Welcome to this special edition of the National Forum ezine where we present voices, experiences and stories from across the higher education sector.
Many thanks to those colleagues who have contributed the articles in this special edition which captures what teaching and learning is like in these extraordinary times.
Do contact us with comments about the ezine; we’d be delighted to hear from you not least if you are interested in writing for the next edition.
National Forum Team
PD Prompts during Covid-19 // Eithne Hunt
Teaching for me is like …
all relationships – it’s all about connection. This feels more important than ever when we are physically distanced. Connecting with students to help them engage with learning. Helping them to connect with the material by making it accessible to them. And helping them connect the dots between prior and new knowledge.
One of the things I most enjoy about teaching is …
getting to know my students as individuals and helping them feel valued and empowered and curious about themselves and the world, and compassionate towards all of us in it.
I know a class has gone well …
when time passes quickly, there has been some positive interaction and lots of questions.
If I could research one area of my students’ learning it would be …
how students experience the transition into and through higher education in terms of their ability to manage the self-regulation that is required, so that we might be better able to support them to be successful students. In the current crisis, self-regulation is more necessary than ever for our students, as their usual scaffolds of prescribed daily routines and designated study spaces need to be rebuilt.
Writing connects with teaching best when …
it is genuine with the “just right” blend of personal and professional perspectives, although this is much easier in some disciplines than others I appreciate.
The social nature of teaching and learning …
means everything. Humans are wired for social interaction, particularly for the majority of our undergraduates who are still adolescents (up the age of 24) when the influence of social context is especially strong. I’ve been sending regular check-in messages to my students at the moment as I’m acutely aware that many of them are really missing being together at college. Harnessing the power and influence of peers to enhance learning and wellbeing really interests me. We are working on a National Forum funded project to create a digital badge for academic staff to apply a developmental perspective to teaching and learning in higher education.
I prefer my learning environment to be …
real rather than virtual! Engaging with students remotely in the context of COVID-19 is a big adjustment, for them and me. I miss in-person contact and am still very uncomfortable with looking at myself on the screen!
when done well, can really help students make the connections I hope for in terms of their knowledge of themselves and the world.
When I use technology I feel …
pleased when it works, frustrated when it doesn’t. I’ve been using Mentimeter with great success recently. Now I have a sometimes overwhelming array of platforms on which to engage with my colleagues and students: texts, WhatsApp message and videos, tweets and Twitter direct messages, UCC email, MS teams, Zoom, Skype, Gmail, Canvas, and phone calls of course.
Technology for students is …
often taken for granted, in terms of their technical proficiency. I see incoming first year students often with quite poor computer literacy. Phones are ubiquitous of course and have so many benefits. I just wish students didn’t rely on them as their alarm clock and instead kept their phone well out of arm’s reach when they are in bed. Sleep insufficiency amongst students worries me because of the negative impact on wellbeing and learning.
Teaching matters to me because …
I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with young people and hopefully help them to understand themselves as occupational beings and contribute to their development as future occupational therapists, a profession that has an immense contribution to make, not least now in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
If I could change one thing in Irish HE I would …
place a greater emphasis on helping students consider what they can contribute to the world, and then for us as educators to consider how we can support them to realise this potential. I heard Professor Carol Dweck, who developed the theory of growth mindset, speak in London last September and she shared how she tells her Stanford students to focus less on getting As and more on making their contribution. That really resonated with me.
Higher education is about …
so much more than what you are “doing in college”. Stanford physician and author Abraham Verghese and Denise Pope of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, in a discussion on the On Being podcast, urged that we ask young people not “what do you want to do when you grow up?” but rather “how do you want to be when you grow up?” In UCC we are working hard to emphasise the development of graduate attributes and values that go some way to responding to Verghese and Pope’s call.
My Teaching & Learning Space // Leo Casey
Like everyone else I have had to adjust to the big challenges of these crazy days. My work is busier than ever as our Teaching Enhancement, Learning Support and Education Programme teams promote the ‘keep on teaching and learning’ policy at National College of Ireland (NCI). At home I have occupied the sunroom and planted my iMac and other stuff on a big table facing the garden. I connect a Samson Go-Mike to improve the audio quality for my online teaching but that’s really all I need.
These days will be remembered long into the future. Forced to abandon face-to-face classes, the entire higher education sector has gone online. In terms of educational research, this is a goldmine. We’re too busy getting the job done to realise that we will be harvesting insights from this experience for years to come.
