Don’t forget the gifs: teaching excellence online

University teaching has entered a new era. In the aftermath of lockdown, online learning has gone mainstream – and, argues Dr Erik Blair in his new book on higher education pedagogy, at its heart it’s still all about personal interaction

As well as teaching in the physical domain, a great deal of teaching in higher education now happens online. Some colleagues may conceptualise this as a very different type of teaching; however, it is important to remember that the main difference between online and face-to-face teaching is the mode, not the underlying principles.

Therefore, the types of questions that underpin successful online teaching are, ‘What will I get the students to do?’, ‘How will I structure my teaching?’ and, ‘How will my students experience this learning event?’ Throughout all this, online teaching should remain an active experience – where the focus is on helping students to feel involved and ready to engage in the learning experience.

Higher education institutions tend to teach using virtual learning environments (VLEs). There are many forms of VLE and they come with add-ons, plug-ins and extensions.

For the novice, there is no need to wade deep into this water as the basic VLE will have all that is needed. But for those who are keen, and like to experiment, there is so much to explore. Much like the first step in teaching in the face-to-face environment, the first step in using a VLE is to understand the structure. In understanding the online structure, the component parts are worth investigating, to see what happens where. A typical VLE will have a space for announcements, a space for live teaching (often called synchronous activity), a repository of resources (for asynchronous activity), chat rooms or forums, and a space for assignments to be uploaded, assessed and marks posted.

There will be times when we are asked to upload something; there will be times when we interact with our students, and there will be times when we download things (usually assessment-related materials).

In the same way that we might wander the corridors of a higher education institution in order to orientate ourselves, it is a great idea to wander around a VLE

Virtual learning environments are made up of component features with specific functions, but it is only when the various parts come together that the whole package begins to make sense. In the same way that we might wander the corridors of a higher education institution in order to orientate ourselves, it is a great idea to wander around a VLE. Personally, as I wander around a VLE, I take notes and create a brief glossary that explains to me what each component part does, what I might do with it, and how it relates to another feature that I have reviewed.

Beyond the practical workings of learning to teach online, the more fundamental question of what is to be taught needs to be considered.

Because of the nature of online teaching, there is a tendency to overstuff learning activities. When teaching online, the teacher is forced to plan at a distance – in isolation from their students. The main interaction might be between the teacher and their laptop, and this might mean that their thoughts about learning could potentially become less person-centred. With this enforced isolation there is a danger that the teacher starts to focus on trying to ensure that all the material is ‘covered’ and that the best way to do this is to ‘deliver’ it in a rather teacher-centred (postal) manner. In this way, online teaching can become overly deductive with the teacher posting great swathes of content and simply expecting students to engage with it.

But the principles of effective teaching in higher education are the same online as they are offline – the act of teaching is to support the act of learning, and the best way to do this is by creating situations where students are challenged to make sense of the world around them.

The wider online world already has all the facts and figures that might be needed, meaning there is little need for teachers to spend too much time reconfiguring this knowledge for their VLE. Once we realise that knowledge is already ‘out there’ we can start to focus on developing online activities that encourage meaning-making and turn our attention to developing critical and cognitive skills. Teaching is about imparting knowledge, skills and understanding. The online environment is already knowledge-rich, so teaching online has to be more focused on supporting the development of skills and understanding.

The concept of ‘understanding’ is underpinned through connections and communications and things such as empathy, sympathy and perspective. It is easier to engage with these concepts in the face-to-face world but, online, we can still ask students to try to make cognitive connections

The skills that will be developed are likely to be critical-thinking skills – skills such as judgement, synthesis, analysis, evaluation, creation and categorisation. Instead of asking our students to simply read information, we should help them develop critical-thinking skills by asking them to critique something or create something – both of which are possible online.

When it comes to developing understanding, this might seem trickier online (and it probably is). The concept of ‘understanding’ is underpinned through connections and communications and things such as empathy, sympathy and perspective. It is easier to engage with these concepts in the face-to-face world but, online, we can still ask students to try to make cognitive connections – it is just that some of these connections are likely to be more introspective. This means that the development of understanding in the online environment is about giving students the opportunity to reflect on their connection with new concepts.

