Pandemic Pedagogy: Thinking about teaching at a time of uncertainty

Kate Cooper (Professor of History, Royal Holloway, University of London)

The summer of 2020 is not what any of us expected: with libraries closed and summer holidays a matter of finding a new routine within the same four walls, the task that looms largest for many of us is the attempt to reinvent our teaching for next autumn.

Over the past few weeks, a small team has been working as part of History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy project to find out how colleagues are approaching the challenges we face as teachers and mentors of university-level History students. Over the next 2-3 weeks, we’ll be posting resources and blog posts here on the History UK website to offer some insight into what colleagues around the Four Nations have learned – or are learning – about digitally-delivered teaching.

image of an empty lecture theatre
Photo by Gözde Otman from FreeImages

The first thing we’re learning will come as no surprise: just-moving-everything-onto-Zoom (or equivalent) isn’t an option. Zoom fatigue is real. Screen-to-screen interactions simply don’t work the same way as in-person conversations do. (Julia Sklar explains why in an excellent article: ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.)

Luckily, the lecture-plus-seminar system we all know and love isn’t the only way to do things – it’s a historical artefact. University Lectures came into being in medieval cities in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Then as now, time-tabling was a matter of getting people who lived in sometimes distant lodgings into the same room at a time when the teacher could be there and the room was available.

And hour-long slots aren’t pedagogically ideal; in fact, research suggests that shorter periods fit the human ability to concentrate far better. In other words, what we’re used to isn’t the only way to deliver the experiences and challenges that make for great teaching – or even the best way. It is just the way we’re most familiar with. (For a research-based and often quite funny take-down of lectures and why we tend to over-rate them, see Graham Gibbs’s Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing.)

So it’s useful to think about what happens in the ‘classroom’ in new ways, and to try to get to the bottom of what’s really important. We’ve identified four central areas that we’ll be addressing:

  • Presence: In an environment where ‘contact hours’ and ‘office hours’ don’t work the way they used to (and, let’s face it, they were never perfect to begin with!), how can we create a sense of involvement and intellectual connection for our students – with their peers and with us, their teachers?
  • Community-building: How can we best offer our students a sense of belonging and engagement with one another? This is a challenge that reaches from the summer before first year to the summer after graduation, and happens at multiple levels, from the tutor group or seminar group all the way up to the year cohort and the wider departmental community.
  • Scaffolding: How can we create frameworks both to guide students in exploring material independently, and to make sure they have the right opportunities to gain feedback from peers and from the teacher/facilitator?
  • Reading together (and writing and thinking together): What opportunities does the digital landscape offer for creating ‘spaces’ where students can read together, share their insights, and challenge each other to create new understanding?
  • And, the all-important Accessibility: How do we make sure that each of our students, regardless of disability, background, living situation or internet speed, has full access to the learning opportunities they have signed up for?

One of the best things about the Pandemic Pedagogy project so far has been a new experience of the UK History community as a lively, wry collection of people who are largely up for making lemonade out of whatever lemons come their way. So many people I’ve spoken to are looking for silver linings – a chance to discover new ways of teaching, learning, and collaborating that will benefit our students long after this particular crisis is over. I’ve also encountered a really lovely sense that we are all in this together – a ‘we’ that with luck will grow even stronger as we work together over the coming weeks and into the future.

Kate tweets as @kateantiquity:

Here’s Kate’s webpage at RHUL