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Not just ‘Hello, we love you’: Interview with Chris A. Williams

While we were researching the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, one of the people who offered really useful advice was Chris A. Williams, who is Senior Lecturer in History at the Open University. More recently, Chris kindly agreed to an interview with project lead Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway), so a wider group of colleagues could hear a bit more about his experiences with digital pedagogy.

image of Chris Williams

Kate Cooper (KC): Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Before we get started, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your time at the Open University?

Chris A. Williams (CW): I’m a historian of policing, government, and bureaucracy. I did a PhD at Sheffield on police and crime in the nineteenth century, and I’ve worked at the OU for 20 years, initially as a research fellow for what became the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice, and eventually switching over to teaching. I’ve always been interested in digital pedagogy. I got my feet under the table as a teacher while I was still a postgrad at Sheffield contributing to an undergraduate module on using computers to study history as part of the part time degree there, and this became the niche that allowed me to eventually make myself indispensable at the OU, which was how I landed a permanent appointment.

At the OU I’ve played various roles that put me in contact with the OU’s wider systems. I’ve been Director of Teaching for History and run a number of our modules and programmes, which involves working with the OU’s publishing and VLE arm. I’ve also acted as Media Fellow for Arts and Humanities, a role which involves serving as the liaison for Arts and Humanities with the OpenLearn unit (the part of the OU that prepares free-to-air teaching) and also liaising with the BBC.

KC: What you do at the Open University is probably the Rolls Royce of digital pedagogy. What are the key aspects that make your approach distinctive?

CW: We run a really specific system at the OU which involves massive scaling – this carries huge up-front costs that other kinds of university would find impossible. Some really rough ballpark figures (though it varies between faculties): for one week’s module content, the OU might invest 8 weeks’ work by a subject specialist & another 8 weeks’ work by admin, rights, and technically skilled people – which makes 16 weeks of staff time if you add it all up. The process of setting up a new module takes three years, and with that ratio of investment we then expect the module to support hundreds of students per year over a number of years. We place a massive emphasis on the production values of our materials and on comprehensive quality assurance and cross-checking; some of this – especially the production values – probably wouldn’t make sense for institutions working at a smaller scale or on a tighter turn-around.

KC: Are there lessons you’ve learned that can be borrowed by universities that have fewer resource to invest?

CW: One of the philosophies of the OU that I think will resonate with colleagues in other kinds of departments is the fundamental sense of care for our students, and the concern to keep their experience at the centre of what we do. Perhaps more than most, we find ourselves working with students who are facing a huge variety of situations, so finding a way to make it work for each of them is both challenging and exciting.

What I’ve always tried to do is to think through the worst-case scenario; to start with the student who is trying to complete an assignment on a phone because they don’t have a laptop or internet at home, or a student coping with a challenging family situation or disability, and make things work for someone in that situation. Once you’ve done that, the systems you’ve put into place can only benefit the other students whose circumstances are more straightforward. Keep an image in your mind of your most vulnerable student at a moment of maximum crisis: that’s the person you are teaching to.

It’s a philosophy that can have some very practical consequences. For example, when you’re addressing students, you want to be thinking about what they might be dealing with when they are communicating with you. When you are in the classroom and you can see how everyone is reacting to what you’re saying, you can be sensitive to their responses, but in a remote relationship you’re engaging with students who might be receiving an email right in the middle of a family crisis – in those situations work can be something to hang onto but whether that’s true or not you certainly don’t want an unfortunately phrased email or bit of feedback to be a source of distress.  So in framing an email or any other communication, you try to stop and think about that. We want to be sure that we are respecting people – that we’re addressing them in a way that is clear and constructive, without provoking any  unnecessary sense of distress, confusion, or discouragement. When you can’t see students’ faces as they’re listening, you have to anticipate their possible reactions in a different way.

KC: What thoughts can you share about induction and community-building?

CW: Thinking from a student perspective, consider the invisible work that happens in all the informal moments in a campus environment, when students make connections with each other and compare notes. Support networks get generated spontaneously, by students standing in a queue together or grabbing coffee after class. Little collectives that we don’t understand tend to sprout up, and they are partly social but they are also a crucial mechanism for delivering support. Sometimes students support each other on an emotional level, and they also support one another on a navigational level.

At the emotional level, students working remotely need a similar chance to make human connections. Whatsapp groups with peers can be useful – this could be in a tutor group or perhaps a module seminar group. Mentoring schemes can be invaluable – connecting year 1s to year 2s for example. Try to establish small, stable tutorial groups. Icebreaker activities are important, but they can be intrusive when students are working from home, so the timing and framing has to be thought out carefully.

