Remote university teaching during COVID-19 can work — I can prove it

  • In the autumn, students across the world will be learning remotely as Coronavirus forces universities to close campuses.
  • Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker has been teaching 80 students, holed up from Beijing to Illinois, since June.
  • Working under pressure, he and his colleagues had to work out how they could deliver their informal, interactive teaching to people on opposite sides of the planet. Here’s how they made it work.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Universities will soon welcome students to the new normal that coronavirus has forced upon them. Rather than cramming into lecture halls and sitting in group seminars, most teaching will be done remotely, and both students and staff wait with trepidation. 

But delivering an International Multimedia Journalism master’s degree to 80 students across the world, from Beijing to Illinois, has taught me there’s a way to make remote learning just as useful as face-to-face contact time.

When the pandemic first hit, Newcastle University quickly began shifting online. We used “digital learning environments” — online spaces that mix slideshows and message boards, basically — like Blackboard and Canvas more. It was a chaotic and stressful second semester for everyone. As students began preparing a dissertation over the summer, staff at most universities were granted a reprieve to consider how best to move to a digital system more permanently.

But we didn’t have time for a break. We had just a few weeks to turn an on-campus, 30-hours-a-week journalism programme into something that could be taught digitally over the summer to students around the world. 

Thankfully, those of us who, like me, still work as journalists are used to being under pressure and adapting to new technology. When we began the summer module in mid-June, many students were worried the immersive education they’d signed up for would be replaced by something sub-par. But halfway through, students have so far responded positively.

Read more… NYU professor Scott Galloway: The pandemic will reshape the future of higher education — and many universities may not make it

We tried to focus on the benefits technology might bring. Some learning is through Microsoft Sway, a flexible layout tool that allows us to better format video and text for the classroom (think of it like Squarespace, but for academia). In one class, it enabled me to embed a live Excel spreadsheet of data that students could play with. Just as we would in person, we then set exercises within Sway that students can go off and complete, and for a personal touch, we insert videos of ourselves going into more detail on anything they find difficult.

That’s only part of it. We have regular one-hour lectures, delivered through Microsoft Teams, recorded, and then available on demand, that complement other materials. Twice-weekly two-hour workshops take place at 9am UK time, for students in this and later time zones, and again at 4pm for those in earlier ones. They’re full of quizzes, discussions, and collaborative exercises, all in Microsoft Word.

In a workshop about how to pitch stories as a freelancer, we asked students to write three single-line story ideas in a shared document. We then went through some, explaining how to fine-tune them — after we’d discussed how to write a full pitch, we had them pick one idea and craft an editor-ready email. 

Other times, they’ve scrambled to find an item near their laptops that they could build a story around, developing the inquisitive skills a journalist needs, then explained to classmates on camera what stories they might tell. They’ve also used social media to find a case study that illustrated an issue high on that day’s news agenda, and drafted a message to ask for an interview. Our style of teaching remotely has kept their attention because we emphatically avoided the stereotype of stuffy lecturers droning on, as they have for decades. 

“We signify our arrival at a drop-in session with a GIF of Judge Judy”

But rewriting a timetable for students in time zones across the globe can leave even teachers uncertain what’s next, which is why, every morning, we flag up what’s scheduled that day. As well as lectures, workshops, and masterclasses with industry professionals, there are drop-in sessions, where students can video chat with a teacher about any concerns. Teaching staff use  spreadsheets to track contact with students to make sure anyone we don’t speak to one-on-one  is okay, and still working towards their final assessment. There’s a lot of work that goes into what, hopefully, looks like effortless delivery. 

Some teachers will have to learn new ways to communicate. I’m usually informal with students, preferring to talk to them like peers rather than pupils. Online, we signify our arrival at a drop-in session with a GIF of Judge Judy tapping at her watch, and respond to messages of thanks with GIFs of The Rock’s character from “Moana” saying “You’re welcome.” 

That may seem alien to lecturers who didn’t grow up with the informality of online forums, Reddit groups, and instant messaging. But it’s one way teaching staff can connect with students who are now so detached from each other. A supportive message, or a chat with a student who fears their English skills are on the wane because they’re talking less with people outside their halls, is harder to do digitally. But it’s possible.

It has been a tumultuous four months for students midway through their studies. But the standard of my teaching has been just as high as if I were in a physical classroom. Remote teaching has forced me and others to adapt and test our limits — so far, everything has worked, and the journalism programme is now seen by the university as the Gold Standard for online teaching.

But don’t take my word for it. On Friday, July 17, I delivered a lecture about reporting out a real-life story on chess that will shortly be published on Insider, as well as a more in-depth session on Sway that went through the steps I took researching and writing an article for the New Statesman that week. Afterwards, a student emailed me to  say how much they’d learned. They are one of many over the last month to say the same. 

We can’t escape the “new normal”, but we have worked to make sure it is as normal as it is new.

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