Lockdown learning: notes on distanced education – Dartington Online Writing Retreat Blogs #4

The Education Incubator is enthusiastic in hosting this unique blogpost, written by five attendees at our Online Writing Retreat in May. The thoughts expressed below on distanced learning – by Matthew Collison (Computer Science), Katharine Earnshaw (Classics and Ancient History), Matt Finn (Geography), Mollie Gascoigne (Law), and Houry Melkonian (Mathematics) – are important factors that must shape how we all approach educating students through a primarily online medium.

We are looking forward to posting more blogs from the Writing Retreat and on the Incubator Café in the coming weeks.

In this blogpost we provide some reflections on distanced education that emerged from conversations at the May 2020 Education Incubator Writing Retreat. These conversations have since been informed by tweets, conversations with students, staff and an accumulation of reading and reflection, which we would like to acknowledge.

The notes outline a selected set of provocations, challenges and opportunities that we see as important as we shift to blended learning, and have been broadly categorised into ‘context’ and ‘practice’. As this is a co-written piece, there are degrees of agreement between us in relation to each topic; however, all of us agree that these constitute important points for thinking as we prepare for the next academic year.

Context: space, time and background

Choice of topics in teaching and the assumption of safe spaces

Campuses have never been ‘safe spaces’ for all students, but they often do provide spaces – away from the other spaces of students’ lives – for exploring sensitive, personal, political issues in careful ways. As we move to online teaching, where students might be learning from home, we need to recognise that home isn’t always safe for students. There may be some things they can’t talk about online (through voice calls for example) because they are aware that they may be overheard or that other people may see their screens. Where students are learning with others present – and this may now be more likely to be extended family rather than fellow students – their learning may be more visible or audible to those they live with. The transition to online then not only affects the presentation of the content but risks disruption to their fundamental human needs (physiological and safety) that are required for learning and that are sometimes provided by the campus environment. As educators, it appears important for both safety and learning purposes that we are aware of this added dimension and think creatively about mitigating associated risks where possible.

Risks of bringing whole self – visibility

When we teach (particularly large groups) it can be easier to see students as somewhat undifferentiated. We might be less aware of their ‘backgrounds’, their life stories and the knowledge and prior experiences they are bringing to their learning. In online distanced, or perhaps ‘home based’ education, those aspects of the background may come more to the fore. That students (and staff) are parents, carers, working, living alone or with others and many other things become more apparent and need to be considered in how we plan and facilitate opportunities for learning. There is the possibility of bringing more of our ‘whole self’ into these learning spaces, which for some may be empowering and make their learning feel even more relevant. But it also brings with it visibility which may be unwelcome, challenging or not possible to manage. We can think about ways of teaching and learning that don’t always rely on the face-to-face as the primary mode of engagement (not least because this can be overstimulating) and that facilitate hearing each other in different ways. There will be students that value the structure provided by sessions that take place at particular times, while others will need things to be ‘asynchronous’ if they are to participate.

Access to the internet is not just access to broadband

The internet is not a flat, equal block of information that we all access in similar ways: sociocultural factors, such as class and economic background, age, geographic region, activity levels, etc. can all impact on how we access information, as well as what sources are seen as legitimate or important. As we consider the digital access divide, it is important that we also take time to consider ‘digital inequality’ and ‘digital exclusion’. Even before the Covid crisis, research would indicate that those from a higher socioeconomic background access the internet differently than those from a lower socioeconomic background. There are already pieces discussing the ways that Coronavirus has intensified and exaggerated this divide. Digital inequality can show itself in tasks such as familiarity with reading long pieces of writing online, undertaking research, writing an email; in other words, being comfortable in how different online spaces work and in using the internet for academic purposes. As we move to online learning, some of the opportunities to pick up these aspects of information ‘around the edges’ – through talking to classmates before or after seminars or lectures, in watching how educators access information in a classroom – may be lost. How do we support students to gain the kinds of knowledge and skills they need to be confident learners in an academic online environment beyond ensuring access to a laptop and the internet? How do we support those with different levels of digital literacy?

Practice: the ‘how’ of learning 

Episodic learning and possibilities of self-assessment

A lecture is often made up of series of ‘learning moments’ or episodes put together to create an argument or to demonstrate or reinforce a process, or skill. When creating resources that are ‘at home’ online it can be useful to think about how we can structure our online environments around these learning episodes. An episode might include activities that can be structured in a format that fits the desired learning outcome. For example, online quizzes with structured settings (i.e., added constraints: pass mark and limited number of attempts) can be used to provide opportunities for deliberate practice and creativity, and something that will stimulate their thinking and gradually help them identify new ways to learn. As educators, it is essential to realise the importance of teaching our students ‘how to learn’ and not only ‘what to learn’, and this can be done through exercises and activities we provide through online teaching. This may be accentuated with students (who we should not imagine to be ‘digital natives’) who are re-thinking what it means to be a student, and how to learn in blended or online majority ways.

The primacy of text?

It’s widely considered good practice to provide transcripts of audio/visual material for those with accessibility needs – though these are used by wider groups of students also. There are practical questions as to how we can provide these as default and whether AI tools offer reasonable accurate options here. There’s also some evidence that some students draw on these over the other kinds of ways we might present sources – indeed, transcripts can be read through ‘scanning’, searched, saved, annotated in different ways. It appears that this sets up the ‘primacy of text’ in our teaching. While there may be videos, students may be learning as much from our writing, as our speaking – through emails, transcripts, forum replies and so on. Seeing educators as writers (and perhaps more so than ‘performers’ or ‘lecturers’ [those who ‘profess’ through their speech]) challenges some assumption about the role of academics and the ways in which students learn. It raises questions about how we can facilitate what students need, and ways in which they may prefer to learn, but also to go beyond the text.

Unstructured/structured and verbal/non-verbal ideas

Teaching and learning in higher education is often designed for face-to-face lecture delivery with print-based supporting materials. As we move to online learning this lecture format and these print-based teaching materials can be unsuited to digital presentation. When we consider how a module leader/lecturer contributes to learning, beyond the curriculum and content design, the lecturer’s role is providing a tempo – a rhythm – and narrative to learning experience and presenting key threshold concepts at the right time in the learning process. In online learning, the learning environment and student engagement and therefore the student experience will become more diverse so the ability of the lecturer to control the tempo, narrative and learning experience becomes more challenging. A key tool to empower students is enabling them to identify their position in their learning process, though we need to be wary of the risk of surveillance culture in digital pedagogies. The ability of students in tracking their progress depends on good metadata and rich digitisation of the teaching materials. Rich metadata for teaching materials should be guided by the FAIR principles of open data publishing. An effective strategy for online transition will therefore include both a digitisation of the teaching materials with rich metadata and an online learning environment that links to the metadata of the curriculum to facilitate a digitisation of the learning experience which makes the tempo and narrative subjective to the student.

Dartington Online Education Higher Education Incubator Online Learning Success for All

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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