At a practical or navigational level, you’re looking for them to have a chance to ask the little questions that might pose an obstacle to their free and full engagement with the learning process. ‘I’m stuck – whom should I contact? Where do we go to find out about that? How do we use the library?’ Students are engaged in a process of self-triage all the time – ‘am I doing the right thing? Is this problem big enough to justify asking for help?’ – so we need to find ways to make it as easy as possible for them to ask. Navigating in a university involves all sorts of tacit knowledge that everyone thinks each other already know. When educators say ‘the library’ for example, what do we mean – the URL or the building? – these are things we shouldn’t take for granted, and we need to find routes to help students to discover them. (By the way, a library is also a collection of people – and librarians become even more important than usual in a digital environment.)

This kind of support can also unlock the learning process. A lot of students come into the process in a state of nervous anxiety, that comes from an assumption that ‘this class is going to be “stupid me” plus 199 geniuses.’ So, part of the emotional navigation is taking time to loudly reassure them in front of their peers that there are no stupid questions. If they put their head above the parapet and ask a question, they are actually helping other people who were wondering the same thing.

KC: What about setting out frames and scaffolding? How should things like module handbooks look in a digital environment?

CW: The first thing you have to be aware of is that from the moment students are registered on the system they will have a tsunami of guidance coming at them from a variety of different sources, and it can be overwhelming. Often it is difficult to figure out which sources of information are going to answer which questions. It can sound like a cliché to talk about bringing the student experience to the centre, but it’s actually really helpful to think through the multiple sources of input and guidance that they are having to handle at any given time. A simple thing you can do is to keep as much uniformity of format as possible, so they can focus on the content. It’s really important to have information accessible, so it’s good to have as many questions as possible anticipated ahead of time in the programme handbook or the module handbook. There needs to be a legible spine of ‘what to do next’ that is laid out right from the beginning. At the same time, students will always miss key bits of information for whatever reason, or they’ll be looking for it under different headings, so you’ve got to find strategies of productive duplication – ways of calling things to their attention or letting them know how to loop back and find it, and it possible, a clear ‘helpline’ contact attached to it.

A clear-eyed view of practicalities is really helpful. It’s important to make sure everyone has found the reading, for example. With virtual learning environments such as Moodle or Blackboard, the ability for educators to access a student’s view of the system is really important – what are they seeing and does it make sense?  Thinking about introduction or induction videos, they shouldn’t be just ‘Hello, we love you’ – what’s often urgently needed at the beginning of a programme or module is how-tos for accessing the various systems. ‘Here, I’m sharing my screen, watch how I click through to this resource (or whatever) so you can do it too.’ If you can make that personal and engaging, they’ll find it easier to use.

Something else to be careful about is tools overload. Don’t start with 8 different on-line tools in week 0 – better to drip-feed them in, ideally not all at once. So try not to introduce some of your skills or platforms until week 3 or 4 or 5. Ideally you should be thinking this out at a department level, making sure that they only have to cope with one new system each week. So if in week 2 we are sending them all to the library and in week 3 they are all learning how to use a platform that everyone in their year level is having to use, then the individual modules can negotiate who gets to introduce what in weeks 4 and 5.

Similarly, it’s useful if there is some consistency of the tools (or palette of tools) used across the department. Try to keep tools as few and/or simple as possible; be careful about overwhelming students. With all of this, the teaching director might have to do a bit of orchestrating, to find out what people are trying to do in their different modules and to see if the creative chaos can be pruned so multiple ways of skinning the same cat don’t become distracting for the student who is studying with more than one instructor.

As academics, we cherish the idea of spontaneity and diversity, but this is a case where at a department level, uniformity and consistency are your friend. So, for example, you can generate a single orientating video for all modules of a certain type (e.g. special subjects): ‘These are the special subjects and this is what you’ll need to be doing in the library (and why); each of the special subjects will ask you to do x, y, and z’, et cetera. This creates a situation where students in one module can put their heads together with friends who are in a different module; they can compare notes and begin to get a clearer sense of what’s at stake.

KC: Do you have advice about infrastructure?

CW: One of the things that worries me is how are the parent institutions planning for tech support in the classroom, for helplines and on-line accessibility support. Digital learning actually requires quite a lot of staff time to get it right.

For synchronous teaching, it’s good to have two people in play – the tutor and a demonstrator. For example, Zoom teaching is very tiring, and lots of tech issues arise – if there is no one to sort them the class has to be disrupted while the tutor tries to figure it out.

