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 https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THINKING OF NEXT ACADEMIC YEAR UNDER THE SHADOW OF COVID-19: A TIME TO RECONSIDER WHAT WE DO AS TEACHERS

Like most of my colleagues in Spain, I will not finish teaching until mid-July, when the marks for the MA dissertations will be introduced. Yet, now that I’m done ‘teaching’, that is to say, interacting with my undergrad students before assessment, might be a good moment to stop and consider how Covid-19 has changed some pedagogical matters but will most likely fail to change others. I have spelled ‘teaching’ between quotation marks because since 12 March, when I taught my last two presential sessions, I have been teaching online—again, like the rest of my colleagues in Spain. This does not mean that we have all being approaching online teaching from the same angle, though I lack sufficient information to know what my colleagues have been doing so far. From what I hear, my impression is that, given the lack of general guidelines, they have improvised and have mostly tried to transfer their habitual activities onto our Moodle classrooms. A common complaint by students is that they have been overloaded with extra work to compensate for the missing lectures; this has been gradually corrected but it is for me a sign that the approach taken might not be the best one.

I was an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, a pioneering online university, between 1998 and 2014. I used to teach there an elective subject called ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for the BA in the Humanities. I was part of the team that had written the handbook and I myself set the course in motion under the supervision of Pauline Ernest. I combined, then, online and presential teaching for sixteen years and I only gave up because in the last semester at UOC I had 70 students in my hands. Multiply this by six exercises each and you will see that I just couldn’t cope with UOC and UAB at the same time. The current teacher tells me that the subject is going to be discontinued after twenty-two years, which is a pity.

I joined UOC when I was an untenured teacher, seeking to enhance my possibilities of getting tenure. The money was also an enticement, of course. When I became tenured, in 2002, I found out to my surprise that my new contract was compatible with UOC, so I continued teaching online. My motivation was at this point pedagogical: the UOC students were mostly very well read, highly autonomous mature students and interacting with them was a pleasure. In all my sixteen years, I only failed one student; the rest who did not pass the subject just quit, though most passed the second time around.

I learned plenty at UOC in terms of planning tasks for continuous assessment, giving constructive feedback, encouraging students who were less autonomous. I never used exams—only a variety of written exercises, including forums—and I never missed them. I don’t know how other UOC teachers managed, though. And, although this might sound surprising, I never used video. My students were not taking a degree in English Studies but in the Humanities and although their command of written English was good (in some cases much above that of my UAB students), none of my three UOC supervisors (or coordinators) thought that video was a necessary part of the subject. I agreed.

I had been reading worrying news about Wuhan in the British press for weeks before quarantine started in Spain, so I was ready to go online at any moment with my two BA courses: ‘English Romantic Literature’ (second year, 58 students) and ‘Cultural Studies’ (third-fourth year, 42 students). For this, I have mostly followed the UOC model. In fact I have been following that model for years, in the sense that I avoid exams and I think of my courses as a chance to teach a set of skills though a set of tasks, and not just to teach content. So, what we were doing in class in February is not in the end very different from what we ended up doing after 14 March: I transferred what was supposed to be presential to our Moodle classroom mainly through the use of forums—I use plenty of students’ oral presentations in class, so that was not really a problem. In the case of ‘Cultural Studies’ the students have interacted online infinitely far more than they were interacting in our physical classroom. In the case of ‘English Romanticism’ their interactions have been available for much longer than they would have been in the classroom.

I have not, however, used my teaching time in the same way I was using it in February. To begin with, I believe that online teaching needn’t be synchronous. That is to say: I see no need to keep the rigid schedule of classroom teaching, much less to reproduce online the same twice-weekly ninety-minute sessions we were teaching. With 58 students in one class and 42 in the other, I have seen, besides, little use in online Teams meetings; to the matter of numbers I need to add that for me teaching works by looking at people in the eyes, which cannot be done online. The few Teams meetings I’ve had with colleagues have been quite awkward in terms of visual quality and the personal awareness needed to interact well. For that, the classroom is much, much better.

