Should we stop worrying about contact hours?

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

One of the problems worrying wise heads as they think ahead to the autumn involves the instructional quantum formerly known as contact hours. Once we are no longer meeting in timetabled classrooms, how will we know when we have done enough? It’s a question that has a philosophical dimension, but it’s also tremendously practical. On the one hand, digital teaching requires thinking ahead to solve as many problems as possible ahead of time. On the other hand, students navigating in an unfamiliar digital environment might reasonably need more support than ever.

In a piece entitled The need for Presence not ‘Contact Hours’, David White, who is Head of Digital Learning for the University of the Arts London, addresses the problem head-on. Part of the problem, White suggests, is that our way of thinking about what we owe our students has been rooted in a not-particularly-well-thought-through emotion: the attachment we all feel to ‘the University as a set of buildings.’ Partly out of habit and partly because emotional attachment makes us irrational, he says, ‘The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to “time spent in the same room together”.’ This means we have failed to think as carefully as we might about what our students need from their interactions with teachers, and the resulting muddled thinking can have spectacularly bad results.

So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like [in some contexts] is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unsustainable, it is also damaging to the learning process.

Another useful approach comes from Colorado, where Sean Michael Morris is Senior Instructor in Learning, Design, and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver and Director of the online learning community known as Digital Pedagogy Lab. In a recent post Morris suggests that the answer to the problem rests on an idea we can all agree on: the best pedagogy is rooted in human relationships. “My expertise is digital pedagogy—specifically critical digital pedagogy—which resides more in the relationships between teachers and students than it does the delivery of instruction.” In facing up to the digital challenge, he says, colleagues can become so worried about managing the technology that they need to be reminded of the human element.

So as I’m approached with questions about what technologies might help build community online, what platform I might recommend for ensuring students don’t cheat, or what digital solution I know of that will enable meaningful discussion, I’ve found myself answering: teach through the screen, not to the screen. Find out where your students are, and make your classroom there, in a multiplicity of places.

How we make this happen, of course, is the question. What does it mean to be ‘present’ in a space that doesn’t actually exist?

Another important aspect of the problem involves not only space, but time. To what extent is a ‘scheduled hour’ a meaningful measure? Far less than we are used to, perhaps: to students (and staff) who are living in a state of perpetual disruption, freedom from set schedules can offer a much-valued silver lining, and is sometimes an absolute necessity.

My colleague Martin King at Royal Holloway makes an important distinction here. Even though being ‘present’ to our students is something that we are used to doing in real-time, sometimes the acts of ‘presence’ we can offer asynchronously are just as valuable. To illustrate the point, Martin kindly gave me permission to share a graphic analysis he made of the possibilities for ‘presence’ that can be offered to students through the Moodle/Replay learning tools we use in our own institution.

Martin places strong emphasis on something that is sometimes forgotten in discussions of ‘contact’, which is interactivity. Sometimes, when we are sailing along in our habitual way of teaching and learning together, we forget that what makes contact ‘contact’ is the fact of being able to interact. Often, interaction is the element that lights up the learning experience for students.

table showing online activities and their affordances
Source: Martin King, Considerations for online teaching Pt.1: Presence
(https://elearningroyalholloway.blog/2020/05/07/considerations-for-online-teaching-pt-1-presence/) (edited) 

Once we’ve turned our focus to interactivity, we can see that though we’re used to thinking of synchronous activity as conveying a strong sense of presence, when interactivity is present asynchronous activity can do so as well. And colleagues are already reporting that new forms of engagement such as discussion lists can elicit higher involvement from students who would hesitate to contribute in face-to-face discussion.

Another point to remember is that sometimes the ‘presence’ our students find most valuable and rewarding is that of their peers. Taking Martin’s analysis as a starting point, I made my own visual analysis, this time looking at how the social and interactive aspect of learning can work both synchronously and asynchronously, sometimes through engagement between students and staff, and at other times through engagement among students themselves. (The ‘asynchronous-social’ column in the centre offers particularly useful food for thought.)

table showing asynchronous and synchronous tools and their affordances

How can we translate these insights into strategies for supporting students? David White suggests that if we move our thinking away from counting contact hours to planning for meaningful acts of presence, we may discover that the new landscape offers surprising possibilities.