For students, they need to know that there is a number they can call. A departmental or School helpline better than university-level – both because the help staff have a better chance of checking in with the instructor if necessary and also because the students will feel less anxious about asking for help. Minimizing the number of points of contact for students is important – they get overwhelmed having to decide who the ‘right’ person to contact is.

TAs can help here – while some institutions seem to be cutting back on TAs at the moment, a far better solution is to re-brand these assistants as learning mentors. At the OU our students work primarily with a single tutor, so that person can take this role, but in systems where students are studying multiple modules it’s probably better to split this role off.  The tutor contacts them regularly to ask whether they are having any difficulties, and acts as a first port of call for any academic problems that do arise. In order to get students to not feel inhibited about asking for help they actually need to gain the student’s trust. The kind of pro-active support we’re talking about is more time-consuming than the normal role of a personal tutor, but having a single point of contact helps to cut through the fog in a lot of cases.

KC: Creating a sense of presence is one of the biggest challenges for colleagues whose experience lies with trying to generate electricity in a real-life group. What can we be doing to make students feel more connected with us and with each other?

CW: One of the most important things is to recognise that low-bandwidth solutions are sometimes really powerful. In the OU, teaching is largely asynchronous, and this allows us to build up a conversation that unfolds across the week.  Part of the reason for this is that we tend to be careful about bandwidth & time-hungriness – we see time and bandwidth as finite resources and only use strategies that eat up these resources when it’s genuinely necessary. This means trying to keep to lowest common denominator in terms of digital complication and minimizing the use of tools that have a higher chance of causing problems – for example a student losing the chance to participate in a ‘live’ online discussion because of a vomiting toddler or a shaky broadband connection.

There are various low-bandwidth ways you can create a feeling of being ‘in touch’ in a digital setting. One of the tools we use quite a bit in the OU is polls: for synchronous sessions, this is particularly helpful for finding out whether the students are ‘getting’ something or not. Another is asynchronous online discussions. Generally speaking, for the OU focusing on writing and feedback is the key interactive technique, whether this is in major written assignments or smaller contributions such as posts to online forums.

KC: Now we’re coming what seems to be the holy grail of digital teaching. Do you have advice about what makes for a successful online discussion?

CW: Setting up online forums and setting up reading with exploratory tasks or writing prompts (with narrative framing for these activities) is all done in advance of the beginning of a module and takes quite a bit of work.

Online discussions can be great for drawing out the students who wouldn’t otherwise participate, but there are some ways it can go badly wrong, and a few tricks that can help you to get it right. One of the most important problems to solve is the over-confident person who pops up first with lengthy pontifications. This can intimidate the other people in the class or cluster.  How do you make sure that the quiet ones don’t come away thinking ‘Oh my god, I could never come up with that’ or ‘I’d better be quiet; I’m not that clever’? So you have to destabilise the pecking order before it begins to form.

KC: OK, now this really IS the holy grail – how do you manage things so the dominant voices don’t actually get a chance to dominate?

CW: So you want to think about filtering processes that will steer how the conversation will go. You can filter in terms of timing, in terms of word lengths or type or post, and you can filter in terms of content – the number of sources or type of source (article, primary source, etc) you’re asking the students to engage with.

We have to say, ‘right, here are the cards we as educators can play at different stages in the module.’ If we’re trying to make students give the task their best energy, we can play the card of making posting mandatory or awarding it some points toward summative assessment, or making sure that there is interesting feedback from the tutor, or from a peer, or both. There are different costs associated with those options, in terms of different amounts of time that tutors will need in order to manage the process.

If we’re trying to head off the dominant voices problem, we can play the ‘vicious word limit’ card. So, discussion could take place via students posting paragraphs of a defined length – 100 or 150 words – in response to prompts, rather than via free-form interaction. This keeps the space free of long-windedness but it can also fit with the idea that clarity, precision, and brevity are writing skills that we’re assessing for. A longer piece may less well-argued than something shorter that has been carefully crafted, so you can encourage students to spend time on tightening and revising – often this results in pieces that are both more useful and less intimidating to other students.

One of the most effective strategies is timing the visibility of the comments. You could get people to all post at the same time via a short time window posting contributions, so the self-appointed dominant voices are less likely to get in first. But it’s equally effective and probably fairer to have a longer window for posting, but only make the comments visible all at the same time. In an ideal world, this would also allow you to group the comments in a preferred sequence before making them visible, but that involves a time commitment that may be unrealistic. (From the point of view of the tutor, it’s worth taking a step back and asking ‘what processing tasks have I set for myself?’, so if possible you want to get things set up ahead of time in a way that requires as little fiddling as possible once the ball is rolling forward.)

