So what’s the problem?
“I have had to contain the anxiety not only of students but lecturers who are new to this way of working.” LondonMet Academic Mentor
The coronavirus (#COVID-19) global pandemic has presented many challenges for Learning Developers. This #Take5 blogpost is brought to you by Lee Fallin from the University of Hull and Sandra Sinfield from London Metropolitan University and ALDinHE and focuses on the challenges for University staff and students of moving learning online and some of the issues it raises for us as learning developers. Reflecting on our experience so far, we’d like to think we present some solutions to these issues, and we conclude with our suggestions for staying connected as a Community of Practice. We hope you enjoy the read and are keeping yourselves safe.
Learning Development in a time of crisis
The majority of this blog post reflects on the experiences of the Skills Team at the University of Hull and our move to an all-online service due to COVID-19. The Skills Team has a wide remit running appointments, workshops, self-help, integrated module teaching and Peer Assisted Student Sessions. We cover learning, writing, information literacy, digital literacy, digital skills and research skills for students and academic/research staff.
As a Team, we were fortunate to have access to Adobe Connect, a webinar tool that we have been using for a couple of years to facilitate most of our workshop programme. We also have a couple of team members who have design and coding experience, allowing them to edit the website and our booking technology to reframe the service at pace. This allowed us to move from a face to face service to an online one in the space of a day. We are also lucky to be a part of the University Library, and so have access to a wide range of resources in our directorate, including LibApps which has made much of this possible.
The Skills Team have maintained our service through a mixture of video recordings, webinars, phone calls, emails and live chats. Where it has been pedagogically appropriate, we have offered Adobe Connect sessions at the same time as a previously scheduled activity. This has included the substantial re-writing of content to facilitate new online interactivity. All such sessions are recorded to be shared with anyone who may not have been able to attend due to care obligations, homeschooling or other responsibilities. Where live sessions have not been appropriate, we have created new YouTube videos and shared these with students with instructions for self-paced learning. This is supported by our new Remote learning SkillsGuide (but more on that later!).
We’ve also tried some new things along the way. We’ve joined the wider staff from the University Library on their livechat function, allowing students to connect with one of us for text-based chat (powered by LibAnswers). We’ve also supported the ramping up of the University Library’s social media presence, now allowing students to directly message us on Twitter and Facebook. These are triaged by Library staff in LibAnswers and passed onto us if it is learning development or skills related.
As a result, we have not cancelled any service or session without providing an appropriate alternative on the same timeline. This has been a tough time in many ways, and a steep learning curve, so we are sharing here some of the highlights of what we have learned so far in terms of moving learning development online.
The problems of online learning development sessions
Communication technologies like Skype, Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect and Microsoft Teams can help us connect with students and maintain services. While this is a great way to mimic the interactivity of face to face sessions, they don’t work for everyone. Learning developers have a difficult time ahead, balancing service continuity alongside service accessibility.
There are many learning developers in ALDinHE who work exclusively in an online context. Such learning developers also work with students who chose to study online from the start of their studies. The global pandemic has thrown both learning developers and students into a situation they may have purposefully avoided. Not all students will have access to the hardware or internet connection required to take part. Their technical skills may have ill-prepared them for this kind of study – or they may just genuinely be uncomfortable with this type of communication. Some learning developers will have reservations about technology too!
For some students, this leaves email or telephone support as a fallback, and it is incredibly challenging to facilitate a learning development session by these means. A telephone call takes away useful visual cues and can make looking at student work with them challenging. While they can share work beforehand, they lose some control over it in doing so. It is also difficult to tell if they are benefitting from the session.
An email appointment falls too close to ‘marking’ or assessing student work. This may break one of the most important of the ALDinHE professional values, ‘working alongside students’. The second we are perceived to be assessing student work, we place ourselves as the powerful, knowledgeable practitioner, dictating changes to the student. This is not to say email support is inappropriate. We just need to be careful about how we facilitate this. Given the pandemic, some will question if we should blur those boundaries – just to help students get through this. This is definitely something that individuals need to reflect upon.
