The Digital Classroom

CONNECTED speaks to three academics about how lockdown has changed the way they teach, after the University moved more teaching and exams online.

The suspension of in-person teaching, and move to online lectures, classes and assessments in March was crucial to ensuring the safety of our staff and students. Such a rapid change naturally resulted in challenges as academic and support staff worked to make the transition for our students as smooth as possible, and students adjusted to studying entirely at home. However, the situation has also created unexpected opportunities for teaching in the future.

New skills

Academics at the University have had to quickly adapt to using tools and software that many had only limited experience of before. Three Reading academics tell us about their experience of rapidly learning new skills to smoothly transition their teaching online.

Jackie Baines, admissions tutor and teaching fellow from the Department of Classics, said: “The University supported us with this transition by providing online seminars on how to use the various tools. The only problem was the speed at which we had to make the change – we had to learn how to use these tools while teaching our students. In fact, my students helped me as well – one in particular had used the online system a number of times and was able to offer me advice.”

Dr Charlotte Newey, admissions tutor and lecturer from the Department of Philosophy, said she felt quite overwhelmed initially about the number of new skills she had to learn and apply instantly, such as voicing over PowerPoint slides or converting computer files.

“I enrolled on two online courses to help me with these new skills,” she said.

“Being a student on these courses also helped me to experience the student perspective before I began teaching my own students.”

Will Bailey-Watson from the Institute of Education, who helps train the next generation of school teachers, explained that he has always preferred classroom-based teaching, resisting fully engaging with the possibilities of technology.

“I am all about the face-to-face; the relationships; the interaction,” he said. “Obviously that has now had to change.

“My first use of a ‘new’ technology was producing a screencast that explained my students’ task for the week. I didn’t know you could record audio with a video of your face over PowerPoint. What a great way of bringing a bit of personality and warmth when working with students remotely.”

Maintaining engagement

One concern around teaching remotely is the risk of a decline in engagement and interaction with students. However, our academics are successfully finding their own ways around that.

Dr Newey recognises that there are challenges in maintaining individual interaction with students remotely, but is making the time to create extra content for students to use at their own pace.  

“I am offering 1-2-1 sessions, however, we all face challenges in our working lives right now,” she said. “I struggle to find a quiet place at home to hold a video meeting at a regular time. I expect the same is true for some students. So, in place of my lectures, I make short, accessible video and audio content that could be watched whenever each student can find some time, privacy and internet access to do so.”

In contrast, Will finds he is able to hold a regular Monday morning virtual meeting for his teaching trainees and records it for anyone who can’t make it. “This meeting has become a really happy and positive feature of my week,” he said.

“It’s so nice to see everyone’s faces and hear their voices. The response I have had is that some are even comforted by seeing and hearing me.”

Jackie tells us that she is pleased she can still engage and interact with her students: “I’ve set up an online office where I can see students 1-2-1 if they need tutor meetings or help with their work. At the end of the spring term, I set up a platform for students to have an end of term ‘party’ which went really well!”

The impact on students

Dr Newey tells us that she has found the impact on her students to be unexpected in a good way: “The essays I am marking now are some of the best I’ve had. The virtual content I’d uploaded was essay specific: for example, where to find useful research articles, how to write an opening paragraph and how to structure an answer to each question. My students ended up with far more scaffolding.

“Student attendance typically drops in the final week or so of term, so even though I have always delivered essay specific content in lectures, only the keenest students tended to hear it. Perhaps those who need it more had access this way.

“However, I’m sure students are missing contact with each other, just as I am missing my face-to-face interactions with my students.”

Challenges and opportunities

The sudden move to remote working naturally resulted in many challenges, but has also created opportunities.

Jackie describes how she “had to learn not to panic” in the face of this new situation.

“I had to remember that many of the problems I was facing were the same for my students and my colleagues,” she said. “Everyone being in the same position meant we all supported each other.

“There are definitely positives to be taken from this move to online teaching. I hope we will keep using some of these tools once we are back to ‘normal’ working to keep us more connected with our students. It’s also made us think about how we assess our students and what we want to test and how. This is a very positive benefit.”

Will agrees there are benefits to hopefully come out of this new situation: “I’ve set my trainees the task of integrating women throughout their teaching of the Middle Ages. To supplement this, I invited Dr Charlotte Crouch to discuss her research with us virtually. This generated so much momentum and interest in Dr Crouch’s work that I arranged a subsequent Q&A session.

“Before lockdown, I had never arranged a follow-up once trainees started trying to bring history to life in their planning. The fact that all this was possible at such short notice, organised alongside my other commitments and delivered from my stuffy box-room, has inspired and empowered me.

“I’m now excited by some of the different opportunities that might supplement and extend our practice when this is all over.”