News and Views

Pandemic Pedagogy: Building Online Learning Communities

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

Working collaboratively online is different to face-to-face group work in a physical classroom. Students may not know others on the course or how to work as part of an online team. So how do we get students working together and gaining each other’s trust outside of the familiar seminar setting?

This post will focus on strategies to embed community-building activities throughout modules and programmes. Each of the following community-building activities can aid students in building academic relationships, gaining a sense of belonging as historians, and dispelling feelings of isolation when working remotely. Virtual community-building activities have been linked to student success and retention.

1. Weekly virtual coffee mornings 

Virtual coffee mornings are a great way to bring students together on a regular basis so they can socialise and relax outside of work. Historians at the University of Lincoln have used virtual coffee mornings as a means of building an online community for Art History and History students in the wake of COVID-19. Dr Michele Vescovi (History, University of Lincoln) explains their rationale for organising weekly coffee mornings:

When teaching was moved online, we decided to create a virtual platform (Coffee@Home), a one-hour weekly virtual meeting for staff and students over a cup of coffee or tea. The purpose was just 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.

Coffee mornings can take place on various platforms (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts) and students can choose to interact with one another via video-calling or instant messaging.

A virtual coffee morning can be effective for building community within a small unit such as a tutor group, or you might also consider opening the virtual coffee morning to all students in a module, cohort, or programme. In either case, it will help students to build connections that can pave the way for future collaborative learning experiences, as well as helping to socialise the student group in a context in which they won’t have many opportunities to meet in person. Virtual coffee mornings can also help to create a sense of belonging which, in turn, can help to make students feel more comfortable when engaging in more formal group work on and offline.

2. Social annotation

Social annotation is a good way of getting students interacting with one another (and sources!) when working remotely. In this interview, Anna Rich-Abad (History, University of Nottingham) talks about how her students used a tool called Talis Elevate to engage in social annotation and ‘recreate’ the classroom environment.

As we can see from the below image, the tool enables students to annotate primary or secondary sources, respond to other students’ comments, and develop discussions. This activity promotes critical dialogue that may otherwise be ‘lost’ outside of the familiar classroom setting, as students form a community of scholars working together to annotate a source.

screenshot of Talis Elevate

Image: Natalie Naik from Talis

Here are some strategies for engaging students in social annotation:

  • Begin by getting students to practice using the tool by completing simple tasks, such as adding questions or comments to sections that they found particularly interesting or challenging (or just don’t understand), then ask them to respond to one another’s posts. Dr Jamie Wood (History, University of Lincoln) discusses this strategy here.
  • Once students are more familiar with the annotation tool, encourage them to work together to take a short passage from a source and find as many possible meanings depending on what context they are supplied.
  • You could also instruct students to identify the social and historical contexts at work in a specific passage. By working from the same document, students can build on each other’s interpretations and engage in knowledge creation.
  • Another option is to assign different interpretive strategies, e.g. one group of students reads for ‘Whig History’ interpretations, while another poses as ‘Namierite’ readers. Students can then comment on how closely their peers have mimicked the reading strategies of a different historiographical school.

3. Digital scrapbooking

Digital scrapbooking is great for collaborative working and community-building. Students and educators can co-create a ‘virtual learning wall’ by posting content and comments on online bulletin boards such as Padlet (which can be integrated into the VLE).

This blog post by Professor Lucy Robinson (History, University of Sussex) provides a useful example of how digital scrapbooking might work in practice. Robinson divided her seminar group into sub-teams and instructed them to create their own open access educational resources on a topic of their choice. Each of the groups used Padlet to share and store links and resources; one group also set up Padlet as a public space where users could post comments and feedback on the wall. Padlet was the chosen tool because, as Lucy explains here, it ‘was easy to use, pretty much anything could be added to it, it could be edited by multiple users at once, and had various privacy settings’.

See here and here for more inspiration on digital scrapbooking.

4. Online book club

Book clubs are a great way to promote group cohesion and learning outside of the formal classroom setting. The Historical Association (HA) provides an example.

