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‘Can you see me? Can you hear me?’ New teaching and learning environments and the new “normal”

Thursday, October 15th, 2020

By Dr Begoña Rodríguez de Céspedes, Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies and MA Translation Studies Course Leader at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

It is the year 2006 and the translation team at the University of Portsmouth shudders at the prospect of having to produce online materials for the following academic year… ‘Why? How long will it take us to produce them? Who will support us? What virtual online environment shall we use? How do we communicate with our students? How do we teach?!’

I’m sure all these questions resonated in many minds back in the spring of 2020 when we were asked to leave the classrooms, isolate ourselves in our homes and start teaching on the various conferencing facilitators and online tools available on the market. In a very short space of time, we have become masters of online communication and technology in very disparate scenarios ranging from teaching our students, to having virtual work meetings, virtual doctor’s appointments, family quizzes, webinars, conferences and even exercise lessons and A Cappella choir rehearsals online!

Back in 2006 it seemed like a good idea to reproduce the materials that we were teaching on campus so that we could reach students who would not otherwise be able to travel and study in Portsmouth because of financial, family or work commitments. These seemed like good reasons to offer a translation distance learning course back then to improve recruitment rates. For example, in the year 2014 alone, more than 300 students were registered on the MA Translation Studies to follow the course via distance learning, whilst the numbers on campus were a lot smaller.

Fast forward to autumn 2020 when many universities had to move their tuition mostly or partly online for the first time. A daunting prospect in a new learning and teaching setting and a very different one indeed depending on context and resources. Teaching distance learning works in the scenarios already mentioned and it is a solution whilst we minimise the risk of infection on campus and wait for the pandemic to abate, but is it here to stay?

There are many factors to consider when setting up online classes such as class size (number of students per module/subject) or balancing the amount of synchronous (live) and asynchronous teaching which is vital. My recommendation is to start using synchronous sessions for tutorial support, motivation and group cohesion but use a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous for your teaching. We cannot and should not be online 24/7 for our own sanity and well-being. Instead, you could set specific online meetings at key times on the course if you teach on a distance learning programme. If you have been asked to teach your lectures online for the first time, then you may be teaching synchronously, and this should appear on both yours and students’ timetables. However, be ready for any eventuality. Think of a plan B in case your Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or internet connection fails! Pre-recording your lesson can work but make it interactive – an hour-long narrated PowerPoint is not engaging. Make your sessions shorter but include activities that lead to brainstorming or group work or set aside different working groups for collaborative learning.  Above all, diversify and be creative!

Discussion forums work well especially for asynchronous teaching, in fact different forums (academic and social) can be set up on your VLE to streamline communication channels and for developing a sense of community when there is no face to face interaction.

Remember:

1 – Teaching online can be time consuming so time management and clear instructions are key.

2 – Set clear deadlines and let your students know when they will receive feedback.

3 – Manage expectations well from the start to avoid misunderstandings and later criticisms.

4 – Communicate effectively and concisely, instructions need to be clear and the work that you set feasible and achievable (be empathetic).

5 – Practise what is known as active blended learning by creating pre-session sense-making activities before the real-time session takes place; and then have a post-session to consolidate, evaluate or reflect on the activities.

If teaching on a distance learning programme, also consider the type of learner taking the course – what support do they need? Are they autonomous learners? Are they computer savvy? On our course, to make sure that everyone knows their way around our VLE, we use induction materials on our main course site for an introduction to the online library, student support and video introductions to the modules amongst other pieces of important information.

All in all, benefits can outweigh the drawbacks of teaching online both for students and staff in the current situation. We teach and learn from anywhere at any time and it may be also an opportunity to review teaching and learning practices. There will be challenges when adapting to new environments, but the key is to be adaptive, flexible and patient.

In this world of digitisation and online environments affecting both our working and personal lives, I must admit that I crave going back to proper face to face work but there may be no turning back for some courses…only time will tell.