Adjustments: Learning and Teaching in Lockdown

Andrew W.M. Smith

Last time I wrote about teaching, I said I felt like a donkey. On a not entirely unrelated note, I was a bit unsure about writing about this year, having just come out of a challenging term and feeling frankly exhausted by the experience (and a bit like a donkey again). When I did pluck up the courage, however, there was more to reflect on than I’d thought. Firstly the lessons from lockdown, then my own experiences as a student, and finally the ways in which I sought to address access issues using technical fixes all suggested that the theme of this year was… adjustments. 

Lockdown Lessons

My experience of teaching in the first lockdown from March 2020 led to some plans for how to do things differently. This was moving out of the panic phase into something (hopefully) more sustainable. I spent the summer speaking to other people and reading through the copious amount of literature produced around a term’s experience on teaching online from the sector. One thing I committed to early on was designing courses which could be responsive to sudden shifts (like, say… a lockdown) as I remained unconvinced we were over the worst of it.

My first observation on that front from my summer reading (not least the excellent Pandemic Pedagogy handbook produced by HistoryUK) had been that fully synchronous was not how I wanted to go, nor how my students wanted to do things. But, by the same token, fully asynchronous was not itself a promising prospect. Decision making around this was kind of taken out of my hands, as early on my institution committed to holding in-person seminars with pre-recorded lectures available online. To put this in the parlance of the age, seminars were synchronous and face-to-face, while lectures were asynchronous and remote.

Fig 1. Teaching setup in the early days of 2020/21 academic year

I was a little worried about how masked-up seminars would go, though ultimately delighted by the vibrancy and enthusiasm of the students. I found the seminars energising, especially on my first year ‘Introduction to Politics’, and my MA ‘French Cultural History’ modules. There were very different dynamics in both, but they allowed wonderful opportunities for productive, engaging and collegiate sessions in which we could all participate. Of course, as things changed, the end of our first semester led to another lockdown. The hybrid experience had to change as we moved online and, like everyone else, my anxiety levels grew (though I was thankful for the contingencies I’d built into my plans).

Learning while Teaching

One hugely useful thing in understanding approaches to inclusive teaching in this context is that I am currently a student, which meant as well as teaching I was also learning remotely. I’m currently near the end of studying for an MBA as a Degree Apprentice at the University of Chichester (it seemed a great idea when I signed up in Jan 2019, thinking I understood my commitments and workload… oh, sweet child of summer!) Despite the added workload, the experience has been hugely valuable in terms of making sure that I understood more about the student journey through our VLE, how it felt to sit in different types of class and access different types of material (from the socially distanced, masked-up face to face seminar, to the virtual remote seminar, including accessing recorded lecture materials).

In addition to getting some insight into those experiences, one of the key things for me (and perhaps one of the biggest pieces of work I undertook) was the production of a set of Strategic Reflections on the Royal Historical Society’s response to COVID-19. This was part of a project for my MBA study, but also one which would have practical benefits for the organisation (and, I hoped, the sector). I should note that in the planning for this project, I also put in an application for the special British Academy COVID scheme for an expanded project along these lines, which… I didn’t get. So it goes, and my focus remained the RHS rather than a wider sectoral survey.

As part of that survey, I reviewed a series of different topics (such as digital maturity, flexible working, collegiality, and access – you can find a summary in the November RHS newsletter) and tried to do a bit of ‘sense-making’ around the wider context of our response, the organisational dynamics, and to suggest strategic recommendations based on wider research. One of the real benefits of that research project was getting to interview a whole host of people on the RHS council (and other officers) about their own perspectives relating to the “online pivot”. One fascinating insight came from Peter D’Sena, who pointed me towards a book by Simone Brown, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). I ordered a copy and found it a really inspirational read in understanding how different people experience online environments in different ways. It reminded me of how my own experience of ‘learning while teaching’ had changed my perspective, but also how my own experiences (and privileges) shaped that engagement.

I wrote some reflections on that into the Strategic Reflections which I produced, though also then wrote up a blog for the RHS Teaching Portal called ‘Bridging Digital Divides in Virtual Teaching’. That post played heavily on observation sparked by Brown’s excellent book, as well as a JISC Student digital experience insights survey to note that in “our teaching and course design, we need to be alert to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, to ensure that barriers to access that exist in the physical world are not replicated or amplified digitally.”

Technical Adjustments

That observation very much came to the fore in the second semester. As we moved into the new calendar year (my heaviest of the two semesters), I was teaching a core course for our undergraduates which that meant the entire year group on that course attended (and were split into 4 separate groups of between 12 to 15 for seminars). This also meant that there were two students on the course for whom significant adjustments needed to be made, and I sought specific training from our Disability Support Adviser before terms started. I spent just over an hour discussing different ways of ensuring that module design (including the provision of material, modes of teaching, and any extra support) could be adjusted to include students with significant visual and hearing impairments. There were of course other students on the course needing less significant adjustments, and this was also a key part of the course design.

