We are all preparing (in UK HE at least) for that emerging reality that we will likely be teaching online for some part of the academic year 2020/2021. The work we must do over the summer to account for this reality is significant, certainly at a much greater level than our remote teaching transition in March. The shift is now around not only remote provision but a sustained and coherent online experience, one with an indefinite timeline. This involves UG and PG programmes, it involves access and bridging programmes, it involves everything we do as universities. For many, the work is underway as it is at the University of Edinburgh. For those managing this with care responsibilities, my best to you. That is herculean work. For those working with faculty unfamiliar with this new environment and doing so with humility, encouragement, and care, my best to you. For those legions of instructional designers and learning technologists out there, my best to you and your important work. For those doing all of this without access to resources and support, I am duly impressed. Hang in there, all of you.
What I learned/am learning from my research networks
I can only speak to my little part of this migration and only through the lens of the University of Edinburgh and the several universities I work with in sub-Saharan Africa, all of which are managing this transition. To begin, I am taking lessons from these SSA universities directly into my Edinburgh response. When technology ownership and internet access are not givens (and in some cases, not the norm by any stretch of the imagination), one needs to think imaginatively, assertively, and with some core principles.
Interesting to note that many of the same principles that we emphasised in the Edinburgh remote teaching transition in March are emerging with these universities as well: continuity, contact, and care. Meaningful educational exchanges on Moodle, on WhatsApp, on basic SMS; peer groupings, reflective practice, audio only mini-lectures, asynchronous activity, and more. This is coupled with technological activity, such as negotiating with the mobile telecoms to provide free access to particular IP ranges (ie, the university’s Moodle portal), offline content, remote work stations, and more. Technology ownership is a thornier matter but access is in some cases accounted for. I am enriched by my discussions with these universities. My thanks to them.
How that reflects in the work we do at the University of Edinburgh is similar. Moving from this remote teaching emphasis into something a bit more hybrid: if and when we are able to access the physical campus, not all of us will be there. Travel restrictions will persist for many; financial restrictions will further limit that mobility (it doesn’t make much financial sense to relocate to the physical campus if we only have access to it from April, for example). There will likely be periods of opening and closings of the campus. Even when on-campus, restrictions from social distancing will change the nature of the classroom experience in terms of how many can congregate there. All these permutations on the continuum between online and on-campus abound.
We will need a model that allows for these movements without making any of them impossible. We need a model that is embedded with what we know works and what values we hold dear as an institution. We need a model that has sustained and enriching educational experiences, whatever the disruption. No easy feat but no significant transformation, crisis response or not, ever is. What we learn here will stay with us for decades.
What are we doing (at least the parts that I am involved in)
I was trying to think of a clever way to phrase this, but alas I only came up with teaching online teaching, mapping, and mentoring. Note that there are layers of activity taking place here simultaneously and considerable work being undertaken to make sure the layers speak to each other. Professor Sian Bayne is guiding most of this work at the highest level (and we are all so incredibly thankful for her guidance here; none of this works without her, in my opinion). I am most definitely on the more operational level. On the surface this might sound obvious, but it is important these levels join up for coherency’s sake. Particularly if and when campuses open and close.
1: Teaching online teaching: this is in the form a training programme that colleagues and I from the Learning, Teaching, and the Web team (all-stars all of them) created last year, have run a few times, and now heavily adapted to the current context. It isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We are calling this programme an Edinburgh Model for Teaching Online. This is not because we are advancing some radically innovative pedagogical approach here; in fact, most of what we are advancing is readily available in the literature (and certainly present in other online teaching programmes as well). Rather we call it that because it is a position of teaching online that emerges specifically from the digital research and teaching projects at the University and the values surfaced within them. Engaged teaching, engaged learning communities, and meaningful feedback and assessment surfaced in a tour of core university supported technologies experienced as a student might. High touch teaching from myself and the course tutors (a wonderful cross-section of the university from the Centre for Research in Digital Education, Learning, Teaching, and the Web (LTW), and the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine). We are running this course starting tomorrow for 200 faculty, and immediately upon the completion of this run, we will start another in June for at least 400 faculty (and presumably another after that, if the appetite is there). At least I know what I am doing this summer.
