Pandemic Pedagogy: a student perspective 2

By Sophie Moennich (University of Roehampton)


Now over a year since the first lockdown, many history students have adapted to the challenges of online learning. But levels of engagement with online learning has seen wide variation, especially as time has gone on. Some lecturers have used new approaches to help history students stay engaged, something increasingly helpful as time has gone past. Jamboard, breakout rooms and other approaches have helped for history students to share their ideas and stay engaged.

When I asked other history students about their experiences, a common reply was that pre-recorded lectures have been really useful. One student commented that they ‘engaged even better than in person as there was no distraction and I could re-watch and make proper notes’. Pre-recorded lectures have allowed students a sense of control over their time, and responsibility to ensure that they have watched them before the seminar. They are even more important for international students who may be in a different time zone. Because lectures are more accessible, students are more able to engage throughout the seminar, and have a stronger understanding of the topic. Another student confirmed that ‘lecturers make sure everything is electronically available, so I have access to more than last year, especially e-books.’ This implies that for many history students, learning resources have been largely unaffected by online leaning.

Screenshot showing a Jamboard discussion on shellshock, with post-it notes highlighting key themes linked to the topic and to images of 'shell shocked' patients
Screenshot of a Jamboard discussion on shell shock

Breakout rooms and websites such as Jamboard have stood out to me as one of the most important developments. Breakout rooms have allowed students to share their ideas, and establish a sense of involvement for students who may prefer to share their ideas with a smaller group of people. This has helped students with different confidence levels, and also ensured that they stay engaged with their course. Additionally, Jamboard has allowed students to share their ideas on a virtual post-it note seen by everyone else in the seminar. This has been especially useful as it has allowed students to share their ideas anonymously and more extensively with other students’ ideas. This suggests that the transition to online learning has helped students who are less confident in sharing their ideas to feel more secure in doing so, even if anonymously.

On a personal and social level, one student I spoke to additionally revealed how online groupwork was also useful in offering a space to discuss how they were adapting to online learning, and to share ideas. With group presentations still occurring within my own course, students have been able to stay in contact and discuss module work together.

It is the sense of control over learning that I would like to emphasise going forward. It is so important to empower students when they watch lectures, and give them the space to share their ideas in an environment they feel comfortable with. This independence in relation to time management and preparation for seminars is especially important when so many may feel their motivation dwindling as a result of lockdown.


We’d like to thank Sophie for sharing the results of her research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!

Pandemic Pedagogy: A student perspective 1

By Conor Penna-FitzGerald (University of Roehampton)


My name is Conor Penna-FitzGerald and I am a postgraduate history student at the University of Roehampton. My project analysed how students experienced online learning during the pandemic in comparison to the ‘normal’ classroom experience.

Starting my research for this post, I had thought there would be an abundance of views and opinions on online learning to be found online. In reality, I was amazed at how little there was. On ‘The Student Room’, I found only two forums, both of which emphasised limited access to primary sources, as well as other learning resources, such as course readings. Instead, I conducted my own research and spoke to nine UK-based History students (all postgraduates) on their experiences of online seminars, the predominant teaching method adopted by universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These offered mixed views on the value of online seminars over the usual classroom experience.

The most consistent positive response was that of praise for the history faculty at their university. Not only have they have provided high levels of support and adapted quickly to the changing circumstances, but they have helped to establish a sense of normality. By keeping to a clear schedule, lecturers have helped to mitigate feelings of discontent amongst students. They have also taken on extra responsibilities in terms of providing psychological aid, providing reassurance about student’s abilities. Furthermore, their willingness to use new technology is commendable. Ultimately, history lecturers have clearly maintained a high level of professionalism, which has positively shaped student experiences.