HA Book Club members meet on Twitter and/or Facebook every other Wednesday for an hour to discuss a given text, though the meetings have been expanded during June and July from an hour to a full afternoon. This set-up enables conversations to emerge asynchronously, as people ‘can dip in across the afternoon and evening, leave messages, “like” other people’s thoughts and get caught up in conversations if they wish’. Students can engage in collaborative learning and debate about an assigned book by liking, retweeting, and commenting on each other’s posts, as seen in the screenshot below.

Twitter thread about book club

Image: screenshot of @histassoc Twitter thread

To ensure accessibility, you can distribute set readings on a file sharing platform, such as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or Google Drive. It goes without saying but it’s important to be mindful of copyright regulations when uploading and distributing material (this is less likely to be an issue if you use services supported by your institution).

Once you’ve shared the material, you can then tweet discussion questions and/or statements for students to respond to and debate as a group. Click here and here for some practical tips and ‘watchouts’ for using Twitter in the virtual classroom.

Alternatively, you can use telecommunication applications (e.g. Microsoft Teams), digital bulletin boards (e.g. Padlet), or annotation software (e.g. Talis Elevate) to facilitate book club discussion. Some services, such as Talis Elevate (see above) and Hypothes.is will allow annotation and discussion directly on resources, which makes it easier for students to engage in conversation about specific moments in the book.

5. Online film club

The book club format can be adapted for a film club. Students can watch films individually and then engage in group discussion and debate. #Covideodrome is one example of an online film club that brings students together on Twitter and Zoom to discuss Netflix films during the lockdown period.

Note: Film clubs provide a fun way to foster collaborative learning through a shared and interactive learning experience, but they may not be accessible to all because they require higher bandwidth technologies in order for films to be watched online (they may also require entertainment subscriptions which can be costly). Note also that all videos should be captioned for accessibility purposes. History UK Fellow Louise Creechan provides useful tips on making videos accessible here.

6. Virtual writing retreats 

Virtual writing retreats provide opportunities for community-building and collaborative learning by enabling students to join a community of researchers, share goals for accountability, and progress their writing in a structured and supportive environment. Virtual writing retreats can create a sense of being in ‘this’ process together.

The David Bruce Centre for American Studies uses virtual writing retreats to foster a sense of community and promote collaborative learning amongst historians and humanities researchers. The Centre uses low bandwidth communications software (e.g. Google Hangouts or Slack), which enables more people to participate.

While the David Bruce Centre retreat runs across a full day, shorter time-frames might work better for student groups.

David Bruce Centre Virtual Writing Retreat

(6.5 hours)

Shorter Writing Retreat for Student Groups

(90 mins)

09:00 – 09:15: Introduction 09:00 – 09:05: Introduction
09:15 – 09:30: Planning and goal setting (share with group) 09:05 – 09:15: Planning and goal setting (share with sub-group)
09:30 – 09:35: Writing warm up 09:15 – 09:20: Writing warm-up (e.g. freewriting)
09:30 – 11:00: Writing (1 hr 30 mins) 09:20 – 09:40: Writing (20 mins)
11:00 – 11:20: Break and discussion 09:40 – 09:50: Reflection and sharing
11:20 – 12:35: Writing (1 hr 15 mins) 09:50 – 10:10: Writing (20 mins)
12:35 – 12:40: Stretching session for writers 10:10 – 10:30: Tips on setting goals for how to take work forward

 

12:40 – 13:30: Lunch break and discussion
13:30 – 15:00: Writing (1 hr 30 mins)
15:00 – 15:05: Stretching session for writers
15:05 – 15:30: Reflections and feedback on the day

These schedules encourage students to set writing goals and share them with one another to achieve a common goal: to progress writing projects in a supportive online environment. The regular planning and discussion slots provide opportunities for collaborative learning and community-building, as students can discuss their writing topics and share tips and resources with each other. See here for more tips on organising writing retreats for students.