The power of necessity is remarkable. None of us would have agreed to try something like this. However, we have no choice but to get on with it and it’s remarkable how much is working.
Students are learning, faculty are teaching, colleges are operating. While not ignoring the enormous stress and uncertainty, we should also appreciate what’s being achieved.
I am especially impressed with our students. In the last few weeks they have overcome the technical challenges to continue to attend class and complete assessments; all the while, they are supporting each other and managing, often difficult, circumstances at home. This year’s cohorts display remarkable values and attributes that will stand them in years to come.
One further thought: my home teaching and learning space is shared with my dog who likes to rest at my feet as I work. He’s a big Golden Retriever and many years ago I convinced the family that we should call him Dewey. I think it’s appropriate to evoke his namesake John Dewey and quote from his work Experience and Education:
“We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.” (P20).
These words resonate through each of these remarkable days. We will never be the same again.
Stop, Start, Continue // Brianán Johnson
- Stop everything you are doing immediately! That seems to be the message we are hearing as life is changing for an unforeseen period. Consideration, adaptability and communication are key during this time.
- Stop to consider that the learning environment has changed for every student; shared accommodation, children, lack of space, broadband, mental health, change in routine and learning styles will impact everyone differently.
- Stop to consider that your students may have additional stresses outside of college. Being away from home, financial strain, anxiety, domestic abuse, loss of accommodation, loss of relationships, hidden disabilities or home-schooling are all mitigating factors.
- Stop to consider your own environment and personal challenges during this time.
- Stop to assess if what you are doing is working. If it’s not, try to adapt your approach. It’s ok to try something new or different. We are all threading water in unknown seas.
- Start asking your students how they would like their course work to be delivered during the COVID-19 outbreak; you may need more than one style.
- Start setting small quizzes to help your students assess their own learning outcomes.
- Start checking in with your students personally; not every student has the confidence to ask for help when they need it, so they may need a gentle prompt.
- Start recording your online live lectures so students can watch them at a convenient time.
- Start encouraging some interactivity during online lectures by setting some small classroom tasks that you work through together.
- Continue looking after your own mental health – put your own oxygen mask on first. We understand you are also having to deal with the same stresses as we are. We need you, and we want you to stay healthy.
- Continue communicating with your students. Keep reiterating to them that they can contact you anytime to ask for help.
- Continue to set small tasks to ensure your students are engaging in all their modules and not getting side-tracked by assignments.
- Continue to set a loose timetable to help keep students in some sort of daily schedule.
- Continue to set 10 a.m. live lectures so students are encouraged to get up early and keep to a routine.
Technology Tenses // Threase Finnegan-Kessie and Trevor Vaugh
When we speak of the ‘past,’ specifically with reference to technology in Higher Education in the midst of the Covid-19 restrictions, we are referring quite literally to a handful of days ago. Before national campus closures, online platforms such as Moodle and Blackboard were used to supplement face-to-face teaching and learning. Readings for the week to come, multiple choice quizzes and lecture notes could be found on these platforms, with students logging in regularly to download content to prepare them for their upcoming classes. Students with no access to a device of their own could rent one for free from campus libraries, allowing them to read content, present word processed assignments and prepare for their future classes. In the majority of cases, learning hinged on the interactions between lecturers, tutors and students in the face-to-face classroom setting.
In the first few days after the Covid-19 restrictions came in place, lecturers scrambled to find ways to facilitate student learning and assessment for the remainder of the academic year. Many module descriptions have been amended by lecturers to eliminate the need for physical examinations at the end of the term and allow for assessment to take place remotely.
Some lectures have turned to online meeting platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to facilitate live lectures. Other lecturers have chosen to upload recordings of themselves, either video or audio, for students to listen to. One lecturer admitted his failings with technology and had a colleague set up a video camera at the back of an empty classroom, while he stood at the front and lectured to a little wooden puppet, stating that he felt odd giving his lectures with no audience.
Students have undoubtedly faced immense challenges, some juggling childcare and caring duties, others lacking access to quality internet, and some overwhelmed by mounting essays, open book exams and remote-learning projects being presented to them at the conclusion of the semester. While the phrase most often used is ‘remote’ in other ways, technology has allowed students and lecturers to move closer and glimpse into each other’s lives. In this time, they may have seen each other more as peers rather than the traditional student-lecturer relationship. They may have seen into each other’s homes, met the family pet, and maybe even a parent or a child. Both parties have seen first hand, people pulling together to muddle their way through the new, temporary normal they are faced with.
