How to run a webinar?

analog Zoom

Pretty much every time I’m talking about L&T these days, I find myself saying that we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up about being perfect, but we should be thinking about ways to improve.

It’s for that reason I’m going to reflect a bit on my webinar for the PSA, part of their Teaching Politics Online series (do sign up: lots of excellent speakers still to come).

And also because I wasn’t totally satisfied with how I did.

Part of the issue was that rather than the just-about-manage-a-conversation registration of 20 people, we instead got nearly 70 joining in (and a bunch more who’d registered). Fortunately, I’d been able to think about that beforehand, but not to a reassuringly tidy conclusion.

At the back of my mind was the message that we’ve all been writing about on this blog for years – what’s your objective?

The point

Yes, I’d been asked to talk about the impact of the online-shift on us as teachers, but what was the message I was trying to communicate?

Oddly – and I use that word sarcastically – thinking about it in those terms was a big help, getting me to fix more on the core points and working through to possible ways to reinforce them.

Here I got to something of a dilemma. On the one hand, 70+ people is too much to do much that’s interactive. On the other, who wants to listen to a talking head for 45 minutes (plus Q&A)?

So, a compromise.

As well as some (nominal) slides, I put together a couple of short quizzes and activities (you can see them all here).

These each only took a few minutes, and provided some input from the audience and some focus for my headline messages.

For instance, seeing that institutional uncertainty was a big barrier/problem meant I spent more time on that than on more nebulous concerns about personal motivation.

Plus the meme-making activity is quite enjoyable.

And the point is?

On the plus side, I think these did give something more to the session, and helped to keep some people more engaged, but that was at a cost of keeping it tight and focused: it turns out academics are just as good at staying focused as everyone else, so various people raced ahead on the activities, or lingered in making memes. And some people didn’t really do any of them.

As much as comments I’ve had have been very positive, I’m not sure I’d do it like that again, mainly because I’m coming back to my evolving thinking about online instruction.

In particular, I’m not sure about how much of a role synchronous formats can/should play. I feel I could have provided a much more concentrated pre-recorded lecture, asked for engagement with some brief activities and then followed up with another pre-record and/or a live Q&A.

That said, I know how hard it is to get and keep peoples’ attention: I’d guess I’ve have gotten much less engagement with the activities in that format than I did when I had them right there.

So it’s a trade-off, and we come back to the question of what we’re trying to achieve.

If I take this across to my teaching, does it matter more that I work with those who are present, or with creating content that is more passive, but is there for everyone, whenever they access it?

The ideal answer is that you maximise both tracks, creating compelling learning moments that students want to take part in, but also providing a more rigorous safety net for those that can’t/won’t.

Get to the point

I’m drifting from the original purpose of this post, but it’s useful to return to the question of how could I have improved on my webinar.

A couple of people said it had been a useful place to think about their situation in the round, to reflect on how they might draw on what they already knew. That’s good, because part of my core objective was to try and make All This look more manageable, because it’s actually primarily just another example of working around the constraints we’ve always faced with our teaching.

And maybe that’s a good point to try to end on: each of us has a different path of learning.

Just as creating varied learning environments can be useful in creating more points of access for students, so too might we have to learn how to create that variety in remote settings. No one way of doings is going to work for all learners and all subjects, so exploring the possibilities is essential.

And hopefully the reflecting on that exploration can open our eyes to how we might make the most of what we do.

Nothing so permanent as ‘temporary’

Among the most minor of effects of this pandemic is the delay of the (second) move of our Department to a new building on campus.

As part of a more general reorganisation, we were due to be spending a year in temporary digs, with a very big pile of packing crates holding most of our stuff until we could get into our final stop.

I mention this not because I’m complaining – I have a very good view from my office on the days that I am in it – but to illustrate the basic notion that temporary arrangements have a way of becoming rather more permanent, just like that thing you’ve been meaning to do in your home, but haven’t quite gotten around to.

That crack (and some yukky textured skimming too)…

[This reminds me to look up at our dining room ceiling, at the huge crack that stretches across it, just as it has done for the past 11 years. meh]

Any way, this all comes back to our shared situation, where a bunch of stuff has been thrown up in short order, without much thought to its durability.

