If I wanted to teach online, I wouldn’t start here

Screenshot from IUA website with news of Taoiseach’s announcement re close of schools and HEIs
Screenshot from IUA website with news of Taoiseach’s announcement re close of schools and HEIs
From the IUA site, 12 March 2020

Well, things are progressing at an alarming rate here. Just last Friday we had our Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning (EDTL) project team meeting, where we all discussed the #IUADigEd community, webinars and collaboration. We noted an increase in the number of teaching staff expressing an interest in teaching online, due to coronavirus.

On Monday I spent a few hours writing up the notes of that meeting, and hosting a really excellent webinar where team member Morag Munro shared the work she’s been doing in embedding the European digital competence framework for educators (DigCompEdu) into professional development activities at the University of Maynooth.

Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 in Ireland meant that events were about to overtake the project and the team. On Tuesday, Trinity College Dublin announced that lecture halls would close that day, and lectures would be delivered online from the next day. It was only a matter of time before the other university partners followed.

Today, our Taoiseach announced that all schools, colleges and higher education institutions will close from tomorrow for two weeks. Already, any meetings or events in my diary to the end of March have been cancelled, postponed or moved online. In keeping with official recommendations, I plan to work from home from tomorrow — I’m lucky that I can. I have all the technology I need, and my laptop has become my mobile office. All my documents are on OneDrive and I already use Zoom regularly to chat with team members.

My twitter feed is full of (a) people panicking over the spread of the virus and (b) people sharing tips and expertise about how to start teaching online in a crisis.

Ironically, of course, the whole project that I’m leading is aimed at enhancing the digital skills of staff who teach or support learning in our universities. Our aim is to mainstream digital in teaching and learning activities. But unleashing a virus to force everybody into isolation, and require online delivery at short notice, is not part of the project plan.

For the last 10 months I’ve been repeating the mantra “pedagogy first”. The current situation is definitely not pedagogy first, but rather a (necessary) reaction to a crisis that could not have been anticipated. “Pedagogy first” has gone out the window.

For the moment, my team are fire-fighting, within their own institutions. They are busy, knowledgeable, professional and conscientious and will do all they can to support staff who suddenly have to teach online “tomorrow”.

The project will continue. On Monday 23 March we aim to have our next #IUADigEd Community webinar, when the team will discuss how we are supporting Teaching Online in a Crisis. It may be more of a self-help group than anything else, but one thing I know is that we’re stronger together. Join the community to get notifications about the webinars.

Teaching online is a skill, and it’s very different to teaching in a classroom. It’s not something that can happen overnight, and takes time to develop. Plenty of people, more expert than me, have shared their thoughts, experiences and recommendations on this over the last week or so. For what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts.

  • The technology is there. Every university has a VLE (5 different ones across the 7 universities of the IUA) and other tools. There are guides on how to use them, usually produced by your edtech or teaching unit.
  • Use the technologies provided by your university. This will give a consistency for students, and this is not a time to go rogue in your choice of technology.
  • Keep it simple. You don’t have to learn any new complicated technologies. Stay within your comfort zone, but do ask for help.
  • Teaching is about communication. Communicate with your students (don’t just broadcast). Ask their opinion and advice, find out what they need. Establish clear expectations, let your students know how and when teaching is happening.
  • Your students will have different needs, depending on their environment, access to technology, accessibility requirements. Ask them what they need and be prepared to provide materials in different formats.
  • Respect your learning/educational technology people. They have huge expertise in this area and would normally be ecstatic to share it with you. But they are under a lot of pressure just now.
  • Think about assessment now. It’s possible that formal written exams will not be able to take place. How can you give your students good opportunities to demonstrate their learning? Revisit the learning outcomes for the modules you teach. [Added — great resource from the National Forum here]
  • If you are recording anything, make sure you have a half decent microphone and record somewhere fairly quiet. Students will forgive much, but bad audio is impossible.
  • Support each other. We’re in this together.

But if you are really interested in teaching online, in the longer term, or interested in enhancing your teaching through the use of digital technology, remember we are here.

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