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: Tim Reinke-Williams – Delivering undergraduate teaching during the pandemic – some reflections

In the next Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0 post, Tim Reinke-Williams, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton, talks us through how staff and students have coped with teaching and learning through the various lockdowns we have all experienced. We’re sure that his insights will resonate with colleagues at other institutions, so please do share your views in response to Tim’s post on Twitter or even write a post for this blog.


This blog focuses on how the undergraduate History programme has been delivered at the University of Northampton since March 2020. For the most part History staff and students have adapted well, but there have been challenges and we’re continuing to adapt to a changing situation.

Prior to the third lockdown in January 2021 most content was delivered online via weekly sessions in virtual classrooms. Attendance was good, but getting students to move beyond posting brief comments in chat boxes was challenging (notably at level 4), and there were concerns about whether students were staying in the virtual classroom throughout the session, or simply “logging on then buggering off” (a phrase I glibly included in an email, which a colleague decided to abbreviate to LOBO). We have evidence of this: one colleague stayed behind in the virtual classroom until only one student was left, then asked the person “present” if they wanted to chat – the lack of a response suggested they had been gone for some time!

Before Christmas the university insisted that we offered two hours per week of onsite teaching, which we were able to do through core modules at levels 4-5. First-year attendance was good, but staff noted that interactions between students were not as close as in previous years, suggesting that learning mostly online has made it difficult for new students to form friendships and interact in person. Attendance at level 5 sessions was lower than at level 4, but second-year students valued having onsite sessions.

The main challenges were at level 6 where there were no existing core sessions for students to attend each week. We usually run dissertation workshops at level 6 (four across the year) so some of the onsite delivery came through those, but we had to set up a rota to deliver the other sessions, and in general third years were reluctant to come on to campus, so attendance was poor.

The other challenge with onsite sessions was that we were expected to use hi-flex to enable those who did not want (or were unable) to come to campus to participate. Leaving aside that staff had to learn how to use the tech, the overall experience was unsatisfactory, with neither onsite or distance learners getting as much out of the sessions as they would have done had everyone been onsite or learning remotely.  Overall the team were pleased when everything moved online in January 2020. Blended sessions were difficult to deliver, and attendance declined as the term progressed.

To conclude by focusing on the students: most have accepted the ‘new normal’ and many have told us that we are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Some have been frustrated by the inability to chat immediately after classes, so we’re staying in the virtual classrooms after formal teaching concludes and offering weekly drop-ins, but attendance at both have been patchy and despite many being digital natives, it’s clear that undergraduates still want real life interaction with lecturers.


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: Andrew Jotischky – Assessment during the Pandemic: ‘Take-home exams’

Andrew Jotischky kicks off week 2 of our Pandemic Pedagogy follow-up with a blog post about the challenges of assessment – particularly exams – during the pandemic. Andrew is Professor of Medieval History at Royal Holloway University of London, having previously taught for twenty years at Lancaster University. He teaches courses on various aspects of medieval religious life and thought, on crusading and on medieval food, at undergraduate and MA level. His most recent publications include, co-authored with Bernard Hamilton, Latin and Greek Monasticism in the Crusader States (2020).


About seven or eight years ago, as Head of Department at my previous university, I was involved in discussions with colleagues about the possibility of setting up a distance learning MA course. It didn’t happen in the end, for various reasons, but I remember the moment of shock at the realisation at just how much preparation time was needed to put on a single 30 credit course. I’ve thought about that many times over the past few pandemic months, when many of us involved in teaching History at university have been either designing courses for distance learning delivery, or converting existing courses for partial or wholly online delivery, in the space of a few weeks rather than months – and with sketchy training at best. It’s true, of course, that the technology has changed rapidly over the past few years, and that it’s possible to deliver online in ways that would have been unimaginable even in 2015. Even so, in the months since the March 2020 lockdown, we have all learned, at great speed, how to do things at that we hadn’t previously considered part of our jobs.