Here is the list White offers at the close of his post:

  1. A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
  2. Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous presence)
  3. Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
  4. Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos
  5. Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
  6. …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.

It’s not hard to imagine a student being happy with this approach to presence. It’s perhaps an idealized list – notice all those adjectives and adverbs. (‘Reliable’, ‘lively’, ‘artfully’.) So, the proof will be in the design (how do they all fit together? do they add up to more than the sum of the parts?) and in the delivery. But that is true for every type of teaching, so at least here we are on familiar territory.

Research conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) via the 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey discovered a greater correlation of student success to increased independent study than to increased contact hours, and increased independent study also correlated to a higher student sense of engagement.  Commenting on the survey, Professor Stephanie Marshall, then serving as CEO of the HEA, had this to say:

“It’s important to note the relatively high numbers who do not feel supported in independent study … we know that the skills developed through independent study are important to employers and to lifelong learning. Providing guidance and structure outside timetabled sessions is key here.”

So there is potentially much to be gained from shifting our focus from measuring staff input to considering how best to offer our students what they need.

For department chairs and administrators, there remains a thorny administrative problem: it’s far more difficult to assess whether a multi-strand ‘presence’ strategy has been executed successfully than it is to count timetabled contact hours.  But from the student perspective, if the present disruption forces us to focus on the fundamentals, this can only be a good thing.


Kate tweets as @kateantiquity: https://twitter.com/kateantiquity

Here’s Kate’s webpage at RHUL

Pandemic Pedagogy – Accessibility in Remote Learning, why does it matter?

Louise Creechan (GTA English Literature and Widening Participation, University of Glasgow)

This week the Pandemic Pedagogy team at History UK have been thinking about accessibility.We believe that accessibility needs to be our first consideration when we begin to plan for remote delivery. Thinking about accessibility issues from the outset ensures that we avoid making compromises or adjustments further down the line. It should go without saying that it is extremely demoralising for a student to feel like their needs were an afterthought.  

Professor Chrsitine Hockings of Evidencenet offers the following definition of ‘inclusive learning’ that positions accessibility as a part of a wider pedagogical strategy, one which also includes learning design and community building as key elements for inclusivity:

‘Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education refers to the ways in which pedagogy, curricula and assessment are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. It embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity that can enrich the lives and learning of others.’

The Pandemic Pedagogy project is concerned about the impact of the pandemic on these essential areas of inclusive teaching practice: accessibility, learning design, and community building. Through our blog posts and Twitter interactions, we aim to collate resources and useful case studies that can help our community of historians to deliver courses remotely without compromising on inclusive learning practices. 

To return to accessibility, it might seem elementary, but if teaching is inaccessible then it is ineffective. Prioritising accessibility means students do not necessarily have to go through the trauma of disclosing disabilities or life situations. Many arrangements will also in turn benefit all, including abled and neurotypical students and staff. 

What arrangements are you making for accessible learning? Do you have any concerns? 

What do we mean by ‘accessibility’?

Under the 2010 Equality Act, we are legally required to ‘make reasonable adjustments’ to enable our students to access their studies. This legislation applies to all protected characteristics, such as age, disability, race/ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender, but it also extends to adjustments that the institution must make to ensure no student is disadvantaged. Remote learning can exacerbate many additional barriers for students that may have been hidden in the classroom, such as caring responsibilities, the lack of a quiet place to work, access to suitable equipment, or an unreliable internet connection. Accessibility is about inclusion and making sure that all learners feel valued and supported. 