After each phase of learning, we might get them to write a reflective blog or record a two-minute video diary entry in which they reflect on how a new piece of information fits with their established ideas. We could also ask them to reflect on what this information might mean to other people and how others might interpret the same information from a very different perspective.

When teaching online, we should try to examine how asynchronous and synchronous activity can best support the development of knowledge, skills and understanding. It might be easy just to decide that activities undertaken in a student’s own time (asynchronous) should be about grounding them in a subject, and that live, face-to-face class webinars (synchronous) will be where the critical thinking will be developed and knowledge applied.

higher education pedagogy
Author and higher education expert Dr Erik Blair

 

But a better model would be to encourage students to be independent critical thinkers, independent knowledge creators and independent artefact designers in both asynchronous and synchronous activity. Many who teach in higher education seek to develop autonomous students – we can’t do this by spoon-feeding knowledge in one place and then showing students how to apply it in another. Both asynchronous and synchronous online teaching need to move through phases of ‘define’, ‘do’ and ‘review’.

It is OK to post narrated PowerPoints, video clips and articles to be read but these types of activity tend to be best for grounding students in a topic.

The important thing to remember is that this grounding needs to be built upon, and students need the chance to develop their own ideas and examine the concepts that are presented to them. Good asynchronous learning activities move beyond the consumption of knowledge and challenge students to create artefacts, upload vlogs, write journal entries, produce case studies, engage in group projects and post on discussion boards.

Live webinars (synchronous) can also be used to blend knowledge consumption, knowledge critique and knowledge creation – through group work, idea-sharing, student-led questioning, quizzes, and peer assessment. The things that make a good online webinar are the same as those that make a good face-to-face seminar: engagement and interaction.

There are some practical things that we can do to support students when teaching online. During webinars, I try to keep my webcam on as much as possible, so that students get a sense that I am a ‘real’ person, not just a disembodied voice coming through the speakers on their laptop. I also open the webinar ‘room’ 15 minutes early and close it 15 minutes after the timetabled end of the session. And during this time, I encourage students to have their mic and cameras on, so they can see each other and interact. Likewise, when students present work (individual, paired or group) they should have their cameras on.

Humanising online learning isn’t just about seeing each other’s face. We can try to encourage students to use the chat functions – blending written comments with emojis, gifs and memes

But humanising online learning isn’t just about seeing each other’s face. We can try to encourage students to use the chat functions – blending written comments with emojis, gifs and memes. This type of posting has a normalising effect – it says that learning online still follows the established codes of general online activity.

The chat function is also a great tool for identifying student insight and working to develop it – so you can see when a student posts a great point and you can pause and say, ‘Wow, Julio just posted a fantastic comment! Can we all scroll back, read Julio’s comment and post two reasons why I think this is such a great point.’

Outside of webinars, students should be encouraged to have their images or avatars on the VLE, and should be encouraged to personalise their home pages, so that they feel this is their environment and not just a place they are occasionally asked to enter.

In asking our students to engage with learning in this way, it is really important that we clearly outline our expectations of online learning – giving super-clear instructions.

In the face-to-face classroom, we are able to intervene when we see that students are struggling or need clarification on a point. It is harder to intervene when teaching online, as activities are often set up so that students can do things in their own time. In this way, the structure of online teaching and learning activities needs to be as transparent as possible with clear signposting. For each activity we need to foreground our support with instructions such as: this is what I would like you to do > this is how you might do it > this is where you can find out more information > these are the tools you can use to complete the task > this is where you can post your finished task > this is where you can review and comment on the work of fellow students.

We don’t need to panic just because the modality has changed. Online learning is more than just trying to remember fact and figures; therefore, online teaching should be about the guided development of a series of activities – with a clear beginning, middle and end, and a clear sense of challenge and reward.

This is not to say that there is only one model of online teaching, but, whether we are teaching online or face-to-face, the endoskeletal approach to teaching means that we have both structure and flexibility.


This is an extract from Independent Thinking on Teaching in Higher Education by Erik Blair, ISBN 9781781353691. Published by Independent Thinking Press, an imprint of Crown House Publishing. Available from: www.independentthinkingpress.com

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