I’ve already written about why we need to revisit our online practices for the autumn/fall, so I won’t go over that again. But I will ask you to consider the personal dimension of this.

For myself, as much as this lockdown has been very manageable, I do now notice the longer-term effects.

Sure, I know not to try and sit on the sofa for a day of typing, so I don’t get really bad backache, but the dining table and (hard) chair still don’t make such a conducive space for getting into writing/working.

Likewise, I think it’s been really good that the family has a routine to the day, but it’s not one that sits all that well with when I might produce work: it’s often at the points I’m just about get into the thing I’m procrastinating about (and I’m procrastinating a lot) that it’s time for a cuppa, or lunch, or a walk.

Yeah, I need to do stuff, but so does everyone else in the house.

But mostly, it’s the gnawing sense that I’m missing out on the soft aspects of being in my office – the interactions, the cues, the sense of a space as being for ‘work’.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad problem, but it’s one that is certainly there, and I get the feeling that most of us have it in some form.

Certainly if I had crappy internet, or had to share a working room with another family member, or if our finances were badly affected by the lockdown, or a family member were stricken, then I’d be finding it a whole lot harder.

Sadly, lots of us (and lots of our students) are in just those kinds of situations.

Making something work for a few weeks is one thing, but if this how things are going to be for the foreseeable future, then that’s a whole new ballgame.

Dealing with that is going to be an ever more important part of this process, which is why I’m heartened to see growing amounts of support from employers, study associations, colleagues, friends and family out there.

But we also need to talk about such things, to help make it easier for others to do the same. You might be coping, but coping isn’t the same as thriving, and there’s not a lot of thriving going on right now.

Yes, we’ll need robust processes and practices to make the coming year work, but an essential part of that is our own emotional and professional resilience: however we teach, or facilitate learning, we still need to be in the room, both literally and metaphorically.

Maybe the trick is to pretend that would just be a temporary thing; and that way we can make it stick for good.

Carpe lectionem

Don’t ask me…

Well. This is fun, isn’t it?

Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I get the distinct impression that we’ve moved to the second phase of lockdown: boredom.

Those first weeks of frantic adjustment, of adding an extra tin or one into our shop (because none of us stockpile), of working out the un-mute keyboard shortcut for Zoom, of deciding whether the walk to go shop should also count as the walk for exercise, all those are done.

Now, it’s routine. You probably even know what day of the week it is.

That’s good, because it’s now the time to get focused on what’s still to come.

I’ve written before about the autumn/fall semester, which is going to be a global challenge for HE: there will almost certainly be massive disruption on student recruitment, both in terms of overall numbers and of their location, plus lockdown elements are going to linger for a long time yet, so we have to assume that we’ll all be doing some form of online instruction.

Right now, my impression is that this is still a bit up in the air. Partly that’s because this situation is too fluid to encourage much strategic planning; partly it’s because we habour hopes that this will all be a distant memory by September; and partly it’s because we’re all up to our eyeballs in stuff right now.

It’s that last element I want to focus on this time.

Many of us still have a few weeks of teaching left, which is why we’re so busy. But that’s also an opportunity.

If we are going to have to sort ourselves out for the autumn, when we’ll need to have a much more robust offering to students, then we’ll want to have as much confidence as possible in different approaches.

That’s why this period, right now, is really useful. It’s a time to try out ideas we might want to pursue more further down the line.

It’s with that in mind that me and my colleagues here at Surrey are trying to be a bit more systematic about this.

For context, we’ve already worked up a draft plan for the autumn, with both general principles for delivery of our provision for both online and onsite students, as well as worked examples of different types of courses.

The aim is to ensure all colleagues have a robust, and evidenced basis for transforming their teaching, to ensure all students can access the same high-quality learning environments, not matter how they participate.

The next step is now to work on some more specific activities, to get a proper feel for them. That includes some remote simulations, groupwork exercises and asynchronous presentations.