One of the most important positives of this situation, is that commuting is no longer an issue. Many of the students I spoke to were commuting students, and their strenuous, long, exhausting journeys have now been diminished. Not only has online learning made it easier to attend seminars, but much cheaper. One international student shared this sentiment: it is easier for them to stay in their home country and study, much cheaper, and more familiar. Another UK-based postgraduate student emphasised that not needing to commute made her feel much safer. She is reliant on public transport as she does not own a car, and with seminars often taking place in the evening, ‘Zoom’ seminars have worked well. This suggests that when pandemic restrictions do ease, universities should consider continuing their offering of online learning, as it ensures access to higher education for people with physical and mental health problems (e.g. anxiety). It allows students to bypass social insecurities that come from physical presence, enabling them to reach their full potential in a safer and more comfortable environment.

To my surprise, only one person I spoke to mentions the benefits of pre-recorded lectures. The reason why I was shocked by this is because they can now be watched at any time. This allows flexibility for students and allows them to study at their own pace. If students do not understand any content, they can pause the video and re-watch it until they understand it.

Despite these positives, online seminars have been much more divisive in terms of student experience. Many of the issues with them have been clear since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the factors which can ‘make or break’ the student experience is their internet connection, and most of the students I spoke to confirmed this. Buffering, pixilation, ‘robotic’ sounding voices, and eventual disconnection from seminars have all posed challenges. These disrupt focus, cause a loss of motivation, and ultimately dampen the online learning experience. I suffer from bad internet and have needed to turn off the webcam to increase the bandwidth, or dial into the seminar by phone. I often chose the latter option, leading to a virtually non-existent social experience due to not being able to see the other students.

To further illustrate this, the image to the right is a screenshot of what ‘dialling in’ to a ‘Zoom’ meeting looks like. As can be seen, it is like that of a normal phone call.  This has contriImage of Zoom 'dial-in'buted to an atmosphere which has been totally ‘unlike’ university, and for those who do have to dial in, it unfortunately permits the emergence of solitary emotions due to the lack of community. Even students who have been able to engage with a webcam have felt the same.

As social interaction has been minimal, communication between students has suffered. One student commented that online learning has been disappointing because of the inability to freely communicate with their peers about what they really thought about the readings, as well as how assignments and dissertations were progressing. This has added feelings of what I call ‘assignment isolation’ (undertaking stressful and demanding work completely on your own), which was seldom there when students were physically present together in class.

In addition to this, online learning has made it easier for students to fall behind. It has been much harder for students to ask questions about lectures that have been pre-recorded and uploaded online. If a student needs clarification, they must take the time to email their lecturer and wait for their response. Students who dial into seminars to ask questions are also unable to use any ‘raise hand’ functions. Again, students would then have to email their lecturer after class and once again wait for their response. The online teaching format additionally (although inadvertently) allows for procrastination, due to recordings being available to watch anytime. It therefore requires the student to exercise more discipline over their time, which before the pandemic would have been structured in a clear university timetable.

Many of the problems described here reflect wider issues associated with the lockdowns and remote working, and so ways of combatting them are unclear. Nevertheless, even small steps could improve the student experience of university. If the student uses wireless internet, for example, the purchase of an ethernet cable would result in a much more stable internet connection. These cables vary in expense but are typically rather cheap! Moreover, for students who feel that university is now ‘no longer like university’, a group chat could go a long way in helping maintain contact with their peers. This would not only aid social interaction, but also allow students to discuss and assist each other in their assignments, reading, and dissertations. In this way, even if online learning is not seen as effective as campus-based learning, it does serve a purpose.


We’d like to thank Conor for sharing the results of his research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: A summary

As we bring our series of blog posts following up on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative to a close, we thought it would be useful to summarise the interesting contributions that we’ve received. Looking back through them, we thought that they fell into three broad categories. First, there were several posts that addressed the issue of accessibility and building a sense of community among the student (and staff) body:

Second, several contributors reflected in a broader sense on the staff and student experience of teaching and learning during the pandemic:

Finally, we had three posts that explored innovative approaches to teaching and learning, from fieldtrips to assessment via the role of paper (remember that?) in the digital classroom:

To these we can add the posts that were published last year as part of the original Pandemic Pedagogy initiative, which you can find by looking back through the blog.

