On Monday 15 March I, like all of my colleagues at the University of Sussex, received an email telling us that all of our teaching was moving online. The mail didn’t come as any great surprise; the whole higher education sector was off in the same direction.
I was nonetheless intrigued at the tone of the mail and indeed at the expectations that seemed to be hidden therein. A new online teaching kit (“Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere”) suddenly appeared on Canvas, Sussex’s online teaching platform. We were given access to “a self-study resource with step-by-step guidance and walkthrough videos on pre-recording lectures, livestreaming, facilitating online discussions, managing online seminars or tutorials and managing module communication”. A brave new world seemed to be beckoning. And we all had precisely one week to get up to speed with it.
The aim of this piece is not to point the finger at Sussex (or indeed anywhere else) for expecting the impossible. Far from it. Being realistic, what other options were on the table? But it did strike me that there were a whole array of assumptions being made about what online teaching entailed and how best to translate ‘traditional’ teaching into that format.
I guess this was particularly obvious to me as over the last 12 months I’d been part of a team that had developed an online distance learning (ODL) programme in corruption analysis (‘MA Corruption and Governance’). When we set out on that enterprise the broad aim was to ‘translate’ our on campus MA of the same name into a postgraduate taught course that those unable to get to Sussex might be interested in taking.
Given that we’d done (over a year or so) exactly what everyone else was now expected to do (in a week or so) I was particularly keen to see how this challenge was to supposed be met. I was even more intrigued by some of the misapprehensions that were quickly circulating. Five things in particular stood out.
1. An online module is not a classroom-taught module delivered via alternate means
An online module is not, and never can be, a ‘traditional’ module taught electronically. That simply does not work. Recording yourself giving lectures and then somehow organising what pass as seminars or tutorials might well be a knee-jerk response to tight deadlines, but they are not the best way of engaging students. Subject matter can be delivered in a wide array of ways, but these have to involve the students directly. Using traditional tools in a non-traditional way just doesn’t work.
2. Build modules from the bottom up
It took me seven months to develop an online module on ‘Defining Corruption’. I’ve taught classes on corruption for nigh on 20 years, but I still found it very difficult to get the material that I’d traditionally used into the right format for an online module. The reason for that was simple. Every online module has to start from the bottom up. Trying to cram a tried and trusted ‘traditional’ syllabus into the ODL format soon becomes obvious for what it is; a square peg in a round hole. Start afresh, think about what you want to achieve and create something new. And be prepared for this to take some time. If you don’t have time, then keep everything as simple as possible.
3. Variety’s the spice of life
The best on campus teachers use a variety of tools and have a versatility in approach. That’s important offline, it’s absolutely non-negotiable online. Students being taught online certainly *can* and *should* be asked to read key texts in the field. But that needs to be complimented by a range of other easily accessible sources and examples. In my area that means giving them a dose of Heywood, Rose-Ackermann and Mungiu-Pippidi, but it also means making them read an interview with Andy Mangan (one of the first professional footballers to be punished for gambling), helping them to unpack whether Donald Trump’s use of Mar-e-Lago can indeed be considered corruption, getting them to try and make sense of the 2012 Libor scandal and whether a German bishop (‘Bishop Bling’) splurging £20,000 on a bath tub is just a bit greedy or in fact downright corrupt. Bite-sized chunks of material that can be worked through in the student’s own time is the name of the game.
4. Technology is a friend and not a foe
Despite no end of courses being available to enhance teaching quality, many tutors remain deeply suspicious of fully embracing modern technology. It’s much harder to get a feel for the students who you’re teaching. Critics (rightly) point out that it’s much harder to read a room online. Students in some parts of the world also struggle to access the materials you might want them to; YouTube videos, for example, just won’t work in mainland China. All that is true, but technology also offers opportunities just as it can cause problems. Shy or more reticent students find it easier to participate in class discussions than they do in face-to-face sessions. All participants can take part from the comfort of their own homes (or indeed from a Costa Coffee shop during a lunch break as one student did in one of my classes last week) and they can move forward at whatever pace suits them. The key is neither to expect technology to solve all your problems nor to see it as the root cause of them. It can help. If used sensibly.
5. Assessments; Horses for Courses
Finally, the challenge of getting assessments right exists everywhere. But, online, the long essay and the unseen exam just do not work. Online presentations, critical reviews, posters, portfolios and such like all have their place. Online tests can also be really useful. The point, however, is not that X and Y will always work and should therefore be embraced. There’s a whole panoply of options out there and you need to be prepared to take advantage of whatever fits for you.
In a situation where you only have hours (let alone weeks or even months) to ‘translate’ your teaching into something that works online, needs inevitably must. No one can or should expect the real deal in that space of time. Do what you can and if in doubt should do is keep it simple. The ten yard pass really is often better than the 50 yard Hollywood ball.
But there are two good reasons for seeing this process as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Firstly, you may well pick up ideas and skills that you otherwise wouldn’t learn. Secondly, if your institution is seriously thinking about carrying this over into the Autumn (and some certainly are) then you can use this period as something of a dry run. You’ll have (just a little) more time to iron out come of the creases in the summer. And, who knows, it may just make you a better teacher for it.
Dan Hough is a Professor of Politics and the Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex. He tweets at @theDanHough.