By June 2020, teaching online has become second nature for most of us at Maastricht University – or so you would think. We’ve done it for three months now. Teachers have been trained on how to deal with the various platforms, while students have been explained why we had to move online and why they have to make a commitment from their end to make things work.
Still, even though I’m used to hosting blended learning teaching programmes, well trained in offering online classes, and my students are motivated to make it work — the learning curve has been steep. Bottom line: it’s not easy to translate classes into an online format, to keep things lively and interactive while conveying the necessary content. And staying focused for a full day of online classes is not always fun!
With our GPAC2 PhD first year group virtually joining us, the challenge we faced was daunting. Our fellows work full-time and study part-time. They blocked two full weeks for their classes and we thus needed to deliver the content of a two-week full-time classroom setting over the same two-week period – but all online.
Bear in mind that the usual attention span for listening to lectures of people online is about 10-15 minutes maximum, and with participants all over the world in different time zones with different internet facilities. Add to that the newness of some teachers to online teaching – and with that the risk of underestimating difficulties that this brings – we were facing a challenge.
A three-point plan
In order to make the transition, we roughly followed three steps:
Firstly, teachers were approached with the request to teach online and some courses were adjusted in content. Not all teachers accepted the job. Some accepted that moving their class to an online format would be complicated, especially if it was interactive. In those cases, for instance related to presentation skills, we created online toolkits to deal with the changed context. In some other cases, for instance a skill session on giving and receiving feedback, we changed the class substantially to fit the online mode.
Secondly, the teachers who accepted the job to teach online were asked to rearrange their content substantially. With shorter lecture moments, more question moments and frequent breaks, with assignments and taped answer keys, with breakout groups and tutor feedback we tried to build in dynamics wherever possible. I think we managed to deliver the content – although I have to admit that due to connectivity as well as less-than-perfect translations to online teaching mechanisms, not all classes turned out to be as functional as we had hoped.
Thirdly, we had a number of online discussion sessions that went beyond the usual textbook content. These sessions are fascinating when there’s open debate, but useless without interaction. Sessions for example where fellows present their work and reviewers respond and offer feedback. For those sessions to work, a lot of elements have to be in place. Good connectivity so that all participants were able to contribute – something out of our control. Then, everyone having the discipline to listen actively but stay quiet until asked to respond; discipline to use chat functions instead of interrupting debate; discipline to bottom-line feedback points into three points and five minutes’ speaking time. Mute when not speaking. I quickly realised that chairing these sessions is hard work!
We managed, though, completing a total of three content classes, two skill sessions and 13 online sessions in one week. We connected fellows with teachers and I think at the end of the two weeks about 85% of participants managed to complete the workshop with almost full participation. A success story, then!? To be sure, at the end of the first week, we built in a reflection moment, where I asked everyone the following question: “In the online feedback review sessions, do you feel you received sufficient feedback in amount and quality?”. Answers ranged from ‘Mostly’, to ‘Yes’ without any negative responses. This confirmed that the content and feedback were successfully delivered – which is great! I also asked our staff and reviewers how they felt, and they echoed how the quality of the classes and proposals was as high as it was in the previous cohorts – so we managed to ensure progress in PhD development.
At the same time, though, we somehow fell short. Responding to my question “After a week of full-time online classes, how do you feel? ” the answers were less positive. Beyond an occasional ‘Fine’, there were many more ‘Tired’ and ‘Screened out’. I think this reflects the situation well after a week of online teaching. I was also exhausted.
So it seems we can deliver content online, but it’s more difficult to convey our love of teaching, research and interaction. We lose the emotions, both positive and negative, when speaking through a screen. Our next session is November 2020, so I have some time to reflect. I just hope that our classrooms reopen because online is simply second best.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Pexels / V. Karpovich