Helpful guidance for online learning development
This is based on our experience of launching all of our services online, including some of the initial learning along the way:
- If using webinars, provide detailed instructions on how to use any required technology. Where possible, provide students with a test link or room.
- When arranging appointments, always give students an opportunity to dictate how they want to communicate. Some will want to speak through audio/video, some will wish to text chat, some will want to listen to you and type back.
- For live sessions, try to give students an alternative. Where they cannot use web-based synchronous technology, consider offering email or telephone support. Recordings and videos can also help.
- Experiment with different times of day if you are having connectivity issues. We’ve tried to avoid teaching before 10 am as early-morning meetings seem to slow down everyone’s connection to the internet and webinar service.
- Ask students! The only way we can know what they want is through dialogue. This is a very new experience to many, so try to give students the opportunity to give feedback on services.
- You can say no. Sometimes a live session is not pedagogically appropriate. We created a whole new suite of self-paced online learning to replace our on-campus sessions based on software. As students need to be able to follow along, it is not possible to facilitate via webinar.
- Think of the circumstances. In the context of a global pandemic, we may need to change the rules of engagement to ensure access to learning development. For example, in this context, is an email appointment okay?
- Be very wary of free tools. If you are not paying for them, you may be putting the data and privacy of you and your students at risk. Speak to your University legal teams and ensure any services you use are fully GDPR compliant.
Example from the Skills Team webpages
Booking an online appointment
Providing the option for telephone and email appointments
Self-help and guides
For many learning developers, enabling ‘self-help’ is a crucial way to support large numbers of students. For this reason, most institutions offer study guides on their website or institutional VLE. Unlike appointments and workshops, such guidelines are available 24/7 and to all students at the same time.
While guides do not offer the dialogue of student-learning developer activity, they are at least a fall-back and do promote student independence. However, because of the sudden move to remote learning due to the pandemic, many of these guides may have a gap. What do students need to know about remote learning?
Filling the gap – Remote learning SkillsGuide, a repurposable resource
#COVID-19 is probably already causing numerous anxieties and issues for our students. The sudden move to remote learning will create many more – for students and staff. While some aspects of learning will not change under the new near-lockdown regime instigated because of the global pandemic, others will.
Learning and socialisation are nearly inseparable. With months of social distancing and perhaps near-lockdown ahead, students will need support with what this means for their learning and wellbeing. Students will also need to adapt to the introduction of webinar and video. There is a real risk they will fall into the trap of treating online learning like they would YouTube videos or TV. Just like a lecture; videos and webinars still require notes, reflection and internalisation. The biggest issue, however, may be technology, with some students having chosen their programmes to avoid it. While universities are doing the right thing and working hard to help students continue their studies, the barrier technology may play needs to be acknowledged. At a minimum, guidance on how to connect and collaborate online is needed.
To help address some of the above issues, the Skills Team at the University of Hull has produced a new guide on ‘remote learning’. The Remote learning SkillsGuide is designed to help support students adapting to the new reality of studying wherever they may be because of the global pandemic.
As this guide has been contextualised to Hull and our available technology, we have licenced this specific SkillsGuide with the CC-BY-NC-SA licence to allow other institutions to take what we have developed and adapt it to their context. The terms of the licence can be found here on the Creative Commons website. We hope this helps. We will continue to develop this guide and would welcome suggestions or contributions from others. If you have anything to add, get in touch with @LeeFallin.
Terminology is important, especially as we consider the new paradigms of remote learning. We struggled with the name for this SkillsGuide – but resisted reference to learning at home, off-campus or learning online. As many students are geographically ‘stuck’, we did not want a reference to ‘home’, especially as we are supporting students who are still on-campus. While the primary way we are communicating is online, we also did not want to suggest the whole paradigm of learning has shifted online also. Old techniques work fine for study too.
The guide can be accessed here: https://libguides.hull.ac.uk/remote
And Finally… Stay Connected!!
