ANOTHER DISPATCH FROM THE FRONT LINES: TEACHING IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19 (2)

I’ve been teaching from home for the last three and a half weeks after teaching face-to-face for about four and a half weeks and this seems a good moment to send a second dispatch from the front lines. We have been told to stay home until the end of November, three more weeks then, and with the current very high figures for contagions and deaths by Covid-19 in Catalonia it seems unlikely that we may return to face-to-face teaching this semester. Particularly if, as it seems, a total lockdown might happen next week and because there is a general assumption that we all need to make some sacrifices if Christmas is to be enjoyed with family and friends. Of course, implicit in this is the risk that if we manage to reach Christmas within more or less acceptable levels of contagion, the celebrations may bring yet another new wave. It’s a roller-coaster.

So, how are things working? I believe this is a matter of the half-empty, half-full glass or bottle. If you consider that all educational activity could have been stopped at all levels, then we’re not doing so poorly, since all universities in Spain are open and working mostly online. If you compare the current situation to how we used to work before the onset of the Covid-19 plague, then there is a general impression of tiredness and a more or less open acknowledgement that online teaching is not replacing adequately face-to-face teaching. This past week, for instance, our degree Coordinator had to send a reminder to our undergraduate students, indicating that their cameras should be on during lectures. Many, it turns out, simply don’t connect to their Teams classroom or keep their cameras off, which means a distressing lack of feedback for teachers. I don’t know what students have replied to this message but I hope their engagement improves.

I do agree that face-to-face teaching must occupy an important place in higher education but it is my impression that now, when we cannot meet together in the classroom, we are generating a false impression of what actually happens in that situation. To begin with, attendance is not regular. I usually ask students to sign up because I award a grade for class participation and I need to keep track of who is actually there. Students misunderstand my reasons and assume that attendance is compulsory (it is not) and, so, some come to my lectures simply to sign up. The result last year was that a had a small group who spent each whole session discussing whatever they saw in their laptops screens, which had nothing to do with what I was teaching. I have, therefore, stopped checking attendance for I certainly do not need that kind of distraction in class. Better stay away than be in the classroom but mentally elsewhere.

The other matter is participation. As we all know, some students will interact with the teachers every single session while others are perfectly capable of not expressing a single opinion or idea in the whole semester. This is why most of us regularly implement some kind of compulsory classroom activity, otherwise we would have no grades for class participation. What I must say of the students who would never participate in class without this type of grade is that some are shy but have thoughts to share while some simply are there to obtain the credits, particularly in the compulsory courses, doing as little as they can manage. Let’s be honest, for once. This is the equivalent of keeping the camera off, then: not attending classes or being there with no intention to participate. It is simply not true that in face-to-face teaching we have totally participative students constantly providing feedback and interacting with us. There is, therefore, little sense in expecting 100% interest in the far more boring (excuse me) online teaching.

A major problem of synchronous online teaching, that is to say, in streaming sessions, whether they are lectures or seminars, is that technology does not allow teachers to look at students in the eye. In order to produce that illusion we teachers need to look at the camera but, logically, if you look at the camera you cannot simultaneously see the eyes of the person you’re addressing. I find this unnerving. In face-to-face teaching you engage students’ attention by looking into their eyes (fortunately even facemasks allow us to do that) and, depending on what you see there, you see that you’re doing well, or boring people to death. In online teaching, you don’t have that kind of contact, not even with the camera on. It is quite possible that this is the reason why so many students switch off their cameras, apart from their preference for being in their pyjamas or the need to conceal untidy rooms. There should be, logically, an etiquette and everyone should be online as formally dressed and positioned as we are in the classroom. But I insist that the lack of direct eye contact is a key factor in how tired we all are of online teaching. I don’t doubt that some colleagues know very well how to use streaming to their advantage but there is an evident discomfort in the practice, necessary as it may be now.