KC: What are your thoughts about online lectures?

CW: The main thing to remember is punctuation of sessions – breaking things up is good. One of the benefits of not giving the lecture in a physical room at a certain hour is that you can break it up. (This is also one of many reasons that taping lectures ahead of time is better than trying to give them ‘live’ over Zoom.)

Try 3 segments of 10 or 15 minutes instead of one 50-minute lecture – or even shorter segments – in any case, more than 20 minutes is a definite no-no. Perhaps sandwich the short video segments with sign-posting from the tutor: ‘now, read the handout’ or ‘now, read so-and-so’s article.’ The OU places a lot of emphasis on teaching material with in-text questions and exercises, and getting your video content to synch well with this written scaffolding can be really effective, although it takes a lot of work stitching it all together. One thing the OU has tended to do is ask students to watch short bits of video several times, but bearing in mind a different question or issue each time, and make notes on that.

KC: Is there anything we’ve missed?

CW: One of the things you have to think about more carefully with digital pedagogy is the balance between skills and subject knowledge in your key learning outcomes. Skills are harder to teach online, and the mentoring is more critical. On the other hand, task-based modules might find the transition to a digital format easier than info-dump modules (I’m thinking here of outline modules where one of the key learning outcomes is acquiring familiarity with a defined landscape of historical events). If they get it right, the task-based modules offer a greater opportunity to take advantage of the possibilities of the digital environment, especially where encouraging students to project-manage their own learning is concerned.

And one last thing: try to block out time at department level, possibly in week 4, for stock-taking and review – having colleagues meet to discuss the problems they are having and how to fix them. There are going to be teething problems with any new system, and with colleagues coming together and comparing notes you will not only avoid a multiplication of effort, but it also gives a chance to share best practice, which can have a knock-on effect of creating a more coherent environment for the students, which is of course what it’s all about.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You can check out Chris’s OU staff webpage here: – he tweets @Chris_A_W

Kate Cooper tweets as @kateantiquity – here’s her webpage at RHUL. 

Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching History Online Through Material Culture

In the next in our series of #PandemicPedagogy posts, Leonie Hannan (Queen’s University Belfast @leoniehannan) and Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln, @sclongair) – authors of History through Material Culture (Manchester University Press, 2017) – discuss the challenges of teaching History through material culture online.

In March of this year, from one day to the next, universities across the world dropped long-established patterns of teaching and learning to meet the strange circumstances of a global pandemic. Historians of all stripes worked fast to find new ways of sharing and discussing topics, literatures and primary sources with their students. The rapid transfer to online learning, presented numerous technological and pedagogical challenges, none more so than for those of us teaching history through material culture. Whilst the global crisis offered an opportunity to radically re-think the way we teach, it also delivered caring responsibilities, home-schooling and serious illness to many academics – making normal working life impossible and squashing the space and time required for our best work. However, as the immediacy of lockdown eases and we move into a much-changed teaching environment in the longer term, making the time for reflection and ensuring that we are able to test new methods, with the possibility of failure, is more crucial than ever.

The most significant difficulty posed by our new circumstances is the distance that is placed between ourselves and our primary sources. Despite the transformation of digital resources in recent decades, many historians both need and want to work with manuscripts, artefacts and buildings in person, in the flesh.  As historians of material culture, we have regularly extolled the virtues of handling objects – a process we believe can unlock their meanings and change our interpretations of a past almost exclusively understood through text. Of course, we cannot always have objects in the classroom when we teach, and we often rely on museum websites and other sources to explore this subject with our students. Nonetheless, transferring object-led history into an online learning environment was yet another way in which we had to adapt rapidly. We had to try to engage our students in understanding the significance of the material world at a time when so many aspects of our lives became virtual. Here, we will reflect on some examples of online learning through material culture and some of the opportunities and challenges encountered.

In a Level 3 (3rd year undergraduate) module that Sarah teaches on ‘Objects of Empire: Material Worlds of British Colonialism’, there was an established seminar model of students researching and presenting objects they had located on a particular theme and this structure transferred well to the online environment. As has been noted by others elsewhere, the online seminar rooms and chat functions often brought students who had been quieter in the classroom into more active participation. After a group of three students had presented their objects, the group were then shown the three objects together on a single slide and asked to consider connections between them. This strategy worked effectively as they drew out both visual and ideological links as well as bringing the whole class into the discussion. In preparation for another class, the Talis Elevate  annotation tool was used which enables students to add comments and questions to sources, including text and images. After uploading the Singh Twins EnTWINed painting, students were invited to analyse the figures, events and language to which the artists were referring.

