Pivoting to online teaching: A mini case study of how faculty staff embraced technology on their own terms

Student sat at laptop alone with arms up triumphantly

Back in April, Michael Hill took to the FACE blog to ask how well are our universities equipped to engage all students in an online experience? Now that the new academic year is here, he’s reflecting on how staff at his institution have adapted to the ‘new normal’.

I work as an Assistant Professor in Learning and Teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and in that capacity have been working with colleagues in one faculty over the past seven months to pivot their face to face programmes to online delivery. In the faculty with which I was working there would be no face to face teaching of students in the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year.

The good news is that, at the time of writing, all programmes and modules in the faculty have been successfully pivoted, the students have been welcomed and inducted and learning and teaching is about to begin. This blog will attempt to observe the critical factors that enabled this transformation to occur.

In the April blog I wrote:

Apart from the challenges of getting to grips with the technology, much of which is completely new to these colleagues, perhaps the greatest challenge is that of engaging students in the new experience. Students signed up for a face to face experience and many enjoyed building positive relationships with staff and students and working and learning from and with both.

As it transpired both of these issues had to be addressed at the beginning of the process. Many of the staff, and in particular the more senior Professors, had little experience of engaging in the VLE and technical tools, few had used discussion fora, blogs, Collaborate sessions, Zoom meetings, screencasts, padlets and other tools. To address this recognised need the School’s response was to provide a range of technical support resources including access to learning technologists, guidance documents, instructional videos and online sessions. The emphasis being on showing staff how to use a range of digital tools.

However, it became clear in the initial meeting of programme leaders and module leaders in the faculty that it was necessary to step back from immediate engagement in the technology and instead consider the modules and programmes from a pedagogic perspective. Influential programme and module leaders at meetings stressed the importance of putting the pedagogy first. These influential staff asked: “How in this new virtual environment will we provide opportunities for students to engage in practising their learning from lectures and in seminars” and “How and when can we provide students with opportunities to seek and receive feedback from the lecturer, seminar leader, tutor and their peers?”

Such questions ensured that in subsequent module meetings the focus was on these issues with teams thinking through, for example, how the traditional 90-minute face to face lecture would be pivoted. In the faculty, a model emerged and it was agreed that screencasts of no longer than 20 minutes would be recorded with built-in opportunities to register questions or comments. Students would access the screencasts at an appropriate time for them (students enrol from across the globe). Each lecture would then be followed up with a live interactive session (Collaborate or Zoom – the School did not dictate which platform) in which the students’ questions and comments would be addressed by the lecturer. A similar process was undertaken in the pivoting of smaller sessions such as seminars, practicals and workshops where discussions focussed on the purpose of these events from the viewpoint of the students and the pedagogical justification of the session design.

This process prompted staff to formulate a number of questions in terms the usefulness and purposes of the new technologies. When a formal training programme was delivered in July the learning technologists, who would be delivering the programme, were provided with these questions in advance. Here are a sample of the questions asked of the technologists:

  • “How can I prepare my students for a live online session/lecture?”
  • “How can I make the online live session interactive, to promote engagement and check understanding?
  • “How can I prepare my students for an online, live seminar?
  • “I want to put students into pre-arranged groups during the online, live seminar session – what is the best way to do this?
  • “I want students to be able to present their work in Microsoft PowerPoint or via the interactive whiteboard and for this to be recorded – is this possible?”
  •  “Which School supported digital tools would you recommend for creating videos?
  • “What options are there for making my video resources accessible”?

This approach appeared to work and reaction to the training programme was very positive. My observation was that the crucial factor was that the pedagogic questions enabled the technologists to recognise the situation that the academic staff were in and the issues that they were considering. Demonstrating this awareness and then responding to it with considered responses seemed to be the key.  See below for two examples of slides delivered by the learning technologists:

Having had their “pedagogic” questions addressed it was now crucial that further training was provided on the “mechanics” of the chosen technologies themselves. Thus at the end of each training session the following question was asked:

Ok, I need help on some of the specific things outlined in this short training, what do I do now?”

Subsequently, specific training sessions and support was then offered and was taken up at module and individual level and staff were able to utilise the technology to develop the learning experiences they had discussed in the module and programme meetings.

On reflection, it is interesting to see that the School’s initial thoughts of delivering a technology focussed training programme were inappropriate; academic staff had first to discuss the pedagogical principles behind their new modules and how they wished students to engage. Only then were the staff ready to engage in the new technologies and to set the agenda by judging whether and which technologies suited their needs.

Michael Hill is FACE Secretary and Assistant Professor in Learning and Teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Photo by Annie Spratt

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