I don’t enjoy the 100% remote experience as much as physical-presence teaching, but it’s been more fulfilling and interesting than I feared.

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

Well, I didn’t have any lectures to move online.  All my teaching after the Spring break was either second level Classical Studies tutorials (one per week – 10 students), my Greek honours module seminars (two x 1 hr per week – 15 students) or one-to-one MLitt essay supervision (2 students) or one-to-one Hons dissertation supervision (1 student) or PhD supervision (jointly and one student).

One thing I said to myself immediately: ‘I’ve been teaching here for 22 years and so I should trust my instincts’. Also: I wasn’t going to spend hours and hours reading online teaching tips on social media etc. and I wasn’t going to have anything to do with tools or platforms that required me to watch hours of instruction videos or pages of .pdfs to get them right.  If I could set something up in 30 minutes and it was reasonably intuitive and pain free, then that was a good sign that the students would be able to handle it too. Luckily Teams for ‘live’ teaching and Moodle for more ‘asynchronous’ new elements fitted those criteria. Another reason for keeping things fairly basic and simple was that all of my teaching after Spring break was brand new to me, and on texts and scholarship which I didn’t have much recent or in-depth familiarity with.  So, creating lots of extra online content or learning how to use certain new tools was an opportunity cost: the more time I spent on making extra videos or handouts, the less time I would have for the sort of preparatory reading and thinking that would ensure that my ‘live’ teaching was really well-informed. In the case of my 2000-level teaching, that meant I was able to ‘see the wood from the trees’ with the students’ pre-seminar written contributions, and thus better steer the live discussion towards clearing up misunderstandings, underlining key points, and so on. In the case of my new Honours module, it meant that I was able to set the most appropriate and interesting online secondary reading. Another reason for keeping the ‘move online’ to a low ‘extra time’ cost was that I also had my MLitts and dissertation students’ draft work to feed back on, and some urgent ‘research impact’ work to do.

The Honours seminars were where I had the most autonomy with my decision-making.  We were told that we had to maintain ‘live’ teaching in the class hours with Teams the preferred platform but also to record that seminar teaching to accommodate students in different time zones.  I wasn’t that happy about this because I knew it would be hard to get everyone contributing in the hour in the way that I usually can with ‘normal’ seminars.  So I decided I would require the students to post some notes in answer to each seminar’s questions onto a Moodle forum: they’d each do a couple of blog posts, in effect.

I promised I would reply to each individual blog answer either before the seminar or within 72 hrs of it, and once we started this system, I found that in the live seminar itself I would draw on their posts as a means of structuring the discussion and taking us through chunks of set text or critical questions.  Sometimes I would ask a student to speak to or summarize what they’d posted, especially when I got sick of the sound of my own voice or where I thought someone’s blog could move us forward.

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:  initially my seminar questions were often too ‘closed’. That was fine for a normal seminar, but once you’re asking 15 students to post on the same question, they can start to find it hard to say new things once 5 or 6 people have posted.  So you’d move from asking ‘What does this bit of the comedy say about gender relations?’, to ‘Discuss points of political, cultural and stylistic interest in this passage.’  That still meant someone talked about the gender dimension, but you’d get much more from the students that would be of use to them as well.

I also moved to more discussion and evaluation of items of scholarship than I’d normally do, as well.  I think that was partly because they’d flagged that anyway at the midway point but also because it forced them to think about different approaches to the set texts and it allowed each student to draw out something different from the set reading.  I also found myself moving from three main questions per seminar to two or telling them to just submit one or two answers and try to think about the third one.  That was for mine and their sake because with two seminars a week, they’d each be posting six blog posts a week otherwise!

I’d also consider using blogs more in my normal teaching because it gave me a better and more accurate picture of student engagement and levels of understanding. Some students don’t like to say much in seminars (online or normal) but they produced amazingly helpful, intelligent and thoughtful responses on the blogs.

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

Well, I haven’t been teaching any Subhonours Greek or Latin this semester and that is where one tends to have to do more work detailed work on building students’ facility with decoding the grammar and syntax of a sentence or a passage. Or of looking at (say) a bit of Greek poetry or prose and analyzing its use of style, rhetorical devices and imagery. One way of doing this either interactively or by example in a lecture format is to use technology like smart boards or an online equivalent, or you can use various highlighting tools with a Powerpoint slide of a text.  We’re doing these promotional videos for our offer holders and prospective candidates at the moment and in those, I’ve noticed that some of my younger colleagues (which is now nearly all of them) seem to be using that sort of thing more than I would.  It’s probably time for me to get into that more.  With bigger groups of 15-30 it helps to keep everyone focused too. If you just rely on students to keep their place in a paper-based set text and listen to what you’re talking about, it can be hard to keep everyone on the same page (literally), whereas throwing successive bits of the same text on a screen and using different colours to highlight words and so on, probably helps students to keep up and follow everything.

I find Panopto useful. I think I might just record everything I do from now on.  We tend to think it’s good for students to learn note-taking and so on.  But if their tapping away on laptops or scribbling in notebooks all the time, I’m not sure they’re really listening and understanding things in the  moment.  Why not just record a tutorial or seminar so that they can review things and yet  direct their attention to the instructor and each other more when in the session?

