This week marks the end of the academic year for my college. Without a doubt this has been the toughest one that I have been part of in my 9 years (let’s call it a decade, shall we!) of teaching and I really do hope that future academic years will be like all the ones before with their usual stresses and familiar patterns of working. Since lock-down in late March the college has continued teaching and learning utilising digital methods, and although nobody planned for this extended online learning streak of months and months, it is clear that it has brought about unintended beneficial consequences in how to teach in a digital sphere.
Prior to COVID-19, 100% of my teaching was completed in a classroom environment, with the odd lesson outside of it to allow students to research or to provide time to construct a presentation. Furthermore, my working day was filled with energetic lesson preparation, cups of coffee, and lots of digressive chats to students and colleagues. Now, of course, the cups of coffee and frantic last-minute construction of lesson materials remained in place during lock-down; on reflection, due to the overwhelming extra administrative tasks required, there was even less time to plan out the materials needed! And the the digressive chats continued, but instead of talking to students and colleagues the chats were to my dogs and 5-year-old daughter. But the big change in my way of working from home was the teaching element.
From 100% in the classroom I was confronted with a completely new way of working: utilising digital technology to help deliver the lessons. This was something that unnerved me because it didn’t seem to play to any of my strengths as a teacher. Ever since my teacher-training year I have reflected on what are my strengths and weaknesses: I do not have a “strong” commanding voice and I am not as organised as many of my colleagues. However, rather than worry about such disadvantages I have simply revelled and felt comfortable in playing up to my idiosyncrasies! Yes, a weaker, softer voice (and one with a clear accent of the Plymothian-Westcountry persuasion), but somebody who enjoys discussing topics with enthusiasm with students by “playing up” to my inability to pronounce a particular word. Yes, somebody with a lot of nervous energy, but a teacher who utilises that energy in a classroom to greater effect, by buzzing about here and there. However, lock-down seemingly removed the ability for me to play to my idiosyncratic strengths. In many ways, I feared being placed back at Square One.
Because lock-down was the big unknown, to begin with there were not any expectations – of students or staff – on how teaching and learning would continue. Of course, there were useful tools that had been utilised in the preceding years, such as the Moodle page (to place resources) and email communication. But extended distance learning required new and more effective tools. This is where two key programmes came into play: Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. Both were discussed with a mixture of anticipation and confusion in the week leading up to the start of lock-down. I was completely ignorant of both, but in the weeks ahead I would start to explore and become comfortable with them.
Firstly, Google Classroom. This has been around for a while but I haven’t had the need to use it because I have long been a fan of Moodle. However, this fandom isn’t fully shared by my colleagues, and I can understand why: Moodle can be quite “clunky”, it doesn’t seem as intuitive, and it requires a heck of a lot of “sign-ins” to actually access it. But it does a great job of storing useful resources: PowerPoints, articles, revision materials, exam papers, etc. But its limitations became more apparent during lock-down as being the primary place where learning is done.
Google Classroom was suggested to me as being a more straightforward place that students could access: it serves a forum (of sorts) to enable discussion and a place to upload materials. But more importantly, it is also a place in which work can be uploaded. This became the principle manner in which students submitted work (such as completed essays or mock papers), and although marking the essays had its limitations (for example, it does not compare to the likes of Turnitin), it was a perfectly acceptable and user-friendly process. Furthermore, it clearly showed all essay submissions, marks, and who owed me what: perfect!
Secondly, Microsoft Teams. Teams allows the opportunity for online lessons, with the use of laptop (or smartphone) cameras and microphones. This was my biggest worry: attempting to “master” a completely different way of running lessons. This worry was so large that at first I attempted to navigate around it by producing other types of materials instead; one type of these were recorded PowerPoints (which would have my voice narrated over the slides). However, after a couple of weeks it was clear that Teams was needed because of its ability to actually speak and check-in with students. I would need to overcome my fear.
And what was this fear exactly? I guess it was the typical fear that everyone has when they see a video of themselves or when they hear themselves played back on an audio recording: that awkward cringe at hearing your own voice! Again, as noted earlier, my voice isn’t one for radio (as one person kindly reminded me many years ago), and so I felt that this new process would expose my weaknesses. But the gains of utilising Teams on a regular basis easily overcome such fears.
So, throughout lock-down I attempted a mixture of setting work and running lessons on Microsoft Teams. I definitely enjoyed contact with students and it proved to be a more effective way of working than simply posting things for them to do on Moodle. But this wasn’t without its own difficulties: poor network connection (for myself and students); reliance on technology (many times the laptop decided that it would not continue); and other elements of interference (for example, my small dog would tuck herself under my chair and suddenly bark with all her energy at the slightest sound of somebody walking by outside). But despite these set-backs I still believe that progress was made.
On reflection, it is clear that one programme or feature cannot be responsible for all of online learning. There is not, as we could say, ‘one ring to rule them all.’ And so a mixture is needed and the skill of being flexible is most certainly needed. I’ve only covered a couple of key communication outlets and it is clear that there are many others that help. But the key element here is: the ability to adapt and to try and pick up new skills.
Like acquiring any new skill, practice makes perfect. Although I’m far from perfect utilising these features, my confidence has definitely soared in utilising these solutions. In many ways, this pattern of skill acquisition fits in neatly with my past: nervous beginnings to become more confident and comfortable. I can remember working as a customer service representative for a phone company and being incredibly worried about “taking on” one of my fears: talking on the phone. But within a couple of months it became a comfortable process (…although not one I am keen to return to!).
So yes, there are unintended consequences of COVID-19. No doubt many of these methods would have been utilised at some point in the near future – we have a digital future in front of us – but the lock-down definitely sped up the process. I have commented before about the possible comparisons between the past few months and other periods of history when the population needed to make sacrifices (with the Second World War regularly cited by others), and there is another comparison here: although the world wars brought about devastation and the loss of millions they also accelerated other factors and brought about unintended consequences. For example, we could argue that the First World War accelerated rights for women or that the Second World War brought about a radical social programme of health-care (as seen with the NHS being established in 1948).
Hopefully if there have been some positives during this dark period it can show that people are – on a whole – quite adaptable at overcoming hurdles. I intend on utilising more of these digital methods in my normal way of working in 2020/21 and have started to introduce them into my scheme of work for the year ahead. Google Classroom will be used to keep a track of work submitted and Teams will be used for additional revision sessions and 1-2-1s with students (and hopefully the college will utilise it for meetings). Now, it is time to roll up the sleeves and embrace all of the other digital tools to help me in the 2020s!