As I write, there is no prospect of anything like a return to ‘normal’ teaching this academic year. It’s worth asking ourselves what the legacy of pandemic teaching will be. From the multitude of things we’ve learned to do in the past nine months, what might we choose to retain as good practice in a post-pandemic world? What follows is an entirely personal view of one new practice that has changed the way I have thought about teaching and assessment: the online ‘home exam’. This was adopted hurriedly by many universities, including my own and the one where I am an external examiner, once it became apparent in April 2020 that traditional unseen ‘in-person’ exams would no be possible. Instead of a two or three hour period of sweating – or freezing – in a room often far from suitable for the purpose, students have 24 hours to write and submit their answers online, with a word limit instead of a time limit.  Since there can be no attempt to police the way they sit the paper, it is effectively an open-book exam. The system is far from perfect, of course. The traditional exam venue at least has the merit of equalizing the experience, whereas the online ‘home exam’ can expose inequalities between students who experience digital poverty or lack of appropriate space at home and those with plentiful access to books, fast broadband and privacy to work. If ways can be found for allowance to be given for these problems, however, there are real merits in the ‘home exam.’ My experience both as an internal and external examiner was that the overall quality of answers was significantly superior to the traditional exam answer written in a hurry – we’re all familiar with the ‘knowledge dump’ syndrome, the student suffering from nerves, the ‘off day’, and all the reasons why the in-person exam so often fails to reflect students’ true abilities. The ‘home exam’ allows time for reflection, for coherent, structured and well-informed answers. It also gives initiative to students, who have to make choices about how much time to spend on the different tasks involved in the exam, how much thinking and preparation time to allow themselves, how much to read or look up. It is more likely to produce a set of answers that tells us, as teachers, what our students’ real abilities are, rather than how much they can remember on a given day, or how fast they can write. And, of course, their answers rely less on our palaeographical skills. For these reasons, I hope that universities continue to find a place for the ‘home exam’ format even after it is no longer mandated by the need for social distancing.


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.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Lucinda Matthews-Jones – The Paper-Based Digital Classroom

The second blog post following on from our Pandemic Pedagogy initiative is by Lucinda Matthews-Jones, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. She teaches nineteenth-century gender and urban history modules. Her dynamic and innovative teaching approaches were recognised in 2018 when she awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Individual Teaching Award. Beyond the classroom, she researches ideas of home and urban domesticities in the British Settlement Movement, 1880-1920. Lucinda tweets @luciejones83.


I am a paper-based lecturer and teacher. Before COVID-19, you would have found me moving around my university building with large rolls of paper and a tote bag filled with coloured pens, glue sticks, post notes, and scissors. For me, asking students to work on paper in groups or as individuals enabled them to break down and cement their ideas through a visual format. It helped me to see what they had picked up and to expand these points in classroom discussions.

But how could I replicate this in the digital classroom? There has been a tendency to think that this needs to be done through digital tools. But if the non-digital class can be based on mixed media then why not the digital, too? Why must the digital classroom be paperless? It felt like digital fatigue had hit both me and the students in the second half of the semester in Autumn 2020. Discussions with personal tutees and other students had made me increasingly aware that recorded lectures were taking a lot of time and energy both to produce and consume. As History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook observed ‘screen-time and remote interaction have a cumulative effect; the result is mentally and physically draining’.

My first-year students had a ‘how to respond to your feedback’ seminar coming up for their academic skills module and I wanted to think more creatively about how to get them to engage with the department’s writing guide. I decided that breaking it down and asking students to create a zine relating to the section that they had been assigned would help them to process the complex information written down in the guide and get them to think about how to communicate this in a creative manner. Students were sent class instructions through our VLE (see below).

Here is a picture of one zine and the page from LJMU’s History Guide it refers to.

Here is a picture of one zine and the page from LJMU’s History Guide it refers to.

Students reported that the exercise encouraged them to read the material differently by emphasising the need to break it down and to think about how to display the guide’s information. They enjoyed the idea that the exercise was for a wider audience and not just them reading through the guide on their own. At the end of the session, contributions were sent to me and put into a PDF.

Handwriting and hand drawing can improve people’s ability to remember. Hetty Roessingh, for instance, has noted that handwriting notes and sketching has enhanced her students ‘understanding and remembering’ by encouraging them to make ‘personal connection’ through ‘creative thought’.  Roessingh continues that ‘hand-written notes matter and endure over time.’ Asking students to do paper-based creative exercise also changes the embodied experiences of digital learning. It encourages the eyes to look down and focus on the task, minimising screen time during a seminar.

The picture above shows a mind map illustrating one approach taken by students.

The picture above shows a mind map illustrating one approach taken by students.

This session was intended to be light-hearted and a bit different from previous weeks. What I found was that I really enjoyed it. The conversations were dynamic and interesting as I moved around the breakout rooms. I felt more like me as a lecturer, having neither the know-how nor confidence around some digital technologies that others have used to transition their teaching online. Paper based activities will now be the focus of my teaching in semester 2.

What paper-based activities have you been using in your teaching? I would love to hear!

Class instructions

To help you prepare for the next assessment we will be digging into the LJMU Writing Guide. Together we will create a zine of top tips from this based on your feedback and what surprises you from the guide and feel your peers would benefit from.

Before class: 

  • Please make sure you have downloaded: LJMU_Writing_History_v1.pdf
  • Have some paper and any coloured pens to hand. You can also bring newspaper, magazines, glue, and scissors if you want to do something more multimedia. But you do not have too. You can do this exercise on a class.

In class: 

  • You will be spilt into groups and given a section
  • Be able to take an image of your hand out and email to  Lucie for her to collate.
  • Be prepared to summarise and explain your zine page.

Want to know more about Zines? Read here: How to Make a Zine: Guide to Making Your Own Zine During Quarantine – Thrillist (Links to an external site.).


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.