Reflections on the new academic year -masked up yet revealing.

It is the beginning of my third week of teaching in this new academic year. In this blog post I want to reflect on my experiences at a new institution, Royal Holloway, and teaching in a new way. Currently, we are using a hybrid model, where some students attend in person, albeit masked up, whilst others attend online at the same time. As I reflect here on my experiences, and on what positives we might gain in the longer term, I would also like to hear from you. What are your experiences of teaching/learning , in what ways has this changed since the initial lockdown and that switch to online learning and what unexpected insights have you gained?

Navigating a new campus, navigating a new way of teaching

Navigating a new campus, finding your way around, often by means of getting lost, is a handy analogy for navigating the new way of teaching. I have taken plenty of ‘wrong turns’ but I am finding my way through quite quickly. Before teaching started, I wondered how I would manage to teach in a visor or a mask, and how I would cope with having a face to face class and an online at the same time. When it comes to teaching in a visor, that turned out to be a no through road- to keep with the map navigational analogy – not least because I cannot stop it from steaming up and I then lose sight of everything and everyone, quite literally. Teaching in a mask, however, is a route I can take- I’ve adapted to it to the point that when, some day in the future we teach without them, being unmasked will feel strange. Hybrid teaching is challenging, and there have been glitches aplenty but it is also interesting and hopefully has benefits beyond the pandemic.

Like many colleagues here, as elsewhere, I find that technology is both enabling and hindering in this process. Technology allows this teaching to take place. I can engage with students online differently from those in the classroom- I can add emoticons to comments in the chat, for example, giving that little bit of on-going feedback and encouragement, substituting for a physical thumbs up in the class. I can also give support and advice in an instant – a quick word here or suggestion there that perhaps I would not pick up on so quickly if everyone was in the room. Yet, switching between the physical and the online classroom is also exhausting. When the microphone failed in one classroom I ended up giving verbal instructions to those in the room and then put the comments in the chat. It meant that the students online could not engage in the way that I had planned, but they could still engage with the class. It was also dizzying nevertheless. I do know my students appreciated it though and that always gives a boost that keeps you going no matter how tired you are. Perhaps therein lies one of the takeaways from this experience – the value of the small gestures has really come to the fore.

I find, at the minute at least, students online are quieter and contribute less verbally than those in the room – but that needs to be balanced against the fact that they often contribute to the chat, and in fact I wonder if they engage more that way than they would in the physical classroom. It perhaps enables inclusivity, giving students more opportunities over how they contribute and engage than they would have in the physical classroom alone and maybe makes it easier for some to contribute. Equally, quietness does not mean no learning is taking place, rather it is, just differently. I take the quiet to ne a sign that the students are thinking things through. Online, however, group work is a challenge. It is easier for those in the room, talking in groups, albeit at a distance. However, for those online they cannot, as yet, have a really good discussion. I eagerly await the arrival of breakout rooms in MS Teams (in fact if we could have it for next week that would be perfect). I have used them in Zoom and they’re enormously useful – they give students online that private space to discuss and exchange ideas, to think in the same way their classmates are in the physical classroom.

No matter the challenges we have been faced with in the past few weeks, and those inevitably yet to come, from Panopto videos disappearing, to microphones failing, we have been able to find workarounds. They might not always be perfect, but they do seem to work. This is not just down to technical ability but must also be attributed to a sense of solidarity, of working together that is developing between staff and students. As a new member of staff it can take time for students to get used to you, for that bond and trust to be created. Yet, if I compare this year to last, I feel that that bond and trust is developing at a greater rate now than it did 12 months and one institution ago. My students can see the effort that goes into each class, indeed they are involved – often in finding a solution if something does not go to plan; they are effectively helping to co-create the classroom. In the past co-creation in my classroom has been content-orientated, but now it is also about co-creating the learning environment.

Thinking ahead, I wonder what will go forwards into the cultures of higher education. I hope this sense of solidarity, this co-creation of the learning environment will continue. Likewise I hope the appreciation of even the smallest of gestures continues long into the future. I also wonder and indeed hope that for all that we have been beset by technical difficulties and challenges this will create a greater acceptance of ‘failing’ things, of dealing with things that go wrong because these are such valuable lessons in life as in education. In previous years striving for perfection has been an issue I’ve come across time and again, and in each instance it has hindered rather than helped, yet now my students can see that nothing has to be perfect but that does not stop you learning and attaining.

I am still navigating my way through hybrid teaching, finding my way – much as I am with campus. I am aware there will be obstacles in my path I’ve yet to encounter and I’ll update this blog in due course, but now I’d like to hear from you. What are your experiences – whether you are teaching or studying – what is happening where you are, what insights can you share? What has surprised you, what has been frustrating, what would you like to see influence higher education in the longer term?

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