2: Training packages and drop-ins: in addition we will be running further training on core technologies all week for every week leading up to the beginning of the new academic year. These are being run by the Learning, Teaching, and the Web team and more information can be found here. I along with Stuart Nicol and Jon Jack of LTW run the drop-in sessions which are basically just open sessions. I do a quick 10 minute presentation on what one should try to emphasise in their teaching online and then we open it up to questions from anyone who has them. Even if your university or school doesn’t have access to a great deal of technological resources, consider this approach. It is easy to implement, provides you a quick diagnostic of the most pressing issues, and gives you an opportunity to draft an informed response. People are given a voice to surface concerns and they have access to a learning technologist and a faculty member who teaches online. We will have at least one a week and advertise as part of the larger training programme. If synchronous sessions are problematic, consider a Teams channel or equivalent dedicated just for support like this.
3: Mapping: the mapping bit is largely a design effort, however condensed. It involves again the noble work of learning technologists and instructional designers the university over working with programme directors and course organisers to map face to face activity onto a hybrid model of online and on-campus. We will be using established design models adapted for abbreviated circumstances. This is critical work (a bit of an understatement) and will likely be complemented with design templates (ie, designing towards a template of a: a large lecture style UG programme b: a postgraduate taught course in subject X, c: a lab-based course and on and on). Again, the trick here is not design something so fixed in any one mode (online or on-campus) that it excludes some element of that continuum of cohorts I mentioned earlier.
4: Mentoring/matching: this is capacity we are fortunate enough to have a bit of, but at least in some schools the idea is to pair those with online teaching experience with those that don’t. An open channel akin to the drop-in sessions mentioned above but more a sustained space for these discussions to settle into normalcy and not just as a one-off. Our ideal model if resources allow (which they really don’t but we will try to make it work) is 1 online teacher + 1 learning technologist/instructional designer to 1 programme director or course organiser. Sheer numbers dictate that learning technologists and online teachers will be paired with many programmes and courses. But it is a channel that gives further sinews to an overall support structure. Not sure if it will work, but we will try.
My closing thoughts (for the University of Edinburgh)
I am struggling to articulate this as I know this crisis has so greatly affected so many. I don’t want to betray or belittle anyone’s experiences, the enormity of their care and professional responsibilities, and its toll on mental health. I feel it sometimes as well, the swell of the charge brewing in front of us. It will eclipse almost everything else for a stretch. I expect to do almost nothing else from now until possibly the end of the year (aside from teach my own online course come September of course on the MSc in Digital Education) and perhaps longer. I am settling into that reality but I still mourn many of the bits I am shedding (and rejoice in some that I am most happy to shed). Research will take a bit of a backseat for now, a few labours of love might have to wait a bit.
My professional duties now are to my people (students and colleagues), my programme, my school, my university, my network, my sector. That is the way I need to see the sequence to remain functional and meaningfully contribute. That is how I keep going. That is my math. It works for me.
That and the waves of support we have been receiving, unsolicited, from across the university. I mentioned the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and their incredibly gracious offer to throw themselves into teaching the training programme with us. Colleagues from the Centre for Research in Digital Education, from LTW, from former students, and colleagues in my network who have all volunteered to take a shift, lend a hand, do what we need to do to make this work. I am emboldened by your generosity. I am comforted by your support. We all thank you.
I want nothing to more to extend that comfort to our faculty at the University of Edinburgh. To say, we will get there together. You will have as much support as we can muster, as much enthusiasm we can provide, all the expertise in our disposal. It won’t be easy but we are committed. Hopefully, take comfort from that. Push back on despair. Practice self-care. Find your math, if you are able. Sending all my best to all of you.