When our semester ends, we’re all going to write up [OK, we’ve asked everyone to write up, so, you know] these trials, with practicalities, strengths and weaknesses and options for adaptation. Just short, one-pagers to capture the essentials.

That will give us a more grounded sense of how things work in remote settings and allow us to think more clearly about these can relate to in-class work that might be in parallel.

It’s not a perfect process and we’re still going to make some missteps on the way – which is why we’re also going to have lots of running reviews now and in the autumn – but it’s an effort to make our lives easier this summer.

As a student of politics, I’ll also note it keeps us ahead of the institutional process that’s unfurling for us (and for you), so we’re more likely to see our plans (which are not particularly disciplinary) getting picked up by others, rather than us having to cleave to other people’s ideas.

It’s been one of the more enjoyable aspects of all this that L&T has plonked itself in the centre of people’s attentions, but now we need to make the most of that opportunity right now, before it passes.

And, as always, if you have an idea you’d like to share with a global audience, then just drop us a line here at ALPS blog.

Push the tempo

You’ll be shocked to read that people only have short attention spans, especially online.

This not only gives me the occasion to write a short post, but also allows me to remind you of this fact when thinking about your ventures into online L&T.

As part of the work I’ve been doing with colleagues recently on preparing for the autumn, a consistent message from the literature and the practical advice is to keep it concise, and keep it frequent.

That means making your online lectures into 15 minute blocks and group activities that can be broken up into smaller chunks.

It also means talking a lot more to your students, regularly producing interactions and demonstrating the continuing nature of the work. It’ll not be enough to set out a workplan at the top of the semester, then sitting back and waiting for the assessment to roll in.

You know this, both from your previous experience with students and from your current situation.

In both cases, the presence/absence of being co-located means you lose much of the soft interactions that help sustain interest and engagement: the chat in the corridor, the messages relayed through mutual contacts.

Think about how you’re working now, in lockdown: a lot more structured interactions and meetings, alongside a lot more undifferentiated time where you could be doing lots of things (writing that grant bid/article/etc.), but you’re possibly not.

[and yes, blog writing is a good example of this]

Students are in the same boat, and even if lockdowns aren’t as strict, then the nature of distance learning is that it’s really hard to get and keep someone’s attention if they’re down the line.

So if you want to make your teaching work better online, then you’ll have to lean into it: not just reproducing what you’d do in class, but creating a novel structure that guides, supports and interacts with students in a rather different manner to before.

That’s not an exact science, but the most useful rule of thumb is still that you’re not as interesting as you think you are, so you will need to work for students’ attention.

And with that, let’s back to whatever it was we were doing beforehand.

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.

What support do you need to teach online? Take this short survey!

This guest post comes from Alexandra Mihai (VUB) and was originally posted on The Educationalist blog.

Although it may seem like a long time ago, it’s been just a few weeks since universities were forced by the coronavirus crisis to move their activities online. Many discussions are currently taking place, especially on social media, on the effect of this sudden change on students, teachers and universities in general. New networks are being built and older ones are revived; most importantly, online learning experts are doing their best to pool resources that can be helpful for teachers in this emergency transition. I reflected on the newly found fame of online education and the impact the crisis has on Higher Education herehere and here. Now it’s time to focus our efforts on coming up with solutions that enable teachers and universities to offer quality online education in the near future. Ideally, instructional designers and educational technologists should be available to support teachers as they (re)design their courses.

What’s the problem? And how to fix it.

We easily forget that not all universities have resources to provide support for teaching online and unfortunately this is not likely to change soon. There is a lot of valuable expertise out there, but often supply and demand don’t match- either for geographical/ time zone reasons, or due to language barriers. Or sometimes it’s just about each of us living in our own filter bubbles and often being unaware of resources and ideas we could use that belong to other bubbles.

I am currently working on ideas to increase access to valuable knowledge and expertise on online teaching and learning. This could be very useful in the short term and it would also provide teachers with tools and resources they can use in the future to rethink their courses.