Some members of Higher Education are fearful – what if the ‘successes’ of shifting to distance learning lead to the request for more teaching and learning to happen remotely? This shift online was done out of necessity, not through years of careful planning or considerations for lecturers or students. Staff and students alike are ‘making do’ in the current situation, as they live with the comfort that the need for this style of teaching and learning will come to an end once the restrictions are lifted. Many will return with a new understanding of the challenges students and colleagues face; they will not only have heard about each other’s struggles, they will have empathised. There inevitably will be valuable lessons for us all to bring back to the teaching and learning environment on the conclusion of these restrictions, when we shift from this temporary existence back to our permanent one. Time will tell whether it be traditional technology or social technology that translates this new found empathy into action.
A Typical Teaching & Learning Day // Rob Lowney
Life in this pandemic is surreal and anxiety-inducing, so it’s perhaps unusual for me to say that I feel like my work life hasn’t changed that much at all.
Pre-pandemic, my days would be filled with meetings, designing and delivering professional development (PD) to academics around learning technologies, responding to learning technology queries… and that’s still how my days are filled. The volume is now much greater, but strangely I’m grateful for that. A busy work day keeps me occupied and I forget about this pandemic for a while.
Each day I get up and make the arduous commute to my desk in the corner of the living room. While waiting for the coffee to percolate, I do a short breathing or meditation exercise, using the app Stop, Breathe and Think. I don’t miss travelling on a packed Dublin Bus every morning, but I do miss that time I have to myself to get my brain oriented, so I try to start my day off well each morning.
Working from home hasn’t been much of a change for me. Pre-pandemic, I could be working on any of DCU’s campuses any day of the week, so I’m used to going without an office. So long as I have my laptop and some wi-fi, I’m good.
The first task is to scan my email and our helpdesk tickets to see if there are urgent issues to be addressed. If there are, I get to them straight away or contact my colleagues in the Loop VLE Support Team. At the other end of these emails is usually an academic who has little experience of teaching fully online. A query might seem small or simple to me but it’s of huge importance to them – and therefore their students – so I strive to treat it as such. Throughout the day my eye is on my email account, alert to anything that might arise. Not ideal – I should be focussing on just one thing at a time – but needs must.
A core part of my role in DCU is acting as one of the project leads – with my colleague Suzanne Stone – for the IUA Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning (EDTL) project, launched in 2019. Never a more apt time for such a project! Although most of my day is spent on frontline support and PD related to the crisis, it’s still important to keep ‘normal’ projects going. Our project focus is developing academics’ capacity in technology-enhanced assessment. Every day contains an EDTL task – a catch-up with the national project team, a virtual coffee break with our participating groups of academics, designing and delivering online workshops, evaluating our activities, and so on. Our participants have adapted nimbly to the online format for project workshops, and they too are glad to keep going with ‘something normal’.
The Teaching Enhancement Unit’s output of PD activities has increased dramatically during this crisis. Each day we provide up to three webinars related to remote teaching and using the Loop VLE effectively. Most days I deliver a webinar on a Loop tool that can be used for assessment, or co-ordinate with a colleague who presents. It takes time to prepare these each morning but it’s time well spent. PD for academics during this crisis is vital.
Each day usually involves a call with some other members of the Loop Support Team and our head of unit, Mark Glynn, to assess the situation, discuss issues, plan new PD activities, and as the semester draws to a close, to discuss alternative assessment arrangements.
I certainly feel spent by the end of each day, but looking out my apartment window I see St James’s Hospital and it puts things in perspective. My busy work day pales in comparison to the heroic duties our healthcare workers are fulfilling.
HEIku // Louise Kavanagh-Mc Bride
Wifi, screens, focus. Keeping
Distance – staying sane.
NF News // National Forum Team
Supporting Teaching and Learning through Covid 19
During this extraordinary time we have been considering what we can do to best help the sector to work together and share expertise to support teaching and learning. Our first steps have been to create a shared list of resources, to publish short guides on relevant topics, to establish a community space for National Forum Associates and to continue to explore what we can do in terms of contingency planning around events and deadlines. You can read more about this work here and here. If you have any ideas around how we can continue to support the sector now please get in touch.
Launch of National INDEx Survey Report – registration open
The National Forum, in partnership with higher education institutions across the country, will hold an online launch of the INDEx Report, to share results of the recent Irish National Digital Experience Survey, on 7 May 2020 at 11am.
You are invited to participate in this event. Please register here.
Further information about the INDEx Survey is available here.
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