Prepping for Autumn

Excessive (for now)

Last week I was worrying about stuff. This week I’m, errm, still worrying about it.

Still high up my list is the autumn/fall and how I’m going to teach my course on negotiation, mainly because it’s going to be such a massive pain in the proverbial.

But rather than go, once again, through my agonising about that, I’m going to try to get you to think about the generic points of getting ready for next semester. Because you’re in this too.

The logic is simply that even if we hit peak infections now or in the coming weeks in our respective countries, covid-19 isn’t going to be solved. Instead, much of the local population won’t have been infected, vaccines won’t exist and the scope for a new wave of infections is substantial. Throw in the warm weather thing and the last quarter of this year looks like we well be doing this again, maybe even doing it still, but let’s hope not.

I note in passing that this view is, A) downbeat, and; B) in line with my general teaching practice of assuming that things might not work out as I wish, so I’d better have a fallback. And as I write last week, trying to do online learning properly is not a quick proposition, so we need to get moving now.

But it’s worse than that.

Not only will students’ expectations of provision be that much greater than they have been in the past few weeks, we also have to recognise that any new lockdown might be only intermittently in place during the new semester. So we’re going to have to design and run courses that might have to be simultaneously digital-native and ready to go back into the classroom.

So how to tackle this?

As so often, three ideas come forward.

Firstly, start with the digital. Given the profound uncertainty about It All, it makes sense to plan very conservatively. In this case, that means assuming that there will be some form of significant disruption to delivery at some point during the semester.

Even if there is only a brief lockdown, you may find that effects are more lasting, with travel restrictions on your overseas students, plus unwillingness by all students to return to campuses (especially if they become associated with being sites of infection). That all points to online delivery being useful in any case.

In addition, online is your fallback: there’s no sign that any of this is going to compromise either digital access or electricity generation [goodness, this is cheery, isn’t it?], so online is the sensible plan to start from.

That means building your course with a digital core, and the capacity to run it entirely digitally, but with scope to move elements back into the classroom as needed/possible. However, even when moving back, you probably still need to provide for digital access to those classroom spaces, for those that can’t be there.

Put like that, it’s much simpler to think about the balance of what goes where.

Second idea is that we treat passive and active elements separately. How you handle transmitting knowledge/skills is going to be different from spaces in which students get to explore.

This is a bit more tricky, because the boundary is rather blurred here: active learning is precisely about developing knowledge and skills, but through practice rather than transmission. But let’s work through the thought.

IF you have lectures, then these can be parked into a digital package relatively easily. You park yourself in front of a webcam, set up your preferred/mandated package and record a lecture. That can be kept on your local intranet, for students to watch whenever: the content (at this point) doesn’t need to seen simultaneously, so park it and focus on building spaces for what does need to happen at the same time.

More active elements typically fall into those categories: if you want debate or discussion, especially face-to-face, then you need time-slots and technology to make that happen. But also, that’s not essential: think about the options you have for asynchronous debate (forums, threads, wikis, etc.).

A big part of this is putting yourself in the shoes of the students. How are they going to encounter and interact with your course, if they are sitting at home (again) or if they are sitting in the classroom? Again, given the uncertainty, might you run multiple elements simultaneously, so that you can weight them differently as the situation changes, or so that different students in different situations all have opportunities to learn?

And all of this comes back to the final idea: digital is different. Yes, you can move stuff online, but that’s not the same as creating digital learning spaces.

Partly, that’s about options available to you. There are things you can do online that aren’t really possible in the classroom: the production and use of multimedia, the accessing of asynchronous learning, the manipulation of learning spaces. But equally, there are things you lose: the physical collocation (with all the interpersonal skills development that allows for), the scope to pick up on cues from those struggling, the (relatively) undivided focus.

But also it’s all a reminder that we can’t keep making the same assumptions about our students as before. As you’ve seen in the past weeks, students have many other concerns that your class: in a minor way, that’s been because of the format, but that minor way is likely to grow as they become more comfortable with their changed personal situation and try to get back to ‘normal’. It’s precisely at that point that you have to offer something that is compelling enough to engage and stimulate them.

Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but we have to think about it primarily as just being different, and with that difference comes opportunity. See it as a moment to try out something new, that works in that space.

And that new isn’t going to be the same for all of us.

Just like before, there are many, many different ways to help students learn. You need to find one that works for your objectives, and for your students. So look around, talk with colleagues and students themselves, read the copious materials available online, and lay your plans now.

If nothing else, it’ll help pass the time.