Lessons from COVID19 extreme online interaction

Rant or Reflection? Reflection

This post is exactly what the topic suggests. Well, initially I wanted to rant, but it was going to spoil the beautiful lessons I learnt during the trying time.

The paradigm shift

It is a paradigm shift when online learning and teaching becomes the life line and one starts to wonder if they have what it takes to keep their students engaged and motivated, much less achieve the course objectives within the specified time. I used to integrate online learning and teaching just to equip my learners with 21st century skills. Students who were reluctant to go online could always get their content and other material during face to face and individual consultative meetings. I think I was not doing the students justice by the duplication of activities which made them view online platforms as a by the way….When face to face interactions had to be reduced and online platforms became the only means to conduct lessons, there was agony. I have to chat with my students to hear and hopefully document their experiences, (I have a pretty clear idea of what they went through though). For now I will share my experience.

I am waiting for the day when teachers will be declared front-line workers too

I mean show me any professional who (in their line of duty) interacts with different groups of people, each group comprising of about 60 young people, who are at the stage of exploration, self-discovery and having fun. I had 3 such groups, which make 180 students. While I did reduce contact hours, sub-divided the groups to allow social distancing, and used online platforms for teaching the constant thought of exposure to infection was killing me. At some point it was not just thoughts of fear, I had students going on isolation because their friends or family members had tested positive. And guess what! They were not telling me this so that I could get tested or go on isolation. They wanted me to make special arrangements for them to continue learning while on isolation.
I had to fold my sleeves because not only did I have to facilitate learning to anxious students, some of those who were on isolation had no access to reliable internet connection. I had to reassure them that they would be fine, and that I was available 24/7cancel to give them support with their studies.

In the thick of online teaching and learning

The down side of virtual communication is that it creates an illusion of proximity, where both the lecturer and the students think they are just a click of a button away from each other. But the reality is, for some students the click makes them feel so distant, unseen and can make them reluctant to do their work. Things did not go according to plan several times. Some students did not watch the audio-visual lectures, missed announcements, did not submit tutorial activities on time, missed tests and other assessment activities. Other students got frustrated and hopeless. I got frustrated and angry too but found that online interactions do no accommodate expressing anger and disappointment.
The upside of online was that giving written feedback helps one to cool off and be mindful of their tone. I really loved the process and it helped me communicate with my students in a composed manner regardless of how annoyed I was at their seemingly careless attitude. The online anger management tactics were applied during our face to face interactions. After 19 years of teaching I learned that students need to be coaxed and encouraged and made to understand that learning takes place even when circumstances are not ideal. Most importantly I learned the most effective language to use when things do not go as planned…and more.

Cheat sheets!

One of the tricks I used to prompt students to complete assigned activities was creating cheat sheets for them. This is where I would give tips on how to complete a specific task, give them a corresponding activity and then assess them on the same skill and grade them. Instead of giving feedback I would just refer students to cheat sheet X. Those students who had not done the cheat sheet activity and failed the assessment task would kick themselves. And I am sure they would have learned a good lesson.
Audio-visual lecture recordings don’t need to be perfect.
This one was some sort of a breakthrough! I had agonised and gone to great lengths just preparing for a lecture recording because I wanted it to be ‘flawless’ until I remembered “I am not shooting an advert here, I am teaching.” The slip of the tongue and idiosyncrasies are natural and they do occur during face to face teaching. [I need to get an expert view on this one though.] For now I will go ahead and make my lecture recording as natural as they should be. It takes away the unnecessary anxiety, saves time and makes the recording exercise exciting.

I also learned some DIY for online content development such as recording and editing my own videos using Camtasia, converting large recordings to MP4 format, compressing and optimising content before sharing with my students. Please share any other skills I need to learn, and survival tips.
I think it is worth mentioning that we survived the excruciatingly slow internet speed. The time it takes to upload a twenty five minute lecture recording can make one go crazy. I resorted to taking naps while waiting. And guess what! There were instances when I would wake up after fifteen minutes only to find a message on the screen…video could not load, something went wrong.

Flexibility! Flexibility! Flexibility!

Keeping my students engaged required a lot of flexibility. This entailed reaching them on any platform they had easy access to: E-mail, WhatsApp, Teams, Moodle. It was taxing.

The loneliness is well documented

With everyone working from home or sitting in the office minimising contact as much as possible, it was the loneliest time for many. I tried a few coping strategies, one of them being a transformation of my working spaces both at home and at the office. This entailed decluttering and creating a nice view for lecture recordings, virtual classrooms, zoom meetings and webinars and to inject some bit of life generally. I brought some plants to the office, organised my bookshelves, and chose a special corner for debriefing and relaxing. I accessorised it with some vases and cushions. Not a bad new normal right!

Generally lockdown periods and working from home have been very productive.
And here we are in 2021. Refining our skills for work and survival! Looking forward to another successful academic year!

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