Cyber digital interactive argh – moving teaching online


The courses I teach at Birkbeck use Moodle for uploading slides and other material and I use online forums a bit for follow-up and discussion between sessions, but the programmes are very much face-to-face. Birkbeck is “London’s evening university” and a strength of this is that students who work or have other commitments during the day can physically come to class. Students do readings, discuss these in class, write essays and other projects. In a stats course I teach, students analyse data using R so it’s a bit more techie but still primarily taught face-to-face in a computer lab.

So the coronavirus pandemic has been a huge shock – especially as it came just after a fortnight of jury service and UCU strike action. ARGH.

Here’s where I’m up to, a little over a week into work-from-home. I’m sharing here in case helpful!

Overall “strategy”

Firstly, I accepted that I’m overwhelmed and a bit terrified. Can I do any of this digitally? How will it feel? Oh god I hate the sound of my voice.

I’m working under the assumption that there’s a chance the academic year 2020/21 will be online-only; that this is a marathon not a sprint, so not to burn out!

Luckily I don’t have any more group teaching this academic year so most contact is individual, e.g., project supervision and personal tutor support. However, it quickly became apparent from a questionnaire (see below) that I will need to make an effort to support all students to continue to feel part of the programme and to facilitate students building support networks now they don’t see each other in class. I will also need to support a group with revision prep for a (now take-home) exam.

First steps

I started with the familiar – an open source audio recorder and editor called Audacity which I used to play with years ago. I used this to record myself reading a message to students (which was also sent as text) and to make it slightly less painful (for me anyway) mixed this with some gentle ambient by Brian Eno.

Another familiar: questionnaires. I made a short anonymous “check in” questionnaire with the following questions:

  1. What app do you prefer to use for individual tutorials/other one-to-one meetings (including phone!)
  2. Do you prefer audio, video, or text-only chat?
  3. How well do you think you’re keeping up with deadlines?
  4. Open text comment – how are things generally?

In the group I asked, there was about a 50-50 split between a preference for audio-only and video chat, so I am sure to ask about this and to reinforce that people have different preferences and that’s okay. Nobody wanted live text-chat, but I assume somebody somewhere will, so it’s worth bearing this in mind as an option.

The open text responses were most helpful – and moving: students shared how the pandemic is affecting them, changes to caring responsibilities and employment workload, their worries, how they feel disconnected from university.

Experiments with the digital

Here is where I am up to:

Whole programme check in using Blackboard Collaborate video conferencing

This initial session was unstructured and badged as such: I’m flailing around; let’s see what happens. I made some slides with key results from the survey – mostly as an excuse to see how to share them using Collaborate.

It turned out to be helpful and amusing to share the online whiteboard which anyone could write to. Some students started to write notes there about what was being discussed (alongside noughts and crosses). A text chat thread started with someone sharing an article.

Incidentally, I was pleasantly surprised that it was possible to dial in using a telephone – this seemed to work fine.

The next whole-programme meeting is in a fortnight (following a student’s suggestion) and will have the following structure:

  1. Whole group chat – how are people doing?
  2. Whole group Q&A – if you have any questions for me about programme stuff
  3. Breakout groups to use however students want; the magic of randomness will determine with whom students chat

I have allocated 1.5 hours for all this but was clear that students can leave whenever they want.

Support group roulette

The idea for this emerged from the whole-group chat with all (taught postgrad) students. Those who want to join a group complete a form with their name, email, year of study (if part-time), and can share any other comment to constrain the randomisation (free-text box).

I’ll randomise to groups and share contact details to each group – group members will then decide themselves how to communicate.

Interactive revision session

Next Monday I will try a more formal revision session, including PowerPoint, for the stats course and plan to record this so others can view it later.