We hope that you have found these posts to be useful in thinking about your own teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic.

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this series of blog posts. We hope that you have found them useful. If you would like to contribute another short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in higher education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer. We’d also love to hear your views on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative and on these blog posts via our Twitter account.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Ruth Larsen – Oh, the places we will go! Running virtual field trips

In the seventh in our series of posts that build on Pandemic Pedagogy, Dr Ruth Larsen of the University of Derby talks about some of the challenges and possibilities of running virtual fieldtrips during the pandemic. You can tweet Ruth @RuthMLarsen

This post is based on a presentation at the East Midlands Centre for History Learning and Teaching workshop that took place on 11 January 2021 and will be published on the EMC website as well (https://eastmidlandscentreforhistorylearningandteaching.education/).


For staff and students alike, one particularly enjoyable element of some modules is the field trip. Study visits can provide a great opportunity for applied learning as well as being a great way of creating a sense of cohort identity. However, with many museums and heritage sites closed, and the idea of squeezing students into minibuses feeling like a distant dream, it can feel like the only option is to cancel planned trips and offer ‘yet another zoom lecture’. However, in recent years, and especially on the last twelve months, museums, galleries and other heritage sites have created more and more online provision, which means that there are viable alternatives. This short blog is a guide to running a virtual field trip, and provides a brief guide to some useful resources.

Setting up a virtual field trip

In much the same way that running a ‘live’ field trip requires preparation and consideration, it is important that virtual field trips are properly prepared and introduced to students. Before running the trip, do make sure that you reflect on its purpose, consider its role within the module, and focus on what you want students to get out of the experience. In order for it to be an effective part of the students’ learning you may want to:

  • integrate examples about the place and its collections into the module before the go on the virtual trip. This can include some discussion about the ways in which collections are presented or history discussed within museum and heritage sites.
  • give clear instructions to students: guide them to certain elements of the virtual site, or set them particular questions to consider, so they know why they are there.
  • create a short guide or video ‘walking’ students through the site (especially if there is no help section on the providers’ website). Many of the virtual sites can be a little difficult to navigate at first, especially those which have a virtual reality element or are very large.
  • provide guidance about how long to spend on the exercise, which is especially important if you are visiting one of the bigger museums which have numerous virtual rooms.
  • consider the students’ diverse learning needs, and think about how the accessible the virtual site is for all learners on the module.

Where can we go?

One of benefits of running virtual field trips is that it possible to go to places that would have been previously inaccessible due to time and/or financial constraints. In particular, the opportunity to visit museum and heritage sites overseas is now open to many more students, meaning that field trip is not the preserve of British history modules.

One of the best collections of virtual museums is provided by Google Arts and Culture. This site includes virtual resources for a wide range of heritage sites, archives and other cultural institutions from around the world. They have tours of some museums, including Rijksmuseum, and the National Museum, Delhi. Other institutions provide virtual exhibitions, such as this one from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which can be a really rich resource for students to engage with.

For other institutions, you have to get directly to the museums’ websites; this includes large museums such as The Louvre and The Vatican Museum. There are numerous guides to virtual tours, but one of the best for British heritage sites is curated by the Art Fund, which is regularly updated with information about new exhibitions. The provision is expanding all the time, so it worth rechecking the website of a favoured institution to see if they are offering virtual visits, guides or exhibitions.

Follow up activities

In my experience of running virtual study visits, I have found that students have generally got a great deal out of the experience. However, it has been the post visit discussion and activities which have been central to embedded the learning. By setting up the field trip carefully you can then use the experience in later sessions in the module; this can help to stop the exercise from feeling like ‘busy work’, and instead help students to understand how it was integral to module.