We want to conclude this #Take5 with a plea to take the time to stay connected. The Universities of Hull and LondonMet have both been incredibly supportive which has helped us all to find our feet, but really – this is when the hard bit of making lockdown work really starts. In the Hull Skills Team, we have a daily video call at 9:30 am to share a coffee and our plan for the day. It is a great opportunity to see how everyone is doing and if there are any pressures in their day. At LondonMet we have a distributed system of Academic Mentors embedded in Schools, and are working out how to use Microsoft Teams to stay connected. This doesn’t just mean work-related issues, but to discuss and plan around the different caring responsibilities members of the teams have now found themselves with. It is so important to be honest with your colleagues and managers in this difficult situation. Your wellbeing is important – and you should reach out if you are struggling.
We realise not everyone has these opportunities. If you are in a team of one, there are lots of ways to keep engaged with the wider learning development community. It is important to find time for this. You will not be alone in reading and hearing about all the many and wonderful things that you could be doing right now with all this free time on your hands… and thinking: ”Time?! What free time? Oh dear lord, I’m busier than ever…”
We know that you are all busy – more than busy – but this is important, too. Stay connected with this, your community.
Additional resources and information
“LD@3” – daily live-streamed webinar series replacing the ALDinHE and LILAC Conferences. These started Monday, 30th March at three pm – and run till mid-May. Each one is designed to last for an hour. The complete programme is available here: Events. There is a diverse range of topics, from supporting group work to helping students with reflective writing.
#creativeHE’s invitation to explore and celebrate creative self-expression – between April and May – as a contribution to World Creativity and Innovation Week and the Age of Creativity & Get Creative Festivals: https://www.facebook.com/groups/creativeHE/ The discussion will be curated in the next issue of Creative Academic Magazine.
#Take5 blogpost – Take 5 (with cached resources) and https://lmutake5.wordpress.com/ (direct link). As always, we ask that if you have a blog post of your own lurking inside you, please get in contact and we can help you get it out!
#studychat Study Chat – Home – frequently updated education magazine.
#LTHEChat blog: https://lthechat.com/ – and a reminder that the weekly Wednesday night chats in Twitter – between 20.00-21.00 – are always a good place to feel connected. Even if you have never joined in before – why not try them now? Recent cached resources for learning and teaching are here: Quick link to Resources – there’s also an invitation to stay connected – not least using the hashtag #virtualcoffee | – and their Easter Egg: LTHEchat Easter-Egg – which flags up free films, concerts, museum tours, concerts, arts and crafts and books. Easter is coming – take a break!
Virtual Writing Group. Once LD@3 finishes, mid-May, we plan to run regular virtual writing groups for LDers and Academic Mentors to create a supportive space to help us all to write. The idea is to create these spaces in our institutional Collaborate online learning space, running for an hour and a half, once a fortnight – so that we can come together and produce words. (If you would like to join in, just do – but you are welcome to let us know. If you feel there would be benefit in a preparatory session on writing for publication, please let us know.)
Homeschooling – for those working from home with children: Unschooling Your Kids During Coronavirus Quarantine – and once we’ve practiced ‘un-schooling’ at home – who knows what that might do to our approach to Learning Development?
Coronavirus and your wellbeing | Mind, the mental health charity – help for mental health problems. For many people, working from home is new and may be challenging. If you’re anxious about coronavirus or self-isolating, this guide has helpful advice to help support your mental wellbeing.
Hybrid Pedagogy – if in need of a compassionate voice in these frightening times: An Open Letter On the Future of Hybrid Pedagogy
AND – finally – be kind to yourself, because things will never be the same again: Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure
Lee Fallin is an Academic and Library Specialist working at the Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull. He provides learning, writing, information/digital literacy, research and statistics support to students and staff across the University. This includes appointments, workshops, online help and integrated teaching.
Sandra Sinfield is a member of ALDinHE and works in the Centre for Professional and Educational Development at LondonMet. She provides support for academic and professional service staff across the university, including through the delivery of the formal PGCert/MA in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and the #studychat FaceBook group: Study Chat – Home