For our big second year module, my colleague Sophie set up an Outlook share document for each tutorial and for each tutorial group. This allowed the students to type responses and ideas into the document before the live tutorial on Teams. This was an even simpler version of my blog idea. Because it only went live a couple of days before the tutorial, the students were quite often on at the same time and that replicated in-seminar chat in pairs or groups.  I could also draw on the document in the tutorial.  The only down side was that keen students tend to dominate things a bit and it’s hard to make students join in.  (For both modules I was teaching, I did issue some engagement alerts over this issue and it seemed to work).

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

With any form of teaching and learning (including online, or ‘dual delivery’) always start with what outcomes you want from a session and the module as a whole: that could be in terms of student understanding and skills or it could be about levels and spread of engagement and participation.  There is no point in using a piece of kit if it doesn’t get you those outcomes, and good learning and participation don’t have to take place in the live class hours. In fact, I think that in a well-designed module, the live hours are just the support and audit mechanism for where the real learning and skills acquisition takes place: in private study, through assessment, marking and feedback, and at exam time.

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

You can actually keep things pretty aligned with what you were doing before so long as you realize that a lot of your students’ learning was already ‘asynchronous’, whether in private study in the library, or at home, or when talking with classmates. You might need to find ways of allowing students to help each other with that learning in lieu of live seminar discussion.

What are your favourite online resources for teaching Classics?

I quite like Panopto, MMS and Moodle because they’re so easy to use for PC users.  But there are also two Greek text databases called TLG and Perseus which contain grammar and dictionary tools.  They can lead students not to use and develop their grammar and vocabulary knowledge. But if used in the right way, they can give ex-beginners a real helping hand.  They can also save a lecturer time otherwise spent getting texts copied or cleared and don’t cost students any money.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

No! I’ve gone one enough, I think!

 

Remote Teaching Case Studies: Anindya Raychaudhuri, School of English

Our series on remote teaching is listening to voices from right across the university about teaching and learning online since the ‘lockdown’ started in the U.K. at the end of March. This week we’re interviewing Dr. Anindya Raychaudhuri who is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English and Director of Postgraduate Research. Anindya talks about using podcasts for student presentations, how he combined different kinds of technologies to structure his tutorials with an eye to making everything as inclusive as possible given the circumstances, and he emphasises the important role that postgraduate research students play in supporting teaching at the University.  Towards the end of his interview, we get a clear sense of just how hard St Andrews staff have been working to deliver the best possible teaching to their students.

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

I am a Senior Lecturer in the School of English. My role involves small- and large-group teaching at subhonours, honours and taught postgraduate level, along with research supervision, School administration (currently as Director of Postgraduate Research) and, finally, my own research.

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

I use technology in a limited sense. I use Moodle to distribute materials, PowerPoint to illustrate my talks and so on. I have a podcast assessment as part of the assessment for one of my modules, which involves me and my students using some other software – including Garageband, Audacity, VLC Player and so on. For example, a student might make an accessible 15 minute podcast explaining psychoanalysis and we would then have a discussion. It’s a useful exercise and the students enjoy it.

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

I did and continue to think that there isn’t anywhere near enough recognition of the time, energy, and skills required to move teaching online. This is more understandable in the middle of last semester when we were dealing with a sudden, acute event – but this really worries me moving forward to next semester, when we are promising dual-delivery, with no clear idea yet as to what exactly that will look like, and how it will be put together. We need more clarity about the criteria used to set the guidelines for online teaching.

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

I decided early that I would do a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Recording lectures was the easiest component. For tutorials and small-group teaching, I transformed part of it into mini-lectures which I recorded as usual. The synchronous element was delivered on Teams using video chat when the group was very small (four or fewer, for MLitt teaching, for example). For the synchronous part of the tutorials for larger groups I used WhatsApp. This seemed to me to be the most inclusive approach given the differential access to the Internet for many of my students. I also had regular virtual office hours by appointment which allowed me to chat to my students one-to-one.

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?

I made many changes to my tutorials. I replaced all student-presentations with open-ended discussion questions. Both my students and I were working under a lot of stress and I felt that the more flexible I could be with class-prep for my students, the better. Abstracting the main points that I would normally raise in tutorials into a short lecture also substantially changed my teaching. It did however mean that students who weren’t able to attend the synchronous classes were still able to access the class in some way.

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

Going down the WhatsApp route was a little bit scary, as I think I was one of the few people who chose this method. But I think it worked well for me and especially for my students: it was more intuitive and easier to follow than the chat function in Teams, and it was more inclusive for students who didn’t have secure wi-fi access.

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

It takes longer than you think, and takes more work than you think. The University as a whole has not been very good at recognising quite how hard the last semester has been for staff, and how hard the next semester is going to be, as the broader current crisis situation is normalised, and student expectations change. In the absence of better institutional support, self-care becomes more important.

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

I think we would be right to be apprehensive. Online teaching can’t just be about replicating face-to-face teaching. If we are providing dual-delivery next semester, I am sure everyone will do the best they can, but there can’t be parity across the two tracks of teaching no matter what we do, and the University would do better to simply acknowledge that. Pretending that we can provide the same kind of teaching to all students is putting a lot of pressure on staff.

What are your favourite online resources for teaching English?

For me, I have found the combination of Panopto (for recording lectures), WhatsApp (for “live” tutorials), and Teams or Skype for one-on-one video calls to be the best combination.

 Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I would love for there to be more material support for staff throughout this process, such as childcare support. Our postgraduates are a source of teaching support and I hope this continues. I know that many of my colleagues have found the process hard, and are worried that the workload we are all under is not tenable in the long term. This needs to be first recognised and then dealt with at the highest levels.

 

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!