In order to design the right channel for providing accessible support I created a short survey to find out more about the needs of Higher Education teaching staff in terms of support for teaching online. If you are teaching at university, it would be great if you could fill in this short survey and share it with your network. It only takes 5 minutes and your contribution will help shed light on a topic that is becoming increasingly important. I would also welcome any comments in response to this article or via email: alexandra.mihai@vub.be. And if you are interested in the results, I would be happy to share them with you in the following weeks.

Ripples/Waves

Like a coronavirus, but more manageable

Let’s start by saying that so far I’ve not been too concerned about coronavirus: my classes this semester were already flipped and my immediate colleagues seemed to be managing the digital transition pretty well, given everything.

But now, I’m less sanguine.

This is mainly because I’ve fallen into my own trap of anxiety-management. This states that usually it’s too early to worry about stuff, and then it’s usually too late.

Of course, right now turns out to be exactly when I need to worry about a number of coming issues.

Stupid reasoning, with its rationalising.

My worries come in three distinct packages, so it’s not even a single thing.

Worry one, the smallest one, is assessment. My institution is keeping its end-of-semester assessment, although asking everyone to replace exams under controlled conditions with something else. That’s fair enough, although obviously more involved than the pass-fail model others are using, or even the general scrubbing of anything.

It’s only a small concern because I was using an open-book exam with our software pilot, so it should be that I can continue to use it, but maybe with a 24 hour window, rather than 2 hours, so students now spread around the world (and maybe with shonky internet) have plenty of time to complete it.

But it’s still a concern: remember that these grades are going to hang around the students’ transcripts for a long time and memories will fade of the scale of the impact, so I need to think about ensuring I continue to provide fair and transparent assessment.

Worry two is much bigger, if also much less defined: recruitment.

Coronavirus is likely to result in medium-term disruption to international movement and extended national restrictions. Universities are obvious sites of concern for those worried about bringing together people from around the world for extended periods.

All of that suggests that the global market for students is going to be hard-hit, which is a problem if your institution relies on overseas fees to prop up business models.

Even with domestic students, things are going to be tough. Here in the UK, there is talk of capping numbers, to stop some institutions making up international shortfalls by going to town in accepting a lot more locals. That might seem to fit with the progressive marketisation of the sector here, but apparently it’s not the kind of clear-out of universities that was being looked for.

In any case, finances for universities in any country are going to be hit, which means more tough times after a decade of, um tough times caused by the financial crisis.

If that’s all a bit too big, then maybe worry three is more manageable, if also the one I’m least clear about how I can resolve it: my teaching next semester.

I’ll be running two classes in the autumn/fall: one on European integration and one on negotiation. The former I can see reasonably easily how I could run it in a virtual form, but the latter is going to be a massive pain in the arse.

Even the one habitual online exercise I currently have doesn’t really work any more, since it requires people to make use of existing travel options to move around; and that’s quite aside from the game objective, namely to meet up in a group ASAP – not really the look to be going for in these social distancing times.

But more profoundly, all of the key things I would want students to know about seem to require face-to-face, in-person interaction. I can’t simply just move my exercises online.

And this is going to be the big meta-challenge for teaching later this year: we can’t simply repeat the current crash-to-digital option.

Instead, we are going to have to create genuinely effective digital learning environments, which is rather different from stick-it-on-Zoom. And that’s not even getting into a situation where we might be allowed back into the classrooms half-way through semester. This all needs ground-up work and effort, the kind that needs maybe half-a-year to do.

Oh.

And there you have it, why I’m worried. These are things we have to get to work on now if we are going to pull through what will certainly be one of the less pleasant professional summers of our lives.

Because while these might be my worries, they are probably also your worries, and the worries of those around you.

Which is why we are going to have to help and support each other a lot in the coming months. Here at ALPS blog, we’re always ready to share thoughts and ideas and to give space for those who want to do the same, but each of you might also think about how you can do that with colleagues, near and far.

They say a crisis should never go to waste, but right now I’m going more with that line from Jurassic Park: “Life always finds a way”. Let’s make that way a bit easier for each other.

Coping by learning

It’s been one of the more heartening sides of all this that colleagues have been so forthcoming in sharing their ideas about how to move teaching online: I’m guessing you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen pieces on models and techniques and how-tos in the past week alone.

