With countries in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, many universities worldwide, including SOAS, have moved their teaching online for the foreseeable future, propelling students into a world of virtual engagement. So how are academics and students adapting to teaching online?
For one group – online students – who have chosen to study from home towards a University of London degree programme, say, it is the norm. Undaunted by the fact they may never meet their lecturers and fellow-students face-to-face, interacting digitally is familiar to them. But how are campus-based lecturers adapting to the new ‘norm’?
‘I’m okay with online,’ was the response from one SOAS academic. Another, Dr Cui Yan, Senior Lector in Chinese, wrote that while her students have finished their courses now, ‘I am teaching a few students from Beijing Normal University on WeChat.’ Her use of the Chinese multi-purpose ‘super app’, to stay in touch with her students in China, highlighted wider challenges raised by others (compatibility issues between different platforms, technical support or web access restrictions, and time zones) for a university with international students from over 135 countries worldwide.
Academics and students on campus already have access to Moodle, ‘the world’s most popular learning management system.’ SOAS is also one of the six colleges in The Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (formerly ‘Environment’) or BLE, which shares expertise ‘on technology enhanced learning projects’. Although BLE doesn’t teach digital skills to new students, its ‘Digital Skills Awareness’ Moodle course outlines key digital skills for studying at university level (how to manage files, use an online learning environment, keep safe online, and find tools for making notes) as well as providing advice and tips about links, videos and other resources for acquiring digital skills.
Below, three academics from the Departments of Music, Politics, and Finance & Management, respond in more detail about how they have adapted to teaching online. The impression, which emerges from all three, is that the challenge is less about adapting to an online existence – lecturers and students are already expected to be digitally savvy – but more about some of the drawbacks of using different apps or platforms in practice.
Adapting to teaching online – Three academics outline their experiences so far:
Dr Richard David Williams, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, convenor for the BA and MPhil/PhD in creative arts, held two sessions last week using Collaborate:
We had five students for PG and three for UG, so not huge, as these are normally big classes. But I wasn’t anticipating everyone turning up under the circumstances!
I’d say it worked OK but it was HARD. The main issue is home broadband is under a lot of pressure so there were all kinds of connectivity issues.
The PG started well and I could even put them in pairs to do a private “pair and share”, and then I could pull them together into a single group again. Nice! But then the audio stopped being tenable so we all turned off our microphones and used the chat facility instead. They’re fast typers so this worked. But this wasn’t ideal as you can’t see when people are typing – so you put out a question…and wait….and hope someone responds. We had one visually impaired student in the mix who could hear the messages being read out through their tech, but that was tricky with other audio – plus every time a new message popped up it cut off the reading out of the previous one! I copied and pasted the conversation as a transcript to read through which they were happy about. I have to say the students took to it with patience and gusto, and we ended up having a really interesting discussion typing it all out. But there are better messenger facilities (including Skype) than BLE.
UG went much better but we only had three students so there were fewer issues with audio tech etc. One called in from the US which was nice. That one led to a really good discussion.
So not bad, but quite fragile if people’s Wi-Fi gets overloaded. I think something like a group chat using a typed messenger service would work better in some ways.
Students are used to having in depth discussions over Whatsapp and this kind of written forum may be the best way forward.
Dr Rahul Rao, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Department of Politics & International Studies writes:
I really miss lecturing in a face to face way – but this will have to do for now I suppose!
Here are a few notes on his online experiences so far with:
- Blackboard Collaborate
- Microsoft Teams
I normally use Panopto to record lectures, so had assumed it would be quite straightforward to download onto my laptop at home and record lectures from here. Unfortunately, I didn’t bargain for the fact that my operating system was too old to support the version of Panopto that SOAS uses, so that was that.
I have found this useful for seminars (11 students) and smaller lectures (30, although there were probably only around 10 listening live). The system allows you to record sessions, so students can listen to the recordings (if you are OK with recording) at their leisure. It also has reasonable interactive capabilities. Most students were able to use the audio function. The video function makes more demands on bandwidth, so some students chose to turn it off (I suppose much depends on the quality of Wi-Fi connections).
I have to say that when students turned their video off, I found lecturing to be slightly disorienting. I was essentially talking to my computer screen with little by way of human feedback till the Q&A at the end of the lecture.
One way to get around this would be to vary the format of your lecture. Ask students to interrupt you (there is a hand raising function); or intersperse the lecture with several Q&A sessions. Such devices may already form part of your lecturing style, but they become even more vital (I think) in this sort of situation if you want two-way communication.
I have been using this for one-on-one meetings and supervisions. No issues to report here. Something I am fairly accustomed to, especially with students who are abroad on fieldwork.
I used this for a PhD viva involving six people in four different locations. It worked very well. We will be using it for a departmental meeting tomorrow (around 25 people?) – I am keen to see how that turns out.
Christine Oughton, Professor of Management Economics, FAcSS, School of Finance and Management:
I have given a few sessions online using Collaborate. I found sharing documents like PowerPoint was easy. It took me a while to manage the interactive features – i.e. allowing all the students to speak to each other and to chat.
Having all the interactive features on is important as it makes it more like the Lecture Hall. Without the interactive features, it is pretty much a one-way street and until I started to encourage students to participate with questions etc., I found that I was delivering the material more quickly than in a face-to-face lecture, which probably makes it harder to assimilate.
Our students too need to adjust to this. Not all students had their microphones switched on, I’m not sure if that was by choice or because they were not sure how to do use the mic. One student couldn’t hear and I put her in touch CILT. The problem was diagnosed as a browser problem and solved by switching to Chrome.
The other issue is time zones. Now that some students have returned home, it’s hard to know what is the best time and whether we should run every session twice to provide easy access to those in different zones?
Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT)
Guidance on setting up your virtual classroom + guides for different tools module in Moodle:
Collaborate and/or Panopto remote tutorials/guides
Troubleshooting IT issues around online access to classes on BLE/Moodle: E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE) is comprised of SOAS University of London, UCL, Birkbeck, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Royal Veterinary College, and The University of London. For details of BLE’s Digital Skills Awareness course.
Advice about remote access to applications and services, visit MySOAS intranet page ‘Information & Technology > Our Services > Remote Desktop’.
Problems accessing any Apps?
- If using the ‘Remote Desktop’ App from the Microsoft Store/App store, refresh your list of SOAS Apps by using the drop-down menu to the right of the ‘SOAS Remote Apps’ bar.
- If connecting via the remote.soas.ac.uk web page, refresh this page. If the issue persists, try clearing your browser cache and cookies.
The Open University is offering a free course:
Main image (c) Ryan Morse, Flickr.