We’ve identified three starting points for thinking about accessible remote course design: Bandwidth and Workplace Circumstances, Fatigue and Concentration Difficulties, and the Loss/Lack of Support Systems This is by no means an exhaustive list and there will be specific issues that will require additional support. In the meantime, we’ve included some points of reflection with each example. We’d like to invite you to join us on Twitter on Thursday 25th June from 2pm to share experiences, reflections, and resources, and help us develop an accessible approach to remote learning. Use #PandemicPedagogy and/or #InclusiveHUK.

image of someone typing into a keyboard with laptop screen
Photo by zizzy0104 from FreeImages

 

Key Accessibility Issues

Bandwidth and Workplace Circumstances

Synchronous video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom or MS Teams, require significantly higher bandwidths to function effectively. These high-bandwidth technologies rely on newer computers and operating systems, fast broadband connections, or significant data allowances on mobile devices. Participation in real-time, face-to-face contact via video software can marginalise students from rural communities (or abroad) with poor signal or those who cannot afford the significant financial burden of high-end technologies.  

We must also respect that finding a quiet place to work may not be possible for many students for a multitude of reasons, including caring responsibilities, financial circumstances, and changed familial dynamic as a result of COVID-19. In these cases, ensuring access to recorded material, collaborative writing tasks, or discussion forums can enable students to remain engaged with the course, but at a time that is convenient for them. 

What has been your experience with asynchronous resources? What did you use? How have students responded? 

See this article from DePaul University for a breakdown of low-bandwidth and asynchronous approaches.  

Fatigue and Concentration Difficulties

No matter how driven we are, there will be times when our concentration is severely affected by external factors. The pandemic is a cause for concern for many of us and our students are no different. 

In a survey conducted by Disabled Students UK, increased levels of fatigue were commonly mentioned by respondents. It is important to note that, while respondents self-identified as disabled, the fatigue reported was not solely related to their disabilities, but the result of the changing study arrangements and the emotional toll of ensuring that their support remained in place. Ensuring that course design is informed by accessible pedagogical practices is a way of mitigating some of the stresses felt by students with additional needs.   

Of course, we can all feel fatigued when we have dramatically altered our routines and working conditions. It’s been fairly well documented that the online platforms that we’ve been using to support remote learning can cause ‘Zoom fatigue’. Psychologists have determined that video platforms impair our ability to process non-verbal cues which forces the brain to focus harder on verbal dialogue and, in turn, tires us out. 

To counteract fatigue and concentration issues, we should really be asking ourselves: ‘does this interaction/pre-recording need to be any longer than twenty minutes?’ If so, it may be worth rethinking your strategy: Can you plan a comfort break? Can you set students an off-screen activity for 10/15 minutes? Could this be covered by setting reading and encouraging responses on a forum? 

What tactics have you employed to manage fatigue? How can course design be implemented to avoid burnout?

Loss/Lack of Support Systems

Isolation from friends, families, or situations where the student is estranged from their families can make studying far more challenging. In order to create a truly inclusive environment, we need to treat isolation as an accessibility issue. We will return to community building and transitions to HE later in the Pandemic Pedagogy project, but it is worth noting that, through conscious efforts to encourage student interaction and by making the effort to design our courses with collaboration in mind, we can hope to replicate some of the support that may have been lost in the transition to remote learning.

We need to be aware that the non-medical assistants, such as BSL interpreters, that many disabled students require will not be able to work as they would have done before the pandemic. Remember that legally you must provide captioning or a transcript for any pre-recorded material and that synchronous video conferencing makes this far more difficult. A simple way of captioning pre-recorded resources is to upload content to YouTube and to review the automatic captioning. We will provide more specific strategies for developing disability-positive classrooms in the formal Pandemic Pedagogy report that will be produced in mid-July to mark the end of the project.  

Are there any strategies that you have used to support isolated students? How do we make sure that students who have lost their support systems are able to continue their studies? 

Please do get in touch to share your experiences of accessible remote learning. We are keen to create a sense of coming together with other historians to ensure that we use this pandemic as a means of evolving our pedagogy and maintaining our commitment to accessibility. 