In thinking about how I recorded lectures, I didn’t like the way that Panopto recorded natively. When students watch it through Panopto they can adjust window sizes for the lecturer’s feed and the slides, though my sense (confirmed through informal discussions with students and a quick look at some of the ‘heat maps’ on Moodle which show traffic) was that students tended to watch the embedded videos. When Panopto embeds, it used its standard ‘video podcast’ settings, which left the main screen being the slides, with the lecturer’s face a small square in the corner. Knowing that I had students who were lip-reading, I wanted to ensure that they were able to see my face more clearly alongside my slides (and I also knew from some student surveys at the end of last year that most preferred seeing a face and getting the sense I was talking directly to them). As a result, I customised my own set-up using Open Broadcast Software (OBS – this is an open source software suite that is fully free to use and relatively simple to achieve basic things). I learned how to do this by watching James Sumner’s excellent TouTube tutorials. This let me record a scene which featured my slides prominently alongside an enlarged video feed of me speaking. This did mean redesigning all of my lecture powerpoints, ho hum… Using the ‘Master View’ on powerpoint, I designed a visible square into which I’d put my video feed (to save me having to do it on every new slide), then fiddled with positioning in the OBS scene until I could match it up.

Fig 2. Slide ready to have my video feed inserted

Fig 3. Slide with video feed inserted

Recording this way meant that I still needed to use the Panopto system however, not least as it provides the ability to auto-caption the material and then embed on moodle. I uploaded the mp4 file created by OBS onto our Panopto system, then manually embedded each in the relevant week of the module’s Moodle page. This allowed me to create (hopefully) more engaging video with a larger speaker presence onscreen alongside the slides, while also making adjustments for students who needed clearer sight of my mouth for lip-reading. In addition, I wanted to make sure that all organisation instructions were conveyed in multiple modes to enable me to ensure all student needs were addressed. Each week I recorded a short ‘welcome’ message video outlining the week’s tasks (which I embedded on Moodle) and then summarised that in an email which I circulated around the class through the Moodle announcements message board feature. Weekly tasks usually involved watching short lecture videos (usually 15-20 minutes, sometimes longer if I can’t stop talking), some reading tasks, and some preparatory tasks (perhaps noting a primary source, preparing some general answers on seminar questions, or something of that sort) all clearly labelled in order.

Fig 4. How the lectures appear on the week’s moodle page

Reflections (in a Black Mirror)

Ultimately, I think the year’s teaching went fairly well under the circumstances and student feedback has been positive. Having just finished marking student coursework as well, I get the sense that they ‘got it’ on the whole and that they were working well with the material and the concepts. I do think that this style of remote learning probably means a heavier workload both for student and for lecturer, and I for one definitely preferred the in-person, distanced and masked-up seminars to the online seminar experience.

At times, I will admit to being disheartened by online seminars. Students generally don’t have cameras on, and this can be tough. I fully understand the impulse for this and would never pressure students to have them turned on if they choose not to. Likewise, I can understand why the many pressures of the current crisis can lead to less preparation on the student’s part (not least the increased workload I mentioned). Nevertheless, as a lecturer, I feel a quiet ‘in person’ seminar room is something I can handle much better than a quiet, blank screen and a picture of my own face, while it’s unclear if anyone’s still there. That silence could be hugely oppressive and anxiety inducing. This was a really challenging thing at times and frequently made me question my own preparation, approach, and pedagogy more widely.

Talking to colleagues and friends about that helped reassure me that I wasn’t the only one, and also offered strategies for doing it differently. My office mate Dion Georgiou, for example, used breakout groups on MS Teams far more successfully than I had managed, and this was something to which students responded very positively (I was delighted that we were both nominated for the Lecturer of the Year award – a great result for office NH123). Breakout rooms were a Teams feature only rolled out relatively late in the year, however, and I think I felt a bit too overwhelmed by the wider shifts to start experimenting with this on MS Teams (which I continue to find a bit challenging as a piece of software).

Next year, life will be easier when we return to ‘hybrid’ teaching at the very least, or fully in person if possible. Nevertheless, I think that personally I’ve learned valuable lessons about my own pedagogy and the experience of making the adjustments has encouraged me to think more actively about how I manage an inclusive classroom, whether that be physical or virtual.

Dr Andrew W. M. Smith is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History and Politics at the University of Chichester. The views expressed here are his own.

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