Image of the Singh Twins EnTWINed painting in Talis Elevate

Image: The Singh Twins EnTWINed painting in Talis Elevate (Sarah Longair)

This painting drew on numerous topics we had studied in the module as well as contemporary figures, so students had to undertake close observation of the image as well as conducting research to unpick all the numerous messages of the painting. They could then drop pins on the point they wished to comment upon and so alongside the image we had a series of discussion points for our seminar. In terms of planning, this tool is ideal for asynchronous activities and provides a student discussion space which can then inform seminar themes. It also enhances students’ skills of observation and annotation of images. This painting was chosen because it is particularly rich in detail which, with a class of 22 students adding comments, is critical.

Another Lincoln module where we had to adapt our teaching and assessment quickly was the Level 2 (2nd year UG) module ‘Material Histories: Objects, Display and Analysis’ which took place in our Conservation labs and used teaching collection objects for seminars and assessments. The second assessment preparation took place just after lockdown started and, as a close object description, had to be rethought. Here, my colleague Jim Cheshire, decided that we could reconfigure the assessment by asking students to study objects on the Sketchfab database. These 3D models allowed students to zoom in closely and move objects around, allowing them to analyse materials, production techniques as well as form and decoration.

Image of Sketchfab interface

Image: Sketchfab interface (Sarah Longair)

Sketchfab also provides the opportunity to study construction as well as damage on fragile objects. We selected a long list of objects from which students had to choose – they needed to be objects with some historical context and ideally from museums where students could follow up with further research on the museum website. The results of these assessments were very encouraging. We saw how students applied the knowledge they had acquired about different materials into these studies, for example studying a Roman lamp and using evidence from its form and marks upon it to establish how it had been shaped, fired and decorated. Others were able to use visual evidence of how a wooden cabinet had been made and how the grain of the wood had been used to aid the production process but also as decoration. There are also scanned interiors of historic houses on Sketchfab which could be used effectively for considering material culture in space.

Material things have qualities which can be hard to convey online – weight and scale in particular. These are issues that we are used to dealing with in classrooms where we cannot easily access original objects. These issues are not new – we just need to keep our students aware of the advantages and limitations of studying objects via images and 3D models. While the online environment might encourage a shying away from material things, there are no reasons why objects cannot be used just as easily as texts as primary sources – the tools may differ slightly, but the skills students learn remain the same. And these skills are as important as ever.

As the recent public outcry over police brutality, racism and the continuing commemoration of slave owners as civic statues reminds us, history is political and the material world is at the centre. Amidst the urgent and growing demands to de-colonise our universities and our curricula, to face the legacies of Empire and to repatriate the multitude of artefacts, specimens and human remains that were looted in that era, historians of material culture must step up. By examining the non-textual expressions of human experience, material culture historians have established a tradition of studying the subjects rather than the arbiters of power, bringing diverse voices into our study of the past. Helping students learn the skills of analysing objects, their provenance and their contexts has never been more important. As we find ourselves trapped within domestic settings, we can use our altered relationships with familiar spaces and possessions to guide students to think afresh about the material world and its many meanings and manifestations. From a pedagogical point of view, disjuncture can be intellectually generative, but the challenge of creating communities of learning in virtual space is something that will take time. In this moment of close-focus and long-range re-imagining, material culture history surely has an important role to play.

We hope that you have enjoyed this post. Please add any comments below or on Twitter @History_UK.

We’d love to hear from you if you’d like to contribute a post on your experience of teaching History online, so do drop us a line!

Pandemic Pedagogy – Using discussion boards to boost student engagement

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing series of posts that build on our work on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook to keep the conversation around innovative online teaching in History going.

In this first post in the series, Cath Feely (History, University of Derby), shares her insights into using discussion boards across the curriculum. Please share your comments at the foot of this page or on Twitter @history_uk. If you would like to share your experiences of teaching online during lockdown, please drop us a line.