As one of the benefits of running a conventional field trip is the ways in which it can help to form a sense of a student community, you may want to consider running small group activities following a trip. These could include collectively writing a review for the site, sharing ideas about a learning resource for school children, or maybe collectively curating their own exhibition based on objects that they identified in the virtual field trip.

While there can technical teething issues at first, by guiding students, embedding the learning from the trip fully into the module, and by using it as an opportunity for group working, virtual field trips can be a really positive addition to a module. The chances to visit sites from across the world, to compare and contrast different approaches to public history and to get access to places that are normally out of the reach of the students means that virtual field trips, along with their traditional counterparts, may remain part of the way in which we teach in the long term.


 

If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Coreen McGuire – The Pandemic and Teaching Practice: thoughts on subtitles and accessibility

The fourth in our series of blog posts offering perspectives on Pandemic Pedagogy, is by Coreen McGuire, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at Durham University. Her first book, Measuring Difference, Numbering Normal: Setting the standards for disability in the interwar period combines history of medicine, science and technology studies, and disability history. She won the Disability History Association prize for outstanding article in 2020 and is currently working on a co-authored book project on British scientist Dr Phyllis Kerridge’s contributions to science in Britain with Dr Jaipreet Virdi for Johns Hopkins Press.

You can find out more about Coreen’s work at her website, (www.coreenmcguire.com) and on Twitter @coreen_anne


Hearing loss affects around 12 million people (1 in 5 adults) in the UK.[1]  Despite its ubiquity, it remains a stigmatised condition that some choose not to disclose or to hide from people in the workplace due to fear of discrimination. The pandemic has had especially pernicious effects on Deaf people. [2] It has also been harmful to the broader spectrum of people who present as hearing and who do not or cannot disclose their hearing loss. Imagine if you will, a person who has successfully managed their hearing loss in the workplace prior to the pandemic using a combination of hearing aids, lip-reading, and other assistive technology. Now working at home, their meeting and interactions with service-users take place over zoom where there are no captions and speakers often turn their videos off due to low bandwidth (precluding lip-reading). The impossibility of using (most current NHS) hearing aids with headphones means that they have to rely on their remaining residual hearing to try to comprehend their colleagues. This means that their attention and energy is constantly exhausted in the pursuit of basic comprehension, leading to fatigue, mistakes, frustration, and accusations of incompetence. The situation is so intolerable that this person is planning to quit a highly skilled job that they have worked at for over 25 years.[3] If this highly trained professional is finding it impossible to request or receive adequate support for managing their hearing loss, then one can only imagine how difficult it must be for the many students now working in similar situations.[4]

Online learning has exacerbated existing problems around hearing loss and technology. Despite the fact that the technology that would allow people with hearing loss to participate in online learning is available, it has been frustratingly underused and underappreciated. At the start of last term, I searched advanced zoom features to try and find live subtitle functionality. I found a feature that allowed me to enhance my appearance; there was not one for captions. Building these kinds of priorities into technologies is a choice, and one that has caused widespread frustration.

Subtitles are a brilliant learning tool and a good example of a ‘curb cut effect’. This effect is so called because when disabled activists in the US fought to create dropped kerbs for wheelchair use it was quickly apparent that this design feature also benefited groups including caregivers using prams, children using bicycles, and those delivering heavy goods. In this way, assistive technology ends up benefiting everyone in society.

Subtitles work in this way because while though were originally designed by and for Deaf people, they are now appreciated by a much larger swathe of users.[5] They allow people to watch videos while in a noisy environment or when in a more public space, something that is especially beneficial to students who do not have private study space while working at home. They help comprehension for students for whom English is not a first language, and help people learn languages more effectively. They improve our ability to understand and retain technical information. For instance, a student learning Scandinavian history for the first time has told me that having captions would allow them to effectively recall and search for information on historical individuals whose names are not obvious from their pronunciation. Crucially, subtitles help people for cognitive reasons as they aid comprehension and processing. Indeed, they may be one of the most valuable teaching aids we have as they improve general cognition, attention, and comprehension of material.[6] That they help us both retain information and remember material means they are an invaluable revision tool. However, incorporating these tools into university teaching has presented some considerable challenges.