On the whole, however, the rush to move from face-to-face teaching to online teaching practically from one day to the next is preventing us from discussing what we do in the classroom and why it should have an equivalent as close as possible online. There are major questions that haven’t been asked for a long time, such as what is the purpose of interacting with students, why it is adequate to do that a particular number of hours a week, and what is the place of teacher-centred activities in higher education. The last time these questions were asked was during the process to sign the Dublin agreements that resulted in the new degrees launched around 2008-9, but I believe that the answers obtained were erratic to say the least and ineffective. We were told that we should teach skills rather than content and that assessment should be continuous rather than based on final exams. However, many university teachers still teach by offering lectures without students’ intervention and assess by means of final exams, disguised as part of continuous assessment. There is, in my view, an exaggerated reliance on the exam as an adequate tool of assessment, particularly now when, as we are learning, exams are open to all kinds of cheating in an online environment.

The point I’m trying to make, in short, is that teaching remains mostly static despite the changes introduced by the new degrees and will remain mostly static despite the Covid-19 crisis. We are not reinventing teaching but using digital classrooms to do what we did face-to-face, which was mostly what has been done since the Middle Ages: transmit information and then use exams to check that students have acquired it. I know that I am exaggerating but I hope you can see my point.

Proof of this inertia is that the online universities specializing in distance learning are not now the authorities they should be. Each face-to-face university has chosen the software better suited to its needs but none has asked these other universities what they do. I assume that this is because everyone believes that the situation is temporary and sooner or later we will all return to the classrooms. Yet, if you think about it, with only 50 hours out of 150 hours in each 6ECTS course happening there, this means that two thirds of all university teaching are already distance teaching, that is to say, activities happening elsewhere. One place where they happen is the Virtual Campus (whatever this is called in your universities), which I suspect is mostly used as a noticeboard and not used at all by the older staff (as many desperate Deans are now discovering). If we had been making a better use of the asynchronous possibilities of Virtual Campus, then the transition to online teaching would not have been so uncomfortable. Actually, part of the discomfort also has to do with the fact that, at least as happens in my university, we use two different platforms: Teams for online synchronous teaching and Moodle for asynchronous Virtual Campus interaction. I don’t know whether this is because Moodle lacks the feature to offer streaming or because Teams is integrated in Outlook, which we use for webmail, but having two platforms does not help at all.

What happens in distance learning and we are failing to understand, is that asynchronous teaching has much more weight. In my own experience of sixteen years at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya all teaching was asynchronous, which means that students used the resources as they wanted, not within a rigid schedule. During my time at UOC I was never asked to produce narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or video and, as far as I’m concerned, I never missed them there. My students learned mainly by reading the materials and the books, and by interacting with me through their exercises, which included forums. I know that some might believe that their learning must have been limited but that was not the case. I asked a friend at UNED how things work there and he told me that tutors, that is to say, the teachers that solve doubts, provide feedback and occasional lectures, work both synchronously and asynchronously. The teachers’ working hours are not counted on the base of the time spent in direct contact with students but on the basis of how many are enrolled in class and other factors which are not connected with synchronous teaching. This is, of course, very different from traditional universities in which (at least at UAB) our workload is counted on the basis of classroom teaching and the number of students in the group.

I would, in short, recommend using other strategies than just streaming sessions to interact with students. I find forums a great tool for they can remain open beyond the time limits of the classroom and engage all students, including the shy ones, in conversation. Thus, for instance, my MA students (13 in total) were doing between two and four 10-minute oral presentations in each session followed by debate and complemented by my own introductions (20’-30’). In practice this meant that their presentations were rushed, students lacked the time to react and prepare questions, and my own interaction with them was limited. What we do now is use the same schedule to watch their presentations (narrated PowerPoints) and start interacting in the corresponding forum. The forum remains open for one week and in this way they have more time to send contributions, see my PowerPoint notes, etc. In practice they spend (and I spend) more than our three hours a week interacting but, well, the conversation is far richer. I think that if we go back to the classroom we’ll adapt poorly to the time constrains and I’ll use anyway the forums.

It’s not a matter of always doing the same, then, but of alternating diverse activities. Teach online using streaming if you want, but don’t forget forum activities that can be done together, or narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or whatever imagination dictates. I wish we were exploring right now new ways of working in virtual environments instead of using the same old way of teaching but online, so that when the Covid-19 pandemic is over our return to the classroom offers richer possibilities than ever.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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