The last 5 months or so have been a massive test of our centre’s ability to move courses online and train teachers to deliver ‘live’ remote lessons to students. For many schools and universities it was a blessing that the Coronavirus hit so late in the academic year as it meant they only had to struggle through a few months of online delivery before having time in the summer to regroup and rethink. But for us, we haven’t had that chance to breathe.
Our busiest time is from June to September, we run English courses for students moving onto masters degree programmes at our university and these are large cohorts of 2500–3000 students, most of them Chinese. To manage such large numbers, we normally have to bring in over a hundred temporary teachers to supplement the teachers we already have at our centre and we have an experienced team of Course Directors, Team Leaders and Technologists to support them.
This year the student numbers dropped a little to around 2000 but this didn’t really reduce the workload significantly as we faced the challenge of moving everything online and training teachers to deliver lessons in very unfamiliar circumstances. We also had to deal with the added complication of most of our students being based in China and the issues surrounding the ‘Great Chinese Firewall’ that blocks a significant number of useful online tools and website.
Well, we’re nearing the end of this great experiment and boy, have we learnt a lot from it. Now, as some of you may be planning to deliver online and blended courses for the next academic year and feeling a little anxious about doing so, I thought I would summarise some key things we’ve learnt trying to deliver online courses. These are not universal truths about online delivery, some of the insights are a mix of theory and practice, some are just hard won nuggets of wisdom from trying and failing at things. Some of them may not even apply to your context, but I’m hoping there are some things here that can prove useful when planning your courses.
1: Training and technical support for teachers is really, really, really, really important
I know this seems like a no-brainer, but it’s more about the amount and scope of the support rather than doing it at all. Coming into our summer programme we knew it was going to be a challenge to train and support teachers as many of them hadn’t ever taught online and even if they had, they were going to be using unfamiliar technologies and tools. Luckily we have a very responsive management team at our centre and they realised that to support over 160 temporary teachers would need an extensive team.
For the summer we had a team of 10 people whose full-time job it was to provide technical support for teachers and students. 4 of these were IT Technicians to support any technical problems such as hardware or software failure, connectivity issues, university account problems etc. The other 6 were learning technologists, working teachers at our centre with a strong knowledge of how to integrate technology in the classroom and their job was to give pre-course training to teachers on how to use the VLE and manage the ‘live’ lessons and then daily support and guidance for teachers via chat and video conference.
Such numbers may feel like overkill but honestly there were times when we could have done with a few more people to help. Some teachers needed very little guidance and after a couple of training sessions were able to go off and manage by themselves but many of them really needed daily support and reminders about how to do certain things and having these support mechanisms in place really helped them.
I’m not suggesting every school needs to have this level of support in place as it will depend on the size of your teaching staff and the number of students but it is important to have ‘dedicated’ staff in place to deal with this, not staff with a few hours here and there who have to cram in support around another job. And it’s good if the support staff are not just technicians to help with hardware and software failures, you also need teachers with special responsibilities for helping colleagues with the pedagogical aspects of using technology in online delivery.
2: Do as much as you can before the course to prepare and reassure teachers
Inevitably there were high levels of anxiety among teachers coming unto our programme, many of them had initially been hired as face to face teachers but then learnt that the course was going to be taught online. We wanted to make sure they felt as informed and prepared as possible before the course started, and so we did a few things to help that adjustment:
First off, several weeks before the course began we sent out a questionnaire so they could let us know where they felt confident with technology and where they needed support. They could also let us know what recent experience they’d had with online teaching and using which tools to help us better identify where we needed to focus our training with them.
We also sent out to them interactive pre-course information (see gallery below) giving them details about how the course would be structured, examples of online content we’d be using with the students as well as a chance to do a technical check that their equipment worked with the video conferencing tool called Blackboard Collaborate that they’d be using on the course.
Shortly after this we also invited them along to an optional online introduction to Blackboard Collaborate. Many of them were familiar with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but few of them had used Collaborate before, so this was a chance for them to get an overview of how it was similar or different. Despite it being optional and pre-contract, virtually all teachers took up the option to attend and many of them at the end seemed very grateful to have been given a chance to take a quick look at it.
And this was all done before their ‘official’ teacher induction. For this, they had a full week of online sessions, some of them focussing on course structure and course content, others giving them the relevant technical training to deliver the ‘live’ lessons and manage the VLE. To avoid wearing them out, we mixed face to face sessions with asynchronous materials, this meant they didn’t have to sit and concentrate too often in the live sessions.
3: ditto 1 and 2 above for students
It’s very easy to assume that students will adapt to whatever technology you throw at them, but it’s dangerous to make that assumption in a higher education context. Comfort and confidence with technology doesn’t always equal knowledge, and often students struggle just as much as teachers with certain tools, especially unfamiliar ones used in university such as Turnitin. Certainly this was borne out this summer as we have been doing just as much technical support for students as for teachers. Some of this is obvious stuff with Chinese students not being able to access certain documents due to the government firewall, but we’ve also had to help them video record themselves giving presentations using screen capture software and help them search more effectively on our online library.
We tried to provide support in advance so students we’re adequately prepared. A few weeks before we ran an open day using Blackboard Collaborate to give them an overview of the course and to introduce them to some of the technology (see gallery of three slides from the presentation below).
Around the same time we also sent them pre-course information to help adjust to online learning. There was some useful tips and guides for getting prepared as well as a chance to check if their technology supported the tools we were going to be using (see gallery below for pictures from the pre-course information for students)
While we couldn’t provide the same sort of lengthy induction for students as we did for teachers, we did make sure that on the first day before they went into lessons they had a 60 minute session from a trained technologist giving them an overview of the online room, the VLE, flipped content as well as letting them know how to access technical support. Around a week later we also gave them another session helping them to use the online library.
On an ongoing basis we had technologists monitoring email daily to respond to any technical issues they were having and we also set up email and chat support for any students that were truly struggling. These were both also kept busy and we had at least one person each morning and afternoon responsible solely for dealing with student technical issues.
In setting up support for both teachers and students, I very much had in mind Gilly Salmon’s 5-step model for approaching online delivery (her website gives a nice breakdown). This particular model emphasises the importance of dealing with technology access and socialisation in the early stages of an online course to allow more complex work to be done later.
Systems have to be put in place to help students and teachers learn the technology needed on the course and to provide ongoing support and this has to be done professionally i.e. people need to be be given time to develop these support mechanisms and then give adequate remission to provide the actual support during the course. What I’ve often seen is teachers given ‘a couple of hours’ to be the tech person in case of emergency, but in the current climate this is no longer good enough.
Ok, in part 2 of this blog post, I’ll outline another 3–4 key things we’ve learnt.