At the University of Derby, our History programmes are taught by a team of nine staff in a larger Department of Humanities, meaning that we work closely, and share practice, with English, Creative Writing, Publishing, American Studies and Popular Music and Society.  History and English Literature, in particular, have developed a number of modules with seminar participation – including leading a seminar discussion in a small group – as a significant element of assessment (30-50%). We then faced the challenge of how to replicate this online. The History team decided that we were not going to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, the recommended live synchronous software accessible via our VLE, for assessed participation at first- and second-year undergraduate levels due to problems with accessibility, broadband problems, etc. Drawing on experience with the University of Derby Online (we launched an entirely online MA in Public History and Heritage in 2019), we turned to discussion boards but decided to use them in a way that would more closely mirror the seminar experience.

The second-year module ‘Triumph of the Dark: Europe Between the Wars’ is a popular module, partly because the mass technologies that were developed in the period – radio and film – make for varied and fascinating discussions about primary sources. This module also asks larger historiographical questions about whether, for example, historians should make moral judgements about topics like appeasement. We tend to have lively debates and it was important to me that this was maintained online in a way that would be accessible to all. We also had seven French exchange students who were not able to join live synchronous sessions due to internet connectivity in the French countryside. So I decided to use discussion boards in two main ways: to facilitate activities around primary source material (films sourced from YouTube; links to documents, etc.) and for student led seminar discussion. We decided as a team that while discussion boards are asynchronous, we would make it clear that we would be ‘live’ on the discussion boards in our usual timetabled slots and would encourage students to contribute in this slot if they could, while being clear that they could post to the forums at any time.

In ‘Study Materials’ a folder for each week would include a relatively short introductory Panopto lecture, two or three clearly titled primary source activities (‘Source Exercise 1’, Source Exercise 2’) and a discussion forum with threads started by me with corresponding titles. Each activity, whether it involved watching a short film, reading a document, etc. was accompanied by clear questions and directions on how to contribute to discussion (see screen shot below), with each activity building on the last.

image of a discussion board in Blackboard

These primary source activities, set my be, would then be followed up by student-led discussions. The leading seminar group each week was asked to formulate four discussion questions based on the reading and asked to each create a discussion thread before the time of our normal seminar. They then, as a group, replied to and encouraged their peers in their discussion of the topic during the slot, if they could.

Emails to the whole cohort gave very clear directions, as in the email below:

In the module Course Resources site, please go to Study Materials and click the folder titled ‘Week 8: Race and Nation

In here you will find:

  1. A short recorded lecture on Race, Nation and theBody (watch this first before doing anything else!)
  2. Source Exercises – these are short film sources that I’d like you to look at and answer a question on. You can do this in the discussion board that you will find below them, in the appropriate thread.

On Thursday at 5pm, the group leading the seminar will post some additional questions in threads in the discussion forum drawing on the reading. Please try and answer these and respond to the unfolding discussion in our usual time slot (5-7pm) – if this isn’t practical for you, though, don’t worry and you can continue to post later. I will be there involved in and responding to the discussion, along with the seminar group.

Please continue to record your thoughts about the reading, how this was connected to your participation (discussion forum posts) and your reflection on the discussion in your seminar participation form weekly as usual.

This arrangement worked surprisingly well, with discussions mostly higher in quality than the face-to-face equivalents. Some students did find the discussion boards alien at the beginning but consistent format/layout each week meant that most did get used to this (and students are also often overwhelmed by face to face seminars until they get used to them). Most students did engage with the boards, partly perhaps down to the participation element of assessment but their reflections in their seminar participation logs also suggest much more thoughtful engagement.

This was most marked in a number of students who were quite quiet in face to face classes, but who found it easier to contribute to the discussion boards:

“The transition from face to face teaching to online teaching has enabled me to expand more on my ideas than I would have originally done in class, as this platform gives us more opportunity to expand on our points and evaluate them before committing to them. As the comments are written down it is easier to see the overview of the discussion making it easier to learn from and contribute to. This has developed my adaptability skills and communication skills as I have been participating more in discussion and responding to my peers’ ideas.”

Perhaps more revealing were the reflections of their peers who were more confident in the classroom, who realised that they were taking more notice of other people’s contributions:

“Although the circumstances surrounding the move to online learning were not good, the outcome by using the discussion boards was that I took more time to think about and read other people’s views.”

“… one of the benefits was the ability to consider my responses and type out something that did justice to my opinions. I also took the time to carefully read through the other responses and I was struck by a few of the perhaps quieter people and the incredibly insightful points they made. That seems to me another benefit to the switch to digital as there is the opportunity to hear from everybody.”

It is clear that both groups of students benefited differently from the structured use of discussion boards. They are only one of many tools – both asynchronous and synchronous – that can contribute to an online ‘session’. But they are versatile and can be used semi-synchronously while having the access benefits of asynchronous materials.


