Is anyone out there?

Sam Bell
Accounting Education by BAFA
7 min readDec 4, 2020

Reflections on the student engagement conundrum in synchronous online accountancy teaching for first year undergraduate cohorts.

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

This semester, I’ve been teaching a large cohort of first year undergraduate students; accounting students for whom this is a core unit and non-accounting students who are (sometimes reluctantly) taking this module as an option. The curriculum is a fairly traditional introduction to accounting and finance, somewhat constrained by both the requirements of subsequent units which build on this introduction and professional body accreditation. The delivery of the unit in past academic years was quite “traditional” and alongside large group lectures, weekly small group question-set based tutorial sessions were delivered. Given COVID-19 restrictions, as a significant number of students might be self-isolating or studying remotely, weekly tutorials moved into a synchronous online setting.

As students return home for Christmas, I felt it would be useful to unpick my experience of teaching tutorials online in terms of the level of student engagement, and ponder how my teaching practice might adapt in light of this in the new year.

I miss my classroom: online spaces versus physical spaces

In face to face tutorials I favour an active teaching style; moving around the classroom, speaking to each student about the to work they have prepared for the session, facilitating discussion and giving feedback. Moving into the synchronous online space, I found I missed the physical environment of the classroom; the whiteboards, flipcharts, post-it notes and movement around a space, but most of all the ability to quickly ascertain in the present how a class was reacting to the task set. Online I felt constrained by the limitations of the dimensions of a computer screen and the lack of visual cues from my students. I experimented with some web-based apps (e.g. Padlet) to mimic the classroom experience and attempted to obtain the feedback I craved using polls, chat and emoticons. There was limited success here, maybe as students choose whether they participate and the process is slow compared to the visual feedback one can get in a face to face teaching environment. On reflection, I found myself moving towards a more didactic method of teaching than the more co-collaborative style I use in face to face teaching. My dissatisfaction with this outcome means next semester I’m thinking of trying to bring some sense of the collaboration of the physical classroom to the online environment by trying out the jigsaw method. As described by Jo Rushworth on Lecturemotely.com, jigsaw involves extricating a question into smaller elements to be solved by different student groups and then working as a whole class group to put these pieces together.

Is anyone there? Student passivity.

Exploring this theme of increased student passivity in the online classroom further, is this lack of interaction caused by the ease with which students can opt out of interacting when they are online? When using online ‘chat’ functions or speaking aloud in synchronous sessions, the student may fear their voice is ‘overheard’ by the whole class (or the whole cohort if the class is recorded), whereas when moving around a physical class, entering into discussion with smaller groups, perhaps students feel less conspicuous. I found in small online breakout groups, passivity and non-participation persisted. Do students feel the online discussion environment lacks the authenticity that face to face discussion has? Is this why students often dismiss this opportunity to interact with their peers? It seems more socially acceptable to be passive in an online classroom. Consistent with the findings of Sangster et al (2020) in their examination of COVID-19 accounting education, my tutorial attendance was surprisingly good, but again I questioned myself whether some of my students were listening or had simply logged onto the tutorial session, and then rolled back over in bed to snooze.

To counter the ‘silence’ I tended to use polls in my classes to bolster online feedback responses. I found simple, frequent anonymous polls of varying difficulty to be most effective and covered both questions about the material and the learning experience. Nick Turner of De Montfort University advises in his webinar to build confidence in student cohorts by using easy questions first and use polls/emoticons to check understanding. I found this approach of deconstructing questions into smaller bite sized polls worked effectively to encourage engagement. To allow the polling to be seamless and integrated I used the poll tool with my VLE, using pre-prepared slides containing the question (as the VLE poll tool cannot be prepared in advance). The polls gave me valuable feedback from the students , and allowed me to adapt my sessions based on student responses to the needs of the class.

Motivation — what is the carrot and stick?

Student motivation seemed down somewhat — in my face to face tutorials students had an expectation that I would check their work, and particularly for first year undergraduates this may have served as a ‘stick’ to motivate them to complete the pre-tutorial tasks. I did sometimes run a quick anonymous poll at the start of the online session to see if students had completed the work set — but often I wondered whether students who had not completed the work were simply ignoring the poll. Should I insist that every student had to make a comment/participate? This authoritarian notion sat uncomfortably with me in terms of my teaching philosophy and is difficult to justify if students experience difficulties with connectivity or their study environment. My personal view is that it can be more effective to monitor participation in asynchronous activities such as completion of online tests, submission of formative assignments or posting on discussion fora.

Our time online is short….

A point stressed by Nick Turner was to consider that online teaching, particularly synchronous sessions tend to take more time than face to face teaching. I didn’t appreciate this when, at first, I tried to simply teach the same face to face content in my online sessions. My tutorial sessions were already in a ‘semi-flipped’ state in that students brought some pre-prepared tasks to class for review, before we tackled unseen requirements in class, but I often found I had to trim down the content I could normally cover face to face. I think this made me step back and consider what was most important for the students learning for each session, and trim away more peripheral content, which students could be directed to consider on their own offline. Student connectivity issues can also mean this ‘less is more’ approach to online synchronous teaching is helpful, as students are more likely to be able to be able to follow the session after being disconnected.

I found that student response times online are often much slower than in face to face sessions. In a physical classroom we can quickly ask for a show of hands , or call upon a named student to suggest an answer. Online polls take longer; students need more time to be able to respond on their devices, so the spontaneity can be lost. I found sometimes a more time-effective tool when there are a range of possible answers was to give the students a moment to think and then ask them to give one suggestion each in the chat. I then acted as a scribe to populate their responses on the screen. This seemed to encourage more responses and some humour as I ‘struggled’ to summarise the influx of student suggestions on screen. On reflection, this method seemed quicker online than the physical class version (asking suggestions on post-it notes).

One success where the online environment saved time and enhanced feedback was a formative test. I adapted a formative in-class test using an online form, and ran the test during a synchronous session. Time savings were made as the test could be marked automatically and I could review answers live as each student completed the test to provide both individual and cohort wide feedback. I’m considering extending formative testing next semester to check understanding of fundamental concepts or I may ask students to complete a quiz on the pre-work for the session before they attend the tutorial.

Knowing me knowing you…..

In line with Sangster et al (2020), I would agree we can draw some positives from the switch to online synchronous teaching methods but the social aspects of face to face learning I feel are sorely missed within our university communities. For me, the biggest downside of the online classroom is that my first year students still feel like strangers to me. I haven’t been able to get to know my students by name from face to face tutorials and informal chat before and after class. Bandwidth and privacy concerns mean students rarely switch on their cameras, so I won’t be able to recognise my students when we return to face to face tutorials. I think I’m left feeling that this may be the biggest disadvantage of all in this mass online teaching experience.

References:

Jo Rushworth, Engaging activities for online classes available from https://www.lecturemotely.com/remoteteaching

Alan Sangster, Greg Stoner & Barbara Flood (2020) Insights into accounting education in a COVID-19 world, Accounting Education, 29:5, 431–562, DOI: 10.1080/09639284.2020.1808487

Nick Turner, Teaching Tips: Blackboard Collaborate available from https://www.lecturemotely.com/remoteteaching

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Sam Bell
Accounting Education by BAFA

Lecturer in accounting, interested in accounting and auditing education conversations