Rather than add to that, I want to think about another aspect of this crisis: coping.

This matters not only because it’s a very stressful time, but also because the move to self-isolation has deprived us of one of the most powerful tools for managing that stress: face-to-face interaction.

Sitting around your home, with time on your hands and limited options, is not a good recipe for positive thinking.

But learning can be a help in all this.

Giving people the tools to rationalise and explore their situation more dispassionately can be support more general efforts to keep our shit together.

In essence this is about Type I and II thinking [I’m not even going to put a link to that – it can be your task for the day, to lose yourself in some behavioural psychology]: we can balance our gut reaction to the situation with some more systematic and unemotional reasoning.

Indeed, all this time we have on our hands will be the perfect opportunity.

So what does that look like, in practical terms.

To take one example, I used my (online) class last week to ask students to do some quick digging on what the different institutions of the EU had done so far in the crisis, putting their notes into a Google Doc. 5 minutes later we had a good list of elements and the basis of a discussion about it.

That discussion was partly about why some institutions had done lots and others had done nothing, but also it become a discussion about more abstractedly models of how political systems react in such situations and how it taps into our feelings about it all.

In particular, we ending up talking about “something must be done” as a social/media demand and how that balanced with what could actually usefully be done.

As a result, we moved from a comment about the European Parliament doing nothing – except stopping plenary sessions – to a recognition that its role as law-making and overseer of due process means its time will come a bit further down the line.

None of this was an attempt to say “everything’s fine”, but rather to help students have more tools for making sense of what’s going on around them.

And this can be more generally applied: as one of the many who has had to deal with the vast complexity and rapid mutability of Brexit over the past few years, the principles are much the same.

Think of your subject area as a set of analytical skills and models more than as a description of ‘how things are’: give students tools and language to get a grip on it all.

Invite students to put themselves in the position of others, so they can see why those others reach the decisions that they do: your own way of making sense of the world isn’t the only way.

Get them to consider hypothetical extensions of the current situation and how they might act then: this can help make more sense of choices being now.

And remind students that politics – and life – is rather tricky. Even with the best available information and the most rational decision-making, missteps happen and costs are incurred.

Those costs are human lives and that is a terrible thing and cannot – should not – be smoothed away (especially as this pandemic comes ever closer to us individually), but it does not mean we have to stop trying to help our students, our families and ourselves from becoming better equipped to get through these exceptional times.

Yet more tips on moving teaching online

Chad and Amanda have already given their ideas on the crash move to online, so here’s my version too, in graphic form.

You can download a PDF version here.

As the others have said, you need to triage your teaching: what absolutely must happen and what’s just nice to have?

If you’re struggling, then ask colleagues, both within your institution and beyond: there are lots of great people on Twitter (start with the @ALPSblog follow list).

Brain meet meme

So we did the meme thing in class.

As I discussed last week, I wanted to check whether it did really bring anything to the discussion, given my doubts.

And it did. Just not what I thought it would.

I’d asked students in the lecture to drop memes into the collaborative document, on the theme of “the EU as it was, the EU as it is.” (not the most meme-y title, but whatever).

From what we got, I can tell you a number of things.

Firstly, most students clearly just googled “EU meme” to see what they could find, rather than making their own memes. Perhaps that’s a refinement to consider, using something like this.

Secondly, most of my students aren’t that well disposed to the EU.

Thirdly, the EU isn’t the subject of much meme-making.

And fourthly, most of those memes are about the EU banning memes.

[sic]

We talked about this last point the most, mainly because there was a long struggle on their part to consider the most logical reason for why, despite the EU banning memes, we were a) able to find lots of memes, and b) I was allowed to run a session in class about memes.

If you’ve not worked it out, I’ll leave it to you to go and check (hint: look for news sources that talk about what happened, rather than what might happen).

Any way, it became a good opportunity to talk about being a rigorous researcher and sense-checking what you find. That’s not a point just about the EU, but about everything you study.

The jury is still out on using memes like this, but it was good to have this discussion. My concern is whether we might have it again.