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Distance learning in a time of Corona Virus


Corona Virus
Student Representation

James Derounian, from the Association of National Teaching Fellows, offers practical tips on delivering quality distance learning for quarantined students (and staff!) …… reproduced with permission – thank you!

There are none so zealous as the reformed smoker and now – distant-deliverers of higher education teaching and learning. For years distant and blended learning were seen by managers as a Cinderella, non-conforming administrative nuisance. But we’re all born-again remote teachers now, c/o Covid-19.

My overriding advice is to embrace distance learning as not only good for part-timers or students at a distance from an HEI, but to recognise that what’s good for the remote student is likewise for those used to face-to-face. Both depend on fundamentals like clarity of communication, regular checking on student understanding of material, and enabling a conversation and exchange to take place between student and lecturer. It’s important to treat distant students as if they are face-to-face in the sense of regular ‘appearances’ online, preferably on a set time and day (for example in their usual/ expected lecture slot), in order to overcome the feeling, they may otherwise develop, that they are out of sight and out of mind. It’s crucial – as with all students – to build trust, dependability & relationship, and to be responsive to their concerns and not just leave them hanging in the ether.

Synchronous contact sessions, that is where student and staff are ‘present’ together using technologies like Moodle/ Virtual Learning Environments VLEs, or the BBB (Big Blue Button) enable interaction that mimics face-to face. You can have virtual break-out groups; intersperse ‘talk and chalk’ with electronic polls to garner student inputs; you and students can post questions to stimulate discussion. And the real beauty is that – unlike the one-off nature of much conventional lecturing – the online session can be recorded quite simply, and thereby become a permanent record and resource for students to return to, at times and places that suit them, as opposed to fitting with a set timetable. It also increases social distancing and thereby, hopefully, likelihood of transmitting or receiving an infection, such as the Corona virus.

Online also offers opportunities for electronic assessment preparation, support and feedback. Use of VLEs in a time of self-isolation can be complemented by e-mail exchange with students, mobile phone or ‘conference call’ tutorials, or use of platforms such as FaceTime and Skype. Of course the assessment must fit the module, purpose and learning outcomes; and it is a (necessary) pain to have to revise assessment briefs in light of social distancing; but the rewards can be great and unexpected.

Take the example of a group essay produced by virtual groups of students via Moodle. The task was for undergraduates who typically didn’t know each other, to work in electronic groups of 3 or 4 to produce a team essay on the principles of community-based work. In the process of assembling this essay students practiced aspects of community development, such as inclusion, integration of work, partnership and division of tasks. A portion of the marks was awarded on the basis of how the individual student reflected on the assignment, by linking their experience to the principles they had been studying: were any members excluded because they came late to the party/ group chat? Did everyone pull their weight or were there passengers? Did individuals contribute complementary skills – one as editor, another as a researcher and so on? What this example clearly showed was that the process is the product – in the sense that where a group worked well together, the resulting essay was invariably decent. In a few cases, of course, the reverse was true – where they didn’t rub along and fell out over who does what and when, they crashed and burned. There’s a life and study lesson! One of the students commented ““I feel that the task turned out to be just like belonging to a real live community. One dropped out due to too much work, one had to leave through ill health …I feel that a successful outcome was achieved by taking ownership of the task.”

Or you could pose an online question as a time-limited marked task, to replace a conventional exam. A year back I moderated an online conversation amongst about 20 level six (final year) undergraduates. This was as part of a sociology/criminology module studying power in the modern world; a highly topical subject at a time of climate change and Brexit! Students had 1,600 words, and were required to electronically post contributions as part of a conversation with their peers; in the form of roughly 4 x 400 word inputs that could not be set-piece paragraphs, but rather needed to demonstrate that they responded to points from others. I explained this to them as like being at a party, where someone starts a conversation – in this case me – with “to what extent can local communities influence decision-making? and they then interacted and developed the dialogue across the class.

I’m also a big fan of short, sharp podcasts, especially when it comes to material that you might otherwise repeat over and over to individual students. For example, I have been sending out 4-minute voice only casts, weekly, covering typical sections of an undergraduate dissertation: Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Analysis and Discussion, Conclusions and Recommendations; appendices.

I never thought a pandemic would vault distance learning in to the mainstream. But it’s gone……. viral. Keep as safe as you can colleagues and families, and students.

And a report on recent happier times:


The Association of National Teaching Fellows Symposium 5/6 March

Well what a difference a month makes! The Association of National Teaching Fellows (ANTF) made it just under the radar – our annual symposium ran at the start of March. Newly elected to the committee, it was my first one…

Open to both National Teaching fellows and interested academics, the symposium consisted of four topical themes:

  • Excellence in Teaching and learning
  • Building your own impact
  • Promoting diversity, well being and resilence
  • Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence strand (CATE )

And as we start…

Dr Caroline Coles (right)

Here is Dr Caroline Coles (pictured with Debbie Holley, left;) our inspiring and super organised Chair, as she gets ready to welcome over 100 participants. Karen Hustler from (pictured below) dvanceHE, our huge supporters, advocates and sponsors, welcomes the audience.

And a fabulous Keynote for WonkHE Associate Editor, David Kernohan the graph illustrated shows the stark stop in HE pedagogic research investment from 2010 onwards…..

Aston Student Union VP Danielle Gallagher gives her frank views on the student experience, outlining the key cases on student stress and highlighting the importance of student mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Theo Gilbert gave an inspirational and interactive keynote on why we should be looking at a compassionate curriculum – the work can be read and shared from his blog ‘Compassion in Education’  

The conference then streamed into different sessions, and were amazing, awesome and inspiring – far too many to report in in a short blog, but tweeting activity form the different rooms can be found on @NTF_Tweet #ANTF2020

One session that was fabulous to be invited participate in is the ‘Professors in Preparation’ group, run by Deb Locke and Harriet Dunbar-Morris, where a Professors invited to undertake a ‘PiP’ talk sharing their pathway, and then Deb and Harriet ran table tasks to get aspiring Profs thinking about their journeys. Link to my mini talk here:

PiP talk

Pathways to impact: successful networking

Prof Sally Brown gathered together a group of us to share how to create and sustain networks, in a session on building impact. Entitled ‘my successful networks, this slide hare has the ‘good and great’ put does not recreate the dynamism and enthusiasm with which Sally marshalled all of us! 

the key themes, and Prof Kay Sambell contributed to the workshop

And after the networking session, we heard from research carried out about the attributes of an excellent lecturer from Dr Zoe Allerman, De Montford University:

Prof Sally Everett, our equality and diversity lead on the committee , summarises the data as a poster – makes difficult reading for marginalised groups…the ANTF committee are working with AdvanceHE to make a difference.

And a wonderful poster display – click here to see other posters displayed on slideshare

This is just a taster of the work being undertaken across the sector. Follow us on twitter @NTF_tweet, and our blog on the AdvanceHE platform

Blog composed by Debbie Holley – any errors/omissions are mine 31.03.2020