Louise tweets @LouiseCreechan 

History UK Pandemic Pedagogy fellowship

At the beginning of June, History UK launched a ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ initiative to help support
historians move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for a remote
and socially-distanced campus in the Autumn. The aim is to produce short, user-friendly, and
practical guides than can inform planning, including:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools
    people may have heard of but not used
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions
  • A page on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ and annotation of ‘texts’

History UK is seeking a postgraduate student for a fixed-term fellowship to support the initiative.
The History UK fellow will conduct desk-based searches of websites, blog posts, and social media
for relevant case studies, reports, and other practical guides. They will write clear and concise
summaries of their findings to help inform the resources that History UK will produce and curate,
and attend virtual team meetings. They will be encouraged to write a blog post for the History UK
website on a topic of their choosing (relevant to the initiative), and may also be required to assist
in the organisation of an online ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ roundtable.

The fellow will be expected to work flexibly for 50 hours in total over four weeks, starting on
Wednesday 17 June, or soon after. All work needs to be completed by Wednesday 15 July. The
renumeration for the fellowship is fixed at £750.

Person specification:

  • A postgraduate student (MA or PhD) in History, or a related subject, based at a higher
    education institution in the UK
  • Strong research skills
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision
  • Excellent organisation, project management skills, and attention to detail
  • Expertise and interest in pedagogy (preferable)
  • Experience of writing for the web (preferable)

To apply:

Send a CV of up to two pages and a one-page cover letter to pandemicpedagogy2020@gmail.com.
In the cover letter you should explain why you are interested in the role, how you meet the person
specification, and what you will bring to the initiative.

The deadline for applications is Thursday 11 June at 2pm.

Applications will be reviewed by the team working on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative:
www.history-uk.ac.uk/2020/06/03/history-uks-pandemic-pedagogy-initiative-starts-today and the
successful candidate notified by the end of Monday 15 June.

History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy initiative – starts today!

Over the past few weeks members of the HUK Steering Committee, coordinated by Prof. Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) have been putting together a project to support historians as we move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for the next semester/ term. Following our Steering Committee meeting in early June, we ran a survey of members’ views. This has helped us form a working group to generate some useful resources and to run (online) events. We are keen to reflect on the ‘emergency’ phase of teaching and learning and to share best practice through collaborative problem-solving.

To that end, we’ve divided our ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ activities into two broad strands:

  • Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LJMU), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton) and Manuela Williams (Sitrling) are developing the strand on inclusivity and community-building.
  • Kristen Brill (Keele), Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) and Jamie Wood (Lincoln)are working on our second strand on pedagogy and online tools.

The inclusivity strand will kick off with the first of a series of Twitter chats today (Weds 3rd June) at 11am. Here’s the poster:

Poster for June History UK twitter chat number 1

We hope that you’ll be able to join us.

Alongside this, the pedagogy and technology group aims to produce some pages for the History UK website over the next few weeks, each of which will involve a short summary of the results of our information-gathering on three topics:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools people may have heard of but not used.
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions that move replication of face-to-face teaching (e.g. lectures or seminars).
  • A page focussing specifically on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ (including images and other media) and annotation of ‘texts’.

Our key aim here is to produce short, user-friendly and practical resources (i.e. case studies rather than research papers or theoretical works).

To draw on the knowledge that’s already out there to inform this initiative, we are conducting a survey of historians in HE. Please follow this link to complete it:

We will be sharing the results of our work as soon as possible via the HUK website and/or Twitter account.

Finally, if any historians are interested in joining our group to help out with this initiative, then please do get in touch with any of us directly.

 

Kristen Brill (Keele)

Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway – @kateantiquity)

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores – @luciejones)

Yolana Pringle (Roehampton – @y_pringle)

Manuela Williams (Strathclyde – @ManuelaAWill)

Jamie Wood (Lincoln – @woodjamie99)

 

 

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