Get involved and share your experiences

We are keen to hear from you and invite you to join us on Twitter (@history_uk) at 2pm on Thursday 16th July. Here we will invite you to share your experiences, reflections, and resources to help us develop an effective approach to 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 www.aimeemerrydew.com. You can find out more about Aimee’s work on her university profile and personal website.

Historians and Archivists in conversation, Twitter chat: Thursday 9 July at 2pm (BST)

History UK and The National Archives have teamed up to co-host a Twitter chat that asks how historians and archivists can work together in a COVID landscape. We invite members of the History and Archives communities to join the discussion.

You will find more details of the conversation and the questions we’ll be asking in the poster attached here.

Poster for HUK and TNA twitter chat

We will be releasing the questions on Thursday 9th July at 2pm so if you have something to say or something you’d like to find out, why not join us.  We’re hoping this will be a great opportunity to talk to academic colleagues about the challenges and how we can work together to survive and thrive!

Details of the questions can also be found at: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/training-and-events/

or check into the HEAP web page: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/networks-and-collaboration/the-higher-education-archive-programme/

Pandemic Pedagogy – But, what about lectures? 

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

Remote learning? Online delivery? Blended learning? F2F small group learning? Zoom? While universities are developing their own institutional  policies with regard to socially-distant classroom spaces, it remains highly unlikely that we will be filling lecture theatres with 200+ students any time soon. 

Deconstructing and Remodelling the Lecture

We are all familiar with the traditional lecture/seminar course model: several lectures (one or sometimes two hours long)  presented to the full cohort of students registered on a particular course each week, supplemented by a small-group seminar of an hour or so per week. The essential component of this model – the lecture – has been the object of scrutiny for a long time in studies of HE pedagogy. 

Since the 1980s, researchers have cast doubt on the extent that lectures promote deeper learning, arguing that the lecture is a mode of pedagogical practice that privileges certain types of learners, is too lengthy, unengaging, and stifles the development of autonomous thought. There are also accessibility issues that the traditional lecture format can struggle to accommodate. For example: fast-paced speech can make it more difficult for students with slower writing or processing speeds to take adequate notes and the focus on the voice of the lecturer over visual aids can make this medium more difficult for deaf students to follow.

As we move to remote learning, some of the deficiencies of the lecture model are exacerbated. Conducting synchronous live lectures over video conferencing software, such as Zoom or MS Teams, is problematic for the following reasons:

  • High bandwidth required 
  • Difficult to provide real-time captions
  • Requires high level of concentration over a sustained time period which is fatiguing 

table showing asynchronous versus synchronous tools

Source: Daniel Stamford, Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All (https://www.iddblog.org/videoconferencing-alternatives-how-low-bandwidth-teaching-will-save-us-all/)

These are all significant access issues which need to be addressed from the outset of our course redesigns. The pandemic offers an opportunity to try out some new approaches. 

So,  what can we do to offer our students an accessible alternative? 

  • Divide your lecture into several smaller chunks – there is a long-standing consensus that attention tends to wander after around 10-15 minutes. While there is some debate about this, students will always appreciate having each sub-topic presented in a separate unit so they can find it more easily for review and revision. 
  • Pre-record small chunks and invite comments from students by posing a question at the end or asking them to look further into topic X and discuss their findings (e.g. on a discussion board). QUB has produced this useful guide to making accessible videos. (Remember that audio recordings, like podcasts, are another viable option.) 
  • Boost engagement with your materials through quizzes and discussion forums.
  • Ask yourself whether you need to relay information to your students for them to achieve their intended learning outcomes. Could they learn by searching for information by themselves? This video from Dr Steven Mintz of the American Historical Association argues that ‘history is not a spectator sport’ and that the best way to learn history is to do history via source gathering ‘scavenger hunts’

What alternatives can we offer our students? Is the pandemic an opportunity to rethink existing pedagogical models? Are lectures useful for remote learning?

We would love to hear your thoughts on how we remodel our lectures to take advantage of remote learning strategies. Please do get in touch with us on Twitter @history_uk to share your experiences. 


Louise tweets at @LouiseCreechan

 

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

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