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.

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