Dr Nicola Pallitt & Neil Kramm, Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL), Rhodes University
Alanna Riley, Teaching and Learning Centre, University of Fort Hare
The global and national situation around COVID-19 is fluid given that we are living in uncertain times. One thing we know with certainty, is that preparing to teach remotely is being encouraged at a national level and in certain ways enforced at institutional level. The aim is to make every effort to ensure that students are able to continue with their studies and to successfully complete the academic year. We recognise that remote teaching may be an imperfect plan B for many and that it may be seen as a solutionist and technicist driven response. There is much anxiety around remote teaching for teaching staff and students alike. For the majority of institutions, online teaching will mean using the institutional Learning Management System (LMS) that will be accessed by students online or downloaded to their device via an App or other formats. This means that most of their studies might be digital remote teaching rather than online teaching: remote learning does not necessarily mean online learning, and for many students this may be mobile learning rather the kind of online learning evangelised elsewhere in the world. Depending on students’ connectivity, their experience of the LMS might be unstable. At some institutions, the LMS may be unstable, discouraging the adoption of even blended learning approaches. While institutions across the country are not equally ready or resourced for emergency remote teaching, most agree that low tech will be the way to go.
As educational technology professionals, we see the need for a ‘no frills’ approach that will be accessible to all involved in remote teaching at this time. Shifting from a face-to-face (f2f) or even a blended learning context to an online mode of delivery in a crisis situation means being ruthless about dumping what doesn’t work in an online environment and keeping what can be adapted in the short term. We also suggest that limiting innovations should be a key part of the implementation process. Most lecturers will be operating in crisis mode and are already bewildered by the current crisis management approach, and may easily feel overwhelmed if inundated with new tech that they have to firstly learn how to use, and then use to design pedagogically sound teaching for their students.
The key is to focus on core work and see what is adaptable for our students and lecturers in a pragmatic way. We would like to share the following considerations grounded in our reading of current thinking around the differences between emergency remote teaching and online learning and local responses (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust & Bond, 2020; CILT Low Tech Remote Teaching Principles, 2020), our own experiences of supporting teaching colleagues at this time and their concerns.
- Recognise that the situation is not ideal. Many of us have become accustomed to specific teaching practices in face-to-face teaching. In spite of having blended certain aspects of our courses already, we have had the luxury of being able to select what to put online in terms of what will support our course design. Remote teaching will challenge these and we may have to rethink our practices. Whilst the pandemic is a disruption for many teaching colleagues and your students, accept that teaching remotely as a plan B is the only option right now. It is up to you whether you decide to view this disruption in positive or negative terms. After the pandemic is over, it is very likely that we all would have learnt a few new things, thought differently about our teaching – whether or not we thought this would be the case initially. Let’s recognise our discomforts and reflect on these in moments where we are able to. Discomfort often results from revisiting old assumptions in the process of learning new things. This less than ideal situation is going to require new ways of being, knowing and doing – initial discomfort and learning is inevitable.
- Be realistic about what the shift to remote teaching means for you. There are many things going on during face-to-face teaching encounters in physical spaces that we take for granted and are difficult to transfer or replicate in an online setting. Some activities may be impossible to transfer or will need to be approached differently, while others might need to be dropped entirely. Identify what can be shifted and what cannot. Letting some things go is part of being realistic. Do not be afraid of trying new things – but limit these.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself – take the pressure off yourself. Do what you are able to do within your current circumstances and abilities. For many teaching colleagues, this might be the first time you are making a narrated presentation or an audio recording. If you feel unsettled listening to your own voice, don’t panic – this is a natural response. If you see videos of others teaching online and think ‘I can’t do this’ take a moment and recognise the following: many videos you find online are created for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and have been professionally produced. You cannot compare your own DIY recordings to these. Some of the lecturers you see in these videos have had time to script these, have been advised by a production team and are even told what to wear. Some MOOC lecturers take sabbaticals to focus on these videos to get it right. You do not have the same time or resources – don’t strive for perfection. Think about a few key outcomes and plan to teach these in 15 minutes or less. Use software and approaches advised by your educational technology colleagues. Use what is available and what you feel comfortable with learning how to use. If you are using new software for the first time, you might not get it right the first time. Seek out tutorial videos and advice from colleagues who may be more expert users. Importantly, put some time aside to ‘play’ and become comfortable with the new software. It is like swimming or riding a bike – the more you do it, the more comfortable you will become.
