Facing a shutdown: thoughts about moving to remote teaching

I have been asked a few times this last week for advice in dealing with a shutdown of face-to-face teaching. There’s loads of brilliant advice online for the technicalities, but not much about the practicalities or social/emotional side of the situation we currently face. Below is the rough advice I have shared.

As much as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is slammed, I think it gives us a useful crutch in times like these. Staff don’t know what’s going on, but students know even less and are getting conflicting information from the media, etc. Add to that precarity of housing if they are in halls, or will they be able to finish their degree, there will be a great deal of anxiety surrounding the issue. That’s even before considering those at higher risk, like immune-compromised students or those with at-risk family members or care responsibilities. Their studies will probably not be their number one priority right now, so don’t expect to move through the course at the same pace.

Find a way to make contact with all students and give them reassurance and calmness. It needs to be two-way conversation and we need to listen.

Setting up a Microsoft Teams site (or Slack if you’re not an Office 365 subscriber) for each module is probably do-able, and 2-way conversation is a lot easier on there than in the VLE, for example. Your IT department should be able to automate this, but you will know people who can help you pull something together.

Staff will also be feeling uncomfortable about changes to their teaching practice. Some might run with it, but others may be scared, lack knowledge, or can’t envisage what ‘remote’ could look like in their context. That is completely understandable. Opening up channels for staff to ask these questions without shame and get answers is really important.

Give staff a forum to ask questions and get useful answers

This could be a school-wide Microsoft Teams site – staff will help each other, but it might be useful to rota some experienced remote teachers in to check/advise. The key thing is to make it completely clear that this is a new situation and with changes, there is uncertainty. Asking for help is a strength not a weakness, so encourage them to be strong for their students.

Where there is a lack of confidence or skill in supporting ‘remote learning’, then we need a way to support staff without overwhelming them. Course handbooks and lesson plans largely go out of the window. Let’s think about what we can do in this situation with the skills we have, and then how we can support and develop skills over time.

Start off with small changes and work up

It’s easy to suggest make every lecture a video, but that is a huge jump. My first piece of advice – take your existing lecture notes and give them a tidy. Then add all the contextual information you might share in a teaching session and add it to the notes field. It’s not perfect, but it is a small improvement. Use Teams (or whatever) to allow questions from students and then respond to them. Other students will respond, so watch out for misconceptions. Most of your teaching time will probably be spent minding/encouraging/probing the discussions – reassure staff that this is proper teaching. There are resources available to support online teaching, e.g. from the OU

Once people are up and running, we can start thinking about other teaching beyond lectures. Practicals are going to be very difficult to do. Unless people have lab chemicals or a spare horse at home, they probably can’t do a lot of the stuff. We need to think how we can provide something similar.

Demo practical stuff and get someone to video it on their phones. You can upload that to Stream (through Teams) or Panopto.

Don’t worry about picture quality or sound quality. Don’t even worry about narrating it as you go or afterwards – although it is useful. Capture the experience. You can write up a more detailed account, if necessary.

If you are feeling confident, you can use the narrate function in PowerPoint to make a video lecture

Grab a wired microphone (something like an Apple Handsfree headphone one), plug it into a computer and give it a go. Anything is better than nothing. You will find guides online.

Most of all, don’t panic. We don’t want people thrust into delivering their course entirely online, because this isn’t ‘online learning’. This is an unusual occurrence, so we have to adapt as best we can. Anything they can do to keep students ticking along is great – but remember that it isn’t just our students, it’s affecting everyone.

Talk to your students. Ask them if this is working for them. Ask them for help.

Students won’t know how to learn online, so encourage a spirit of trying this out together. Explain why you’ve done something (e.g. notes field in PowerPoints to give them contextual information). What do they like? What don’t they like? What could be improved? How would it benefit them? Keep the dialogue going – it’s difficult, but necessary, especially at first.

Hopefully these suggestions will help. It is easy when faced with such big changes to focus on process and product, but forget about the people. You can’t do either unless you bring the people along with you.

If you have questions or comments, please add them below, or connect with me on twitter (@marcuselliott) and I’ll do my best to answer.

Good luck and stay safe – for everyone’s benefit.