I know that some of my colleagues have used Teams regularly or have recorded themselves and uploaded podcasts and video, which is fine. I am just saying that I have used other strategies. For instance, in ‘English Romanticism’ I have been teaching students to write papers, and so, for one of our books (Frankenstein) I wrote a paper for them instead of lecturing. The same applies to ‘Cultural Studies’: in this subject I have provided sample written exercises and guidance about how to do presentations. Students have in fact taught each other much, and I have used my teaching time to give detailed, personal feedback. I have certainly missed classroom interaction and I do look forward to meeting face-to-face again. But, let me be completely honest, I have not missed at all the students who were projecting onto me a relentless sense of boredom in my English Romanticism lectures, possibly because that is a compulsory course. That is one of the great advantages of teaching online: students’ eating and drinking in class, using cellphones, chatting need not bother me.

Our schedule for next year is ready but, even though the end of quarantine approaches (21 June), it seems likely that the preventive measures against Covid-19 will be enforced for a much longer time, at least until December. I am personally scandalised by the imprudence that Spaniards are displaying now, after a death toll of possibly near 40,000 persons (not the official 28,000 count) and in the absence of a vaccine. This summer we’ll see the actual danger that the virus poses once foreign visitors return and general national mobility goes back to normal (or pseudo-normal). It might well be that Covid-19, in the best case scenario, is under control by early September and that we can resume teaching as we have done so far. Even so, it would still be a great moment to consider how we teach.

I am logically speaking as a Literature teacher, and I understand that matters can be very different in other disciplines, beginning with the Language section of my Department. A six ECTS course, allow me to remind you, amounts to 150 hours of work, of which 30%-40% (45 to 60) should be of classroom interaction, leaving only 100 for reading, and assessment activities. In my school we used to teach 45 hours in 15 weeks (so, 3 hours a week), but this has gone up to 50 hours in 17 weeks. Here is for me, a first problem: Literature students have too little time to read, and too much is taken by listening to us, teachers, discuss books they haven’t had the time to read. Add to this that to reach UAB, or many other campus universities, students and teachers often have to employ at least 2 hours every day (and think of the carbon footprint this means—you just need to see the parking lot any day). Our buildings are woefully overcrowded with students who spend on average fifteen to twenty hours a week in classrooms, mostly passively listening (if they listen at all!). The furniture in our classrooms consists mostly of benches facing towards the teacher’s platform, which are not only very uncomfortable but also impossible to move and guarantee a better use of the classroom space for group work (and now that Covid-19 is making personal distance necessary). To sum up: the way we teach takes too much reading/studying time, the classrooms are obsolete as teaching spaces, and we contaminate too much.

Next, what do we do in our biweekly ninety-minute lectures? We are supposed not to use ‘lecciones magistrales’ (lectures) but I should think that this is still a very typical model. The question we are not asking is whether this is the best possible model. Ninety minutes is an amount of time that goes totally against all studies in the attention span of average human beings. In conferences we offer twenty-minute papers and each ninety-minute session has three papers followed by discussion. Why do we assume, then, that our students benefit from ninety-minute sessions? And do they? Shouldn’t we start thinking of alternatives? Perhaps forty-five minute sessions? Perhaps one presential and one online session a week? Of course, the problem with this is that our task as teachers is measured by how long we spend lecturing. Try to explain to the authorities that monitor us that teaching is not only face-to-face interaction but mainly guidance. It used to be about passing on information but this is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages, and information is accessible in many other ways than it used to be. The rule should be simple: the classroom should only be used for what cannot be done elsewhere.

Sixty per cent of students’ work already happens elsewhere, in the library or at home. It is ‘virtual’, in the sense that it does not happen in the classroom. The thirty per cent that does happen in the classroom is now a problem because of how Covid-19 has attacked our capacity to be together in the same indoors space in big groups and for a long time. I believe, though, that with or without Covid-19, we still need to think why we need to crowd so many people in classrooms and what for. In primary schools they have 25 children in each classroom, though in really advanced countries like Finland this is down to 15. In universities, however, we think that it makes sense to have 100 students sitting huddled together—it doesn’t make sense now, but it has never made sense at all. Past 25 students classroom interaction simply does not happen, you just see a mass of faces looking at you, as you desperately try to remember their names. In big groups, it really makes no difference whether you’re there in the flesh or on YouTube.

Our target, then, should be making new sense of university teaching in a world that, as Covid-19 is forcing us to see, already needed a profound reform.

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