|Navigating difficulties teaching in a new online world. Teaching at a university often feels like a forgotten role. However, teaching has become an unexpected love story that has formed alongside our studies. We are two PhD students who teach while also conducting our research. As this term comes to a close, we’ve been reflecting and sharing our experiences and tips for navigating online teaching given the new challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of us is based in philosophy and the other in psychology but we both come from multidisciplinary backgrounds. A persistent challenge in any teaching environment is creating a space where all students participate and feel comfortable enough to contribute. Engagement in seminars is key because as teachers we are keen for students to see their learning as something which they do, like a skill, rather than just material they have to absorb. This means that students need to feel confident and able to contribute to discussions, and teachers have to strike a balance between moderating discussions so that everyone gets to speak and the topic stays relevant, while at the same time giving the students freedom to respond to each other and explore the issues they find most engaging.
One of the main difficulties of remote teaching is being able to ascertain, quickly and in the moment, whether certain students would benefit from us carving out a place for them to speak in the discussion, or whether they would find that pressure overwhelming and retreat. This is more difficult in an online setting. The power imbalance of students who are eager to talk is even more striking online, where a handful of non-elected speakers can control the floor. In the past, we have shied away from using much technology in in-person seminars, for fear that it would encourage students to be more passive rather than active within discussion. However, Maggie has introduced me to tools such as ‘Jamboard’, which can be a great way to still centre engagement and discussion in online settings. With Jamboard, a free google app, you can produce a virtual board of notes together during their discussions, adding post-it notes, pictures and diagrams to a shared blank page, which can be downloaded at the end. This is especially useful because it’s contributing through writing is a new avenue for students to use to participate, especially if they are less uncomfortable with speaking in person or in an online setting for whatever reason. Tools like this, along with the chat function, can be great ways to offer novel ways for different students to contribute. Kathleen suggested to me asking students about their ‘intuitions’ about tricky topics, because this levels the playing field in terms of the broad range of experiences often present in postgraduate student groups in particular. Then, some students may feel more comfortable responding. A final alternative option for students we have also seen is synchronous bimodal teaching, where for the same session some students can attend in person while others can join via a zoom call. This can be ‘the best of both worlds’ as students can choose the format which they feel best suits them. Local students can take advantage of the opportunity to learn in the company of others, while distance learners or students with other responsibilities can still feel part of an event when joining from home.
A crucial concern which has emerged for us with teaching online this term is providing students with support beyond academic pursuits. In psychology we teach on modules that look at sensitive issues pertaining to mental health, such as suicide and self-harm. This area can be distressing and as teachers we do not know the experiences and triggers which our students may have. When teaching in person it is easier to pick up on cues such as body language and tone. In contrast, online students may turn their cameras off or leave the session, but these things happen frequently anyway and so are not necessarily signs of distress. Yet, in person if a student were to get up and leave you would follow up to make sure that they are okay. So, beyond reflecting on how to make engaging content, we need to think about the safety and wellbeing of our students and what we can do to better support them. A recent report by Samaritans (2020, pp.20) on self-harm found that “People were less likely to seek support from schools, university or work, compared to other sources, both over their lifetime and following their most recent experience of self-harm”. This highlights the urgency of universities providing better support for their students, especially at a time when their access to other support networks is limited.