Here’s Cath’s staff profile at the University of Derby. You can also follow her on Twitter @cathfeely.

Panic Not: The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook

In 2020 History departments suddenly had to think seriously about how to move teaching online. For most, this ‘emergency phase’ was a daunting and challenging time, but for some historians, there was also a sense of cautious excitement.  As a subject-area, we have tended to prefer physical settings and interactions over digital ones. The Canadian historian Dr Sean Kheraj has observed that COVID is making us use tools that are unfamiliar to many historians and forcing us to upskill to work within a digital landscape that we have often overlooked.

At History UK, we recognised a need to support the history community during this time of transition. From late May 2020, a group of Steering Committee members have been meeting to discuss how to do this. Our Pandemic Pedagogy subgroup have run a series of Twitter chats to see what colleagues have learned from the new role online learning has come to play. As part of this process, we have written a series of short posts (on learning design, lectures, contact hours, assessment, accessibility, and community building in the classroom and in wider cohorts) and gathered feedback from the wider community.

As a result of this work, we have produced a short guide to help colleagues in thinking about what it means to move our teaching online – The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook. You can access it at the The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook webpage, where you can also download the full Handbook and each of the individual sections in PDF format. 

We framed the Handbook around a number of questions:  

  1. What happens to our students’ experience of learning, in and out of the ‘classroom’?
  2. What happens to accessibility?
  3. What happens to community?
  4. What happens to seminars?
  5. What happens to primary source work?
  6. What happens to lectures?
  7. What happens to assessment and feedback?

This is not the end of our commitment to creating a space for collaborative conversations around pedagogy in the time of a global pandemic. We invite colleagues to write short posts that we can share on our blog in order to keep the conversation going. Topics could include (but are not limited to): practical case studies of teaching online, think-pieces that address any aspect of the move online such as equity, diversity and inclusivity, community building, teaching and learning. technology, digital humanities. Please share your insights into any of these areas, especially if you have practical examples of approaches to teaching History online, and encourage colleagues to do the same. 

We are also interested in receiving feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook itself. Please do let us know if it has informed your practice using the comments section on the Handbook webpage and/or @history_uk.  

We would like to thank everyone involved in putting together this guide. The project was led by Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway/ @kateantiquity); steering committee contributors were Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores/ @luciejones83), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton/ @y_pringle), Manuela Williams (Strathclyde/ @ManuelaAWill), and Jamie Wood (Lincoln/ @MakDigHist). We were joined by Louise Crechan (Glasgow/ @LouiseCreechan) and Aimee Merrydew (Keele/ @a_merrydew) as Pandemic Pedagogy Fellows.

Pandemic Pedagogy: From Cohorts to Communities

Aimee Merrydew (PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English Literature, Keele University)

Creating a sense of community for students is an integral part of the learning experience; it helps students to gain a sense of belonging and is linked to student success and retention. But building communities requires building relationships. How can this happen when the opportunity for students to socialise in person is limited due to COVID-19 precautions?

Community-building is especially important for new starters, since the transition to university life can be a challenging process and many students do not know anyone on their course. And it continues to be important across the degree, to tutor groups and departmental cohorts, as well as in a classroom setting. How can students meet fellow historians and gain a sense of belonging when studying online?

This post will focus on strategies that help students to gain a sense of belonging, build their identities as historians, and manage feelings of isolation when working remotely.


For new students, one of the best strategies is a buddying scheme. Keele University’s Student Support Buddies scheme provides a useful example. Keele Student Support Buddies are trained to provide friendly and informal support and guidance to incoming students via email and other forms of communication (e.g. Microsoft Teams and/or social media).

Peer mentoring relationships usually begin pre-arrival and continue throughout the academic year, providing ample opportunity for new and returning students to forge connections with fellow historians. What is particularly useful about ‘buddying’ from a community-building perspective is that it encourages links across year groups, in the process enhancing the community of students studying History.

Additionally, you can share this Historical Association resource with incoming students to support their transition to study history at university.

Virtual coffee mornings:

Virtual coffee mornings provide opportunities for community-building by enabling students to socialise with one another in a relaxed and low-pressure online environment.

Community-building is at the heart of Coffee@Home, a one-hour virtual coffee meeting organised for academic and student historians at the University of Lincoln (though you could also have a student-only coffee morning). The purpose of Coffee@Home was, as Dr Michele Vescovi (History, University of Lincoln) explains, ‘to have a conversation about our studies, our lives, and what we were doing while in lockdown. Through this, we wanted to maintain the strong sense of community that our students built in the classroom and beyond’.

