Thursday the 12th of March 2020 was my last visit to the UCL Bloomsbury campus, the last time I enjoyed face to face interactions with colleagues and students. Literally overnight teaching went online, my last two weeks of the teaching term represented my first experience of full online teaching, it was not how any of us would have liked to end the term, indeed the academic year, and I am only glad when I now look back that I had no idea what was to follow – sometimes ignorance really is bliss!
Before March 2020 the words asynchronous and synchronous had little meaning, I had not, I don’t think, even heard of Zoom, I had at that point no idea it would become such an integral part of my daily working life and having to design a module for online delivery within such a short time frame was challenging.
Getting ready for the academic year 2020-2021
It did not feel like the usual end to the academic year, instead 2019/2020 seemed to go on and on, modules felt like they would never end, but of course, they finally did and an unusual summer followed. Unusual in the sense that all holiday plans were cancelled or postponed and unusual in the high volume of training sessions that I undertook to prepare for online delivery. UCL was the main provider of such training but there were others also. I think for the first time I experienced ‘academic indigestion’, too much learning but it needed to be this way, time was tight and the first teaching term of 2020/2021 was fast approaching – I confess I was terrified!
During the summer of 2020, the focus was on the delivery and design of my modules. My plan, as far as technology allowed was to replicate the pre-Covid teaching delivery pattern. My 2-hour lectures as guided by UCL, became pre-recorded asynchronous sessions, supported by various digital activities designed to develop knowledge and the co-creation of knowledge and later in the live face to face sessions, designed to be the basis for discussions and collaboration. These activities included, quizzes, articles, Padlet Wall scenarios, videos, podcasts etc. – I was as I always have been, focussed on ensuring these activities had value in terms of learning and also were varied enough for students to enjoy. Fortunately, I am and have been for several years an advocate of the flipped learning approach, so designing and uploading pre-class activities was not all new to me. In October 2020, I was able to give students access to the Ryze App, designed to be accessed via mobile technologies, providing an accessible digital academic resource to support their learning and compliment the module teaching.
The 1-hour seminars became the 1-hour live face to face synchronous sessions and in these I saw no reason as to why they would not have the same focus on practice and small group working. By the time the seminar content was designed, I had enough knowledge of the workings of Zoom to know this would be possible. I utilised breakout rooms, the sharing function and the whiteboard, all of which positively impacted on student participation, some weeks I even experienced all cameras on, but this sadly was not always the case!
So many unknowns
I did not realise during that creative summer that I would in a few short weeks be worrying about how to manage the significant increase in student numbers, what to do if the internet went down during a face to face session, or if the breakout room function in Zoom did not work, or if students would find the link and join the session, if they would have their cameras on, if they would be willing to unmute and take part in discussions, if they would engage with the asynchronous materials designed to support the face to face learning… – there were so many, too many unknowns.
Term 2 was easier, the anxieties had left allowing me to fully enjoy the interactions I had with the students and just like the pre-Covid days, the true pleasure of teaching returned, the unfamiliar had become the familiar, I felt back in control, the unknowns were no longer and never before had I appreciated so much the value of familiarity. Toward the end of term 2, I had stopped noticing how many cameras were switched on, I had finally got used to chatting to the small black boxes with white writing depicting the name of the student. I can say across both terms 1 and 2, the live synchronous sessions were by far the highlight of my working week, it felt so good to actually ‘be’ with students albeit through a screen, I felt the same energy as I did when on campus, and this was both joyful and surprising!
The uninvited change imposed upon all of us this academic year has most certainly presented many challenges and in my mind, through the lens of my professional experience has afforded me many positives. The changes that had to be made to my course content to facilitate 100% online delivery are positive changes which will remain. I realise now more than ever, the importance of providing students with excellent digital resources and this will be one of my key priorities post-Covid. I, as I am sure for many of my peers, am looking forward to being back on campus, back to physically being with students and my goal is to ensure that the digital content enhances and adds value to these face to face encounters. I see these not as separate aspects of my teaching but instead both equally integral to the success of my teaching.
The date that I write this blog is the 13th April 2021 and I feel incredibly proud of the students who had to pivot overnight through no choice of their own and have done so admirably showing great resilience. I feel grateful for the new technologies available to teachers which serve to enhance the student learning experience and to the mobile resources such as the Ryze App which positively contributes to increasing the digital educational recourses that our students deserve and rightly expect. Lastly, I feel proud of UCL and continue to reflect on how incredible it is that this organisation steeped in years of history and tradition was able to manoeuvre with such agility.
My overall goal in 2020/2021 was to create a sense of belonging for the students and to provide them with the best online learning experience that I was able. Whether I did or not is for the students to say, but I can say hand on heart that I did my best.
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