For the purposes of this blog, I have been using captions and subtitles as synonymous terms, which is not strictly accurate. A simple way of thinking about the difference between the two is that subtitles involve translation, while captions simply reproduce speech. What is critical to note is that automatic captions are an inherently flawed solution. Voice recognition technologies tend to rely on biased data sets, which lead to inadequate and faulty results—especially for users with higher voices and/or with non-standard accents. As a historian of technology and disability, I am fascinated by that fact that this is due to the origination of this technology in the telephone system.[7] As a Scottish woman however, I am just frustrated. Systems that work algorithmically are better and I have used this effectively to transcribe oral histories taken online. So far, though, I have not been able to use these systems to effectively live-transcribe speech, though there are promises that this may soon be possible.

In the case of pre-recordings, far better are STL subtitles, which allow users to edit grammar, font, format, and correct any errors. They are much easier to design so the text appears in exact synchronicity with the spoken word, which is far better for comprehension. This ensures that the subtitles are accessible for users with dyslexia or sight loss. I should note here that almost all my knowledge about these processes is owed to the generous sharing of knowledge of colleagues (particularly on Twitter) who have shared their practices for creating subtitles.[8] I spent time over the summer working on embedding subtitles into online videos and became fairly accomplished at it. However, it takes a huge amount of time to do well. A five-minute introductory film I created for one module before the start of term took me a full Saturday to successfully subtitle. Even allowing for increased speed from practice, this is an impossible ask to put on top of a full teaching load in the best of times, never-mind while working from home in a pandemic. Realistically, we cannot ask individual lecturers to take responsibility for providing subtitles. Help and support for this, including live transcription services, must be embedded into the wider infrastructure of the University, ideally backed by government support.

The coronavirus pandemic and the repeated UK lockdowns have revealed patterns of societal inequities through the repeated correlation between inequality and high mortality. Working from home has also underlined structures of privilege in the subtle advantages that households with good access to WIFI, green-space, and flexible working patterns have over those without. Yet the shift from office to home and the move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online has had some advantages. For those with chronic illnesses, the disabled, and any students who does not fit the ‘traditional’ student profile virtual learning technologies have allowed some greater degree of control over learning, flexibility around teaching, and opportunity for participation. It is crucial that these changes to teaching practice and these opportunities remain in place long term. Subtitles are a crucial part of the way that we can retain and embed accessibility into our learning in the long term.

Notes:

[1] Royal National Institute for the Deaf, ‘Facts and figures’ Accessed January 2021 <https://rnid.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/facts-and-figures/>

[2] The Pandemic has disproportionately negatively impacted on Deaf people including on their ability to access healthcare according to a survey done by Sign Health, Accessed January 2021  https://signhealth.org.uk/resources/coronavirus-impacts-report/

[3] I am presenting this as a hypothetical scenario to retain this individual’s anonymity.

[4] Managing hearing loss is a term deployed by Karen Sayer and Graeme Gooday in their 2017 book, Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830–1930

[5] Many auditory technologies we now rely on have resulted from disabled innovation.

[6] M. A. Gernsbacher, ‘Video Captions Benefit Everyone’ Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences, 2:1 (2015), 195–202. doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130

[7] M. Mills and X. Li, ‘Vocal Features: From Voice Identification to Speech Recognition by Machine’, Technology and Culture 60, 2 (2019)

[8] Disabled activists on Twitter are a constant source of knowledge and innovation and I’ve been especially grateful to advice garnered from Jai Virdi, James Sumner, and Vanessa Heggie. I’ve also been impressed to organisations who have supported subtitles in their conferences, such as the British Society for the History of Science. Megan Baumhammer and Sarah Qidwai also did a brilliant job of making their virtual HistsTM conferences accessible.


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.