Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn

Pretty things

As well as the technical side of things, EuroTLC was a great opportunity to think more about the pedagogic way forward in what I’m going to call our Leap Online.

Like you, recent months have been a mass of institutional briefings and meetings, plus many, many webinars about good online practice. And how what we’re going to be doing it not actually fully online, because we hope we’ll be getting most of our students back into classes come the autumn.

This hope is tempered by, well, evidence that COVID-19 isn’t going to be disappearing from our lives any time soon, so plans have to be made with some flexibility and resilience.

For us, that’s meant a ‘hybrid model’, with much content online and scope to become fully online as and when we need to. That’s reasonable enough given the circumstances, even if it means having to accept students moving between modes (in class or online) within semesters, with all the issues that creates for ensuring equity of learning opportunities for all.

At its heart, this perfectly captures a medium-term dilemma.

Short-term, we can – and have – make huge changes to our practice, because conditions require us to and because everyone involved is understanding and accommodating of that. I don’t think anyone thought this past semester was very pretty, pedagogically, but we got through it.

Long-term, we can also make big changes, becauses we can work through proper planning and consultation and trialling and all the other things we do to make effective learning spaces happen. Indeed, it’s probably our usual way of doing things.

The problem is the bit in between. We have now a situation that imposes major new constraints on us, while also being of indeterminate duration. If wherever we happen to work gets a vaccine, or an effective test and trace system, then we could return to something very close to the past (or February, as it’s also known); without those things, we might be looking at years.

In either case, it’s long enough that expectations are higher – from students, from administrators, from ourselves – even as our ability to lay suitable plans is severely compromised by the uncertainty of what we have to deal with, in terms of regulation, social acceptability and institutional practicality.

Fun stuff.

As Chad’s trial showed all too clearly, we have to be particularly careful not to assume that we can just set up some kit and just add in an online stream to our previous practice (and Chad did a lot more than that BTW).

Instead, we have to go back to some core principles and redesign all of our teaching, if we are to make this work.

So what might be those core principles in this brave new world?

Let’s start with the big one: have clear learning objectives.

This is some foundational to all teaching that it should really go without saying. And yet, here I am, saying it. As various delegates at EuroTLC commented, it’s the kind of thing that’s pretty obvious, but only when it’s pointed out to you.

If you don’t know what you want your students to have learnt from their time with you, then it’s not going to be too surprising if they don’t know what the purpose of the exercise might be, or if you aren’t sure that they’ve had the opportunity to learn it.

Being clear is good for you, and good for them and it’s essential for creating content for whatever mode of delivery you’re being told to provide.

But to do that, you need a second principle: align your objectives with your activities and with your assessment.

With your clear objectives, you can now work – within the deliver confines you have – to create specific things to do with your students (and for them to do themselves) that best allow them the opportunity to learn the appropriate material or skills. And then you can apply the most suitable form of assessment to ascertain whether and how they used that opportunity (hint: it’s probably not with a unseen exam).

See? Pretty simple really.

Or, at least, simple to write. It’s harder to do this in practice, because there are lots of different ways you can go about creating learning spaces and there’s no one way that will always work.

For that reason, your third principle should be make your learning space adaptable and responsive. That adaptability isn’t of the order of this Leap Online, but of intra-course flexibility.

Remember how you used to see when students were a bit lost in class? That odd look of ‘umm’? That’s the level of responsiveness I’m taking about. Being able to re-present and re-cast specific points or activities to meet the individual needs of students.

Some colleagues are planning to survey their classes right at the start of semester, to get a better sense of their situations, skills and knowledge. I’m going to be going more of the running feedback through the semester. All of us are going to be getting comments from course evaluations from this last semester, which might have some helpful clues about how to rework our provision. Basically, we can and should keep our students close on this change and not assume that we can get it all right, first time.

But what of online? Those few who’ve been there already for some time must have something useful to tell us, right?

Central to online is keeping students engaged. Attention spans are brief; much briefer than you think/wish, so you need to keep individual chunks of delivery concise and to the point. Lectures should be 15-20 minutes max, and self-contained (so none of that “Lecture Week 1, part 4” nonsense). Your content should be more varied than the old-school lecture-and-class-debate-in-seminar format you probably got as a student: each week does not need to look like the others. And keep bringing students back to the course: better to have 3 small activities through the week than one big one, breaking down tasks into more individual steps.

Remember in this world of being much more online you are competing for students’ interests: you likely don’t have them co-locating with you, so the friction for them of stepping out of your learning space is as small as closing a tab on the browser. And that’s even before we get into the other things in their lives that might be taking them away.

But if chunking is good, so too is communication. Part of the logic of breaking up content is precisely so that there’s a lot more communication going on. Consider how much more easily stuff on your to-do list (my to-do list) slips down during lockdown because you’ve lost a whole bunch of your usual cues: you don’t bump into colleagues in the corridor, you don’t cross paths with the editor at conferences – it just becomes another email in the inbox.

For students, it’s the same. There’s a lot going on, so you need to keep them coming back to you and your course. And if they have to step off for a bit, it needs to be easy for them to step back on. Again, chunking is helpful as a more managed learning environment, where you’ve put in place more support than you would in a in-class space. You underpin that with regular communication through email and/or your VLE/LMS, several times a week, and you demonstrate that it’s not just words by being prompt in responding to queries. Again, your increased feedback loops are a good place to start, tweeking quickly and appropriately as you run more sessions.

That’s probably enough for you to be going on with for now.

The headline message is simply that the principles of good teaching are constant, however you deliver it. All the skills you already have are still valuable in this new environment, so it’s not about starting from scratch.

Again, it’s not going to be an easy summer or autumn, but we’ve got this. You’ve got this.