- Take the pressure off your students wherever possible. In the coming weeks our students are going to be in a difficult space psychologically, some may even be ill or may have lost a family member. Show understanding through not imposing hard deadlines and being flexible. If you are making use of Announcements, show care in your communications. If you are using Forums, ensure that notifications can be turned off and that students know how to do so. Limit the number of messages students receive as far as you are able to so that students do not feel overwhelmed. If you are using short quizzes, allow multiple attempts as these tools often rely on a constant internet connection which we know might not be the case for many of our students. Life will happen to us all and technologies will fail. We and our students will have to take this in our stride.
- Take advice from educational technology colleagues at your institution. If these colleagues are advising that you keep your remote teaching to asynchronous modes within the LMS which falls within zero-rated URLs, do so. If they are advising particular file sizes for video and audio recordings, be aware of these. It’s not about stifling innovation, these colleagues have thought things through and the implications these may have for students’ data and connectivity. If you are advised not to use Zoom with your large first year class, don’t do it. Different institutions make use of different learning management systems and may have different licensed software available for staff. Do not blindly adopt something advised at another institution or elsewhere in the world – know what is available and in use at your own institution first. If you are unsure, make contact with your educational technology colleagues, explain what you want to do and look for alternatives or the best suited solution.
- Acknowledge what is beyond you and your students’ control. While zero-rated URLs (when network providers allow access to educational websites for free) can assist more equitable participation, the reality is that digital literacies and connectivity among students is not equal. At worst, some may be in areas with poor mobile connectivity and might only have a basic smartphone. Others might have a smartphone and a laptop. Know that there will be those who will be unable to participate in your online teaching for a variety of reasons, connectivity and device ownership may be among these in addition to psychological and other circumstances. Sending print-based materials or devices might not be the solution due to costs, and logistics, furthermore it may not be a safe option as it would require students to leave their homes and travel to hubs to collect, putting them at risk. Nobody had time to plan for this and the system will not be perfect. Do not take risks (eg. leaving your home to distribute equipment to students) or do anything that may be detrimental to your safety or that of your students.
- Keep in touch with your colleagues. Given the current lockdown, we are not just preparing to teach remotely but also working from home. For many of us, this is a new experience and it is not unlikely to feel anxious and disconnected, despite many of our abilities to connect online. Keep connected to colleagues using preferred digital channels – perhaps you have a WhatsApp group for your department or one with a few close colleagues. You can try to do a real-time check in using a synchronous WhatsApp group call or Zoom. Avoid spreading fake news or messages that may incite further anxiety or fear.
- Be aware of the different online support services available to you at your university. Should you need to seek out online counselling, IT support, etc., check that you have these contact details on hand for when you might need them.
- Everyone’s an expert and every second tech company is selling a solution. Be careful not to be seduced – many of these ‘experts’ and representatives are working in very different contexts. Their advice and ‘solutions’ might not speak to our realities or those of our students. WIth the hype around online learning, the reality is that for many of our students, their experience is actually mobile learning. Some of these companies are milking this pandemic for their own egos and profits – don’t be fooled.
- Practice self-care so that you are in a better position to care for others. All of the above are among the things we recognise as being among the things causing stress for colleagues at the moment. You are not alone. Do not let these things overwhelm. Prioritise self-care. Take time out and look after yourself so that you are in a better position to take care of your loved ones around you and those you are connected to online. Keeping connected to yourself and others is key.