Virtual coffee mornings are relatively easy to set up and can take place on various platforms such as Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams. These platforms provide students with the option of choosing their preferred method of interaction (e.g. by video-calling or instant messaging).

You could host a virtual coffee morning as part of the induction week and continue running it throughout the academic year. You could even open the coffee mornings to all History students, as this would enable students to make connections across cohorts. In either case, virtual coffee mornings would provide students with a space to meet fellow historians and feel part of a community.

image of coffee and computer

Image from Freepic

‘Ice-breaker’ activities for tutor groups:

Learning is often a social experience, so it’s important that students feel comfortable learning together. But creating shared experiences and supporting memorable connections between students can be challenging in an online environment.

Ice-breaker activities can aid students in getting to know one another when working remotely. Some activities you could try include:

  • Show and tell – Ask students to share their favourite historical photo or quotation and explain why they think it’s interesting.
  • Who am I? – Students must try to figure out which historical person they are by asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions to gain clues about the name assigned to them (you could circulate names in advance of the game).
  • Pictionary – Ask students to draw and then circulate pictures about what they like to do, a recent event in which they partook, and/or their reasons for enrolling on the course. Other students can then guess what each student drew, in the process getting to know a little more about each other.
  • Medieval personality test – Students can take the test and then share their results with the rest of the group. Provide students with the opportunity to compare and agree or disagree with their results in discussion with one another, as this will get them speaking to each other and identifying any common interests (or differences).

Each of these activities can be conducted over email, on a Google Doc, on a digital bulletin board (such as Padlet), and other types of communications software (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and Zoom).

See here and here for more inspiration on virtual ice-breaker activities.

Historical role-playing exercises:

Historical role-playing is a fun way to create an interactive community of learners. The ‘Our Mutual Friends Tweets’ project is one example of a role-playing community that took place digitally. Each month, participants would read the latest instalment of Dickens’ novel and then take to Twitter to record the latest plot developments from the perspective of one of the characters. To add to the fun and community spirit of the project, participants were also encouraged to ‘air their responses to the unfolding plot, as well as responding to the other characters’ tweets’ (Curry & Winyard 2016, 568).

facebook post about historical role playing

Image: Screenshot of @OMG_Rogue’s tweet

This activity would work well for History students across all levels of study. Students could assume the roles of historical figures and stage debates on issues from a given period. Or they could rewrite history by considering historical events from multiple points of view.

Participants can role-play on Twitter, as was the case in the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project, or they can use online bulletin boards such as Padlet (which can be integrated into the Virtual Learning Environment). See this blog post by Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones (History, Liverpool John Moores University) for another excellent example of community-building through online historical role-playing.

Note that while historical role-playing offers an exciting opportunity to bring students together, it is important to establish ‘ground rules’ for respectful participation, especially when topics are of a sensitive nature.

 Virtual escape rooms:

Virtual escape rooms have become something of a phenomenon in recent years. They are fun and educational team-building exercises that encourage players to work together online to complete tasks across a series of locked rooms. Students need passwords to ‘unlock’ these rooms, which they can gain by working collaboratively to solve puzzles, retrieve clues, and gather other information found throughout the game.

Virtual escape rooms can be designed around historical themes. For example, in a Cold War themed escape room, you might have one room titled ‘Secret Bunker’, another titled ‘Space Station’, and so on. To add to the fun and create friendly competition, you could develop two opposing escape rooms: one for the Soviet Union team and one for the United States. Whichever team ‘escapes’ their virtual room first wins the war, so to speak. Escape rooms are usually against the clock, so you can always add a link to this YouTube clock for added pressure.

Virtual escape rooms can take place on various platforms, including Microsoft OneNote, Google Forms, and Classtime. Click here for some ideas about the kinds of history-themed activities you can include in your virtual escape room. Click here for a step-by-step guide on how to make your virtual escape room (using Google Forms).

For more info on supporting online learning communities see this History UK blog post by Aimee Merrydew and this infographic by Dr Sophie Nicholls.

Get involved and share your experiences

We are delighted to invite you to join us on Twitter (@history_uk) at 2pm on Thursday 16th July, where we will invite you to share your thoughts and experiences of supporting online learning communities in History and the wider Humanities. Use #PandemicPedagogy and/or #SocialLearningHUK.

Aimee tweets at @a_merrydew and blogs (about her research and